Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Beginner’s Guide to the AGU Fall Meeting

An early-career scientist’s compilation of solicited advice and notes to self on how to effectively use the “conference experience.”

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AGU Fall Meeting can be overwhelming for anyone, but that’s especially true for early-career attendees experiencing it for the first time. To make things a little easier for future first timers, I’m sharing the notes, impressions, and advice that I acquired in 2016 during my first Fall Meeting.

Amazing but Exhausting

Fall Meeting is exhausting. A typical day involves anywhere from 8 to more than 12 hours of learning and speaking to new people and (somewhat) shameless self-promotion. With more than 25,000 attendees and 20,000 talks and posters over the course of a week, anyone would be tired. Every waking minute, you are probably missing something that is amazing and potentially career altering. Interactions, large and small, from my first experience continue to influence how I think about my science and nonscience projects.

Plan Ahead

Plan your accommodations and travel as far in advance as possible. This saves you money and stress.

Plan your days, too. If you don’t look at the meeting schedule in advance, you will probably miss something amazing in the hours you spend wandering around.

Read the abstracts and not just the titles when you plan your scientific agenda. Many titles are full of jargon that is subdiscipline specific, so read the abstract to know if it will be interesting to you or even apply to your field of study. It might also help to look at other fields of studyinteresting ideas might spark something innovative within your own research.

It is essential to plan breaks (and actually take them)! Recharge, get some fresh air, respond to your emails, pay your bills, call your family or friends, and take care of the essential things from “real” life before jumping back into the fray. This will help with the aforementioned exhaustion. Remember, however, you only have to keep this pace up for a week!

It is helpful to plan your social time as well; many people you might want to spend time with have planned all their meals and breaks already, so they can’t spontaneously hang out. If you happen to make a serendipitous connection and can join them for a planned social event, say yes!

Networking

Perhaps we should instead call this section “making new friends,” which takes away the stigma of shameless self-promotion that many people shy away from. In this light, try to market (but don’t oversell) yourself to as many people as possible. The mid- to late-career attendees I’ve spoken with stress that impressions and connections you make here may follow you into collaborations much later in your career.

To meet these potential collaborators, attend receptions and lunches related to your field or where you know a few people. These experiences pave the way to meeting new friends with common interests and to joining mutual-friend networks. Twitter can also give you a path to meet up with similar researchers. If you’re a fellow introvert, I’ll caution you to also realize when you are too exhausted for productive conversation and find something that you can do on your own for a while.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Asking for advice won’t just give you information and insights; it’s also flattering to the advice giver. Don’t be afraid to offer advice either. Be generous (but not to the point of being annoying) with the interesting facts and insights that you’ve gathered during the meeting.

Promote your friends and colleagues as well as yourself. It shows that you’re a generous person, you look knowledgeable about more than just your own subject area, and it demonstrates your willingness to admit your knowledge gaps and limitations, which helps you grow as a scientist and as a person! At the early-career advice sessions I attended, presenters emphasized that this last point is important to future bosses as they organize teams to work efficiently and appropriately distribute workloads.

Big Lectures and Panel Discussions

Some of great things AGU Fall Meeting offers are the big invited talks, town halls, and workshops. Many of these are structured to help out those who are considering the trajectory of their careers and to offer polished and intriguing “big picture” ideas about science in general.

Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist who had become president of the National Academy of Sciences just a few months before, gave a talk at my first Fall Meeting that highlighted the value of being able to translate our science across disciplines as well as to the public. McNutt said that collaboration, diversity of thought, and the ability to communicate our science to other groups is essential to the future of science. Effective communication doesn’t just mean using relatable metaphors instead of jargon but also translating your research into monetary or other gains for society. Additionally, the ability to communicate well will certainly not hurt your chances of publishing, she added.

Your Elevator Pitch

Your “elevator pitch” is how you will introduce yourself and your science in a quick conversation with someone new. The term comes from an imaginary scenario in which you are on an elevator with some person who could be important to your career. You have just the length of the elevator ride to explain what you do and to make yourself memorable to this person.

You could deliver your elevator pitch in front of your poster or, perchance, in an elevator ride. Ideally, your pitch should be a one- or two-sentence summary of your research that hits on why you are doing your research. With that in mind, be brief, don’t use jargon, and keep your audience in mind.

Here’s my own elevator pitch: I use isotopic geochemistry and environmental tracers to determine regional groundwater flow paths. These data are used to inform water management decisions, especially in arid areas with interstate water use such as across the Utah-Nevada border.

Oral Presentations

Practice—out loud and in front of an audience (if you can). Keep your audience in mind, and remember that they are probably exhausted. Speak as if you yourself are interested in the subject (which you are!). Emphasize why your research is important to the broader community. Leave time for questions!

Use mostly pictures on your slides, and talk listeners through each image. That way, the audience can listen to your speech rather than read from afar. This pictures-only approach is harder if English isn’t your best language. In this case, text is helpful to help walk the audience through potential lost-in-translation moments.

If people have technical questions, they can ask in the question and answer section or talk to you in person. Bonus: If they care enough to ask you in person, then you’ve done a great job and should definitely give them your business card.

Speaking of business cards, make and bring them! It’s fine to include just your name, institution, and email (and social media, if you are active). These are convenient and practical when meeting so many new and interesting scientists.

Acknowledge your collaborators on specific parts of what they contributed to make the research work. In addition to showing your abilities as a team player, this attribution helps early-career audience members figure out ways that people collaborate and helps them gauge when to defer to someone with more expertise.

Skip the outline slide. This talk is too short to spend time telling us what you’re are about to show us. You can introduce your topic and get your audience oriented with a few spoken sentences. Keep a review slide of the take-home points at the end, however. This slide could be especially effective as a schematic.

Skip the “Thank You!” slide at the end, too. It’s better to just say “Thank you. Here is some further reading if you want more information.” You could also include a slide with your funders and one with related manuscripts (but not a works cited list). If you want to give your audience a way to contact you for more information, putting your email address or the URL of your website in the footer of every slide saves them from having to scramble to copy a lot of information from your last slide.

Poster Presentations

Poster presentations are presentations, just as much as oral presentations are. Yes, people will read your poster if you’re not there, but if you are there, offer to give a quick rundown of what your research is about. Show your enthusiasm for the subject by telling stories and giving the highlights of what you’ve spent the last couple of months doing. Here are some tips on how not to make a great poster.

Take a poster cruise! Look at other people’s posters, and ask about their work. See where they get excited, and ask about those points. Do you have a critical insight that can help them in making their science more rigorous? Offer that information to the presenter. Ask questions, even if they seem obvious; you can always learn something new, and even small insights are valuable.

Helping Hands

Last, if you are lost or need help, ask for it! Plenty of staff and attendees are willing to help you out, especially when they see that first-timer tag. Also, thank them! (Thank you, AGU staff, attendees, and volunteers!)

—Jory Lerback (email: [email protected]; @JoryCL), Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Citation: Lerback, J. (2017), Beginner’s guide to the AGU Fall Meeting, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO088109. Published on 06 December 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0