This weekend I traveled to the Scottish Highlands and hiked Ben Nevis on an unusually sunny Saturday. On a typical weekend I try to think about the upcoming week’s blog post, but this time I had other things on my mind, namely What am I going to pack for the upcoming SETAC meeting? This seems an odd question to spring to mind while hiking the tallest peak in the UK, but it was partially relevant and inspired by the attire of the hikers that I crossed along the trail. While there are some ‘rules’ to hiking clothes, such as sturdy boots, some sun protection, and layers that you can take on and off in case the weather takes a turn, you always end up seeing quite an assortment of outfits on a hike, ranging from the fully equipped hiker with high-end equipment in all matching brands and colors to the person who just looks like they rolled out of bed and hit the trail.
For those of us that work in a wet lab setting or who spend our whole day in an office with other graduate students or researchers, there really aren’t any day-to-day outfit ‘rules’ (except for closed-toe shoes when necessary). As graduate students and early career researchers, we can easily get away with wearing just about whatever we want and as long as it’s comfortable and appropriate for your work environment, there’s little else that needs to be done. That being said, there are times of the year when all of a sudden new rules come into play, and several situations will arise when your most tattered jeans and your most favorite t-shirt just won’t get the job done. One of these important times is presenting at or attending a scientific conference.
Regardless of whether you’re heading to the meeting just to learn some new science and do some networking or whether you’re giving your own platform or poster presentation, scientific conferences are an important fixture in any young scientists’ career. It’s a time for your work to be seen by a bigger audience, to make connections that will last throughout your career, and to leave a good impression on potential future employers and collaborators. Like it or not, your attire will be part of that impression. So given the importance of conferences, what’s the best way to dress for success?
What’s your style?
I’m not going to write this post as a go-to style guide on How to dress yourself for a conference, but instead I’ll focus on the more important question of What’s your style?, since finding the answer to this will set you up for knowing what to pack in that suitcase of yours. Finding your style will take some time, and likely you’ve already gone through some style phases of your own. In high school and college, I didn’t really have a great sense of style, and found myself trying to figure out how I wanted to look by trying to emulate what I saw on other people or what looked nice on a store mannequin. At some point in grad school, and really not even until my post-doc, did I figure what type of clothes I liked and what looked good on me. Since then I haven’t deviated too far away from my go-to outfits, which are generally skinny jeans, fitted graphic t-shirts, and a blazer/sweater combo (since, after all, life in Northern England is generally not adept to being out in just a t-shirt). Finding my own style came down to asking myself what I wanted to convey through my clothes, and the answer was that I wanted a balance of fitted yet casual and simple yet able to be scaled up with a change of shoes or jacket.
I won’t be able to tell you what exactly you should wear at a conference, but will instead I encourage you to think about what message you want to convey through your style in general. If it makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself, then go for it! Once you figure this out, you can focus on tailoring your conference wear as simply a slightly upgraded version of your regular style.
To be both comfortable and presentable throughout the conference day, think of an outfit that would be appropriate for a long day at work followed by a social event (such as getting a drink or eating out with your friends). Once you have this in mind, take the outfit up a notch in terms of professionalism. Focus on clean and simple outfits that will let you and your work shine. And while I’m all about finding your style and embracing your own sense of you through this blog, I would encourage you to not have your conference style to not be a hoodie and pair of sweatpants. While it’s important to be yourself and to be comfortable, you also want to make a good impression by showing the best side of you possible, so here’s a few tips to help you get there:
These boots were made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do.
If you’ve never been to a conference, here’s the first thing you should know: conferences take a lot out on your feet. You might first think that you’ll just be sitting in presentations all day, but there’s actually quite a bit of time you’ll not be sitting down. Between walking to the conference center from your hotel and back, going between different session rooms (and if it’s a big conference, the rooms can be quite far apart), walking outside to get lunch with colleagues, and finishing off the day with poster socials and other networking events, which will likely keep you on your toes as you mingle and meet new people. As a bit of perspective, your feet will take as much of a beating at a conference as they would a whole day standing around working in a wet lab.
Since your feet are important for walking, standing, and other necessary conference activities, be sure to set yourself up for success by making them (your feet) comfortable. Again the key here is to focus on getting a slight upgrade of what your go-to shoes already are, and then you’re on your way to being conference savvy while lasting the whole day without blisters or sore feet. If your go-to style is a tennis shoe or casual trainer, then a pair of leather-sided trainers can easily be a nice conference shoe option. If you love boots and heels and wear them on a regular basis, then by all means go with them for the meeting—but only if they are a pair of shoes you’d wear if you were standing all day in a non-conference setting. If they’re not, leave them at home. Girls’ shoes are notoriously devious, as we’ve recently been tricked into thinking that ballet flats are a comfortable alternative to dressing in heels for a more professional look. If you have a pair of often-worn, broken-in flats that you wear around work all the time, then by all means bring them to the meeting. If you just bought a brand-new pair that only go with your presentation outfit, you’re better off leaving at home unless you want to spend your presentation day looking for band-aids to cover up your numerous blisters. The worst thing you can do at a conference is put your feet in so much pain that you can’t be yourself or made to feel like you should go home and change instead of taking advantage of all the networking opportunities.
Pants, skirts, or something in between?
Unless your conference is quite literally on a tropical beach, our official Science with Style recommendation is to avoid shorts at a conference. Even if they are ‘nice shorts’ or the weather is rather hot, shorts are still nearly impossible to help you convey a professional look. Otherwise, stick to the mantra of aiming for a slightly style upgraded version of yourself. If you’re a denim jeans kind of person, then don’t feel the need to stray too far from your go-to bottoms by buying a pair of dress pants that you’ll never wear again. If you go for denim jeans, make sure to avoid trendy washes or that damaged/cut-out look and instead go with a straightforward and simple cut and color, and darker colors can even give the illusion of dress pants if you want to look a bit more formal.
Girls again have a few more options for warmer weather such as skirts and dresses. If you enjoy wearing skirts and dresses and generally go for something more loose or casual fit at work, then at the conference aim for a slightly more fitted cut. Don’t feel like you need to put on a dress or skirt for a conference if you normally don’t wear them, and don’t choose an outfit solely on the fact that it’s dressy. Go for a conference outfit that you like and one that helps you feel like yourself. If you go over the top on dressing up, you’ll be more likely to stand out due to not being comfortable rather than for having great research results.
Topping things off
Bring shirts to a conference that are clean and simple, and as with denim try to avoid anything overly trendy in terms of washes or wording, and don’t go for any tops that weirdly cut or showing skin that doesn’t need to be shown in a professional setting. For me, the thing I like about wearing t-shirts is that they are easy to finish off with an H&M blazer or sweater, which helps tone down the casual feel of the outfit. While I have a large range of graphic design shirts, for conferences I stick to simpler ones that are focused more on good design without much text—messages should be kept to your presentations instead!
If you’re looking for a dressier alternative, button-up shirts are an easy way to have more of a formal look for a presentation or meeting a future employer. Spend the time to find a dress shirt that works for you instead of grabbing the first one off the shelf, and look for one that has a good cut for your body type as well as being made of a breathable material. The last think you want to do is to get all dressed up for a talk in some fabric that’s not cut right or starts making you sweat when you’re standing at the front of a full room giving your talk.
Another fact about conferences for those that haven’t attended one yet: regardless of what country, outdoor temperature, or time of the year that the meeting is in, most if not all conference centers are seemingly designed to only be a few degrees warmer than your walk-in fridge in the lab. You’ll need to keep warm even if it’s hot outside, so layers such as blazers or cardigans are an easy way to dress up an outfit while also keeping you from freezing during the platform sessions. All you need are a couple of top layers that look good with both more casual or more formal conference outfits and you’ll easily be set for a week-long conference.
Accessories for success(-ories)
- Bag it up. You’ll most likely get a free conference back when you pick up your registration materials. At first glance it seems perfect: just what you need for carrying around your laptop, abstract book, and free pens from the exhibition booths all week long! The only problem with this is that this same bag will also be given to the 500+ other conference attendees, which can make it easy for your stuff to get switched around for someone else’s. Save some room in your suitcase to bring one of your favorite backpacks or shoulder bags instead. That way you can carry your conference necessities (and swag) around all week in a bag that you know is comfortable, and you can also find your stuff more easily in a pile of other delegate bags when you’re leaving a busy session room.
- Keep up with the times. Your conference week will be driven by scheduled talks, meetings, and social events. Keeping good time is essential, and is also an easy opportunity to upgrade your style for a conference. I’ve yet to find a nice watch that I like and still rely on my phone for the time, but if you are looking for the opportunity to wear your graduation gift from your grandparents, there’s no better time.
- Kiss and make-up? As with the rest of your outfit, aim for just a slight upgrade of your current style. Don’t feel like you need to be fancy, and for girls you also don’t feel like you need to wear make-up if you usually don’t.
I hope this post offers some useful insights into packing your backs for your next (or even first!) big scientific conference. Just as with hiking, there’s no right or wrong way to do your style, but there are a few suggestions that will keep your feet from getting stubbed on rocks, or rather blistered in the case of long conference days. As for me, I should start packing my own conference bag here soon, now that my favorite blazer is clean and I have my A-team t-shirts assembled and ready for the final selection. If only perfecting my platform presentation was as easy as packing for the meeting!
A few weeks ago I attended a workshop on public engagement by Steve Cross at our University. While not knowing what to expect at first, I came back from the workshop motivated and impressed with the amount of time, energy, and infrastructure put into encouraging scientists to engage the public here in the UK. I also found myself for the first time actually thinking about what public engagement really is, thanks to the resources and exercises Steve provided in the workshop. The workshop helped me form a concrete understanding of public engagement and the steps needed to make it successful. For this week’s post, I’ll touch on some of the highlights of the workshop, provide some resources n public engagement, and hopefully inspire some of you to take on the challenge of getting involved in some engagement activities this summer.
Universities here in the UK are putting a lot of time and energy into public engagement. Not only are there diverse approaches and a large volume of activities, but there is also formally agreed-upon definitions and structures. At first it might seem a bit overblown: why do we need flow charts and 5-year institute plans when public engagement is just about talking to the public about your research. Right? As it turns out, public engagement is much more complicated than just telling people what you’re research is-at least if the goal of the interaction is to actually become involved in conversations and even collaborate with members of the public.
So what exactly is public engagement? You can find the answer to this and many other questions on the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website, which also has a wealth of information about how you can get your own engagement activities up and running. On their ‘what is public engagement’ page, you can find the definition:
"Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit."
I’ve highlighted the part of the definition that’s key to understand how to put on engaging activities and events. This is why it’s not good enough to just put your papers or your findings out there for the public to see. If you can’t hear back from them, see things from their perspective, or get ideas on what it means and where things can go next, then can you really call it engagement? Below is a simple diagram I developed based on the workshop and the definition above, showing how ideas should go back and forth during public engagement activities, and how collaboration comes only when information has been transmitted and received on both ends. Obviously you have to start somewhere in the dialogue, which is generally in transmitting your ideas to the public, but the key is to engage in such a way as to provide an opening for them to transmit back to you.
Why should we do public engagement?
During the workshop we were asked to come up with reasons for why public engagement was worthwhile. We came up with quite a long list, and you can find other answers here as well. Highlights from our list include:
Personal: Feels good to take part in these types of activities
Educational: For both parties, learning can take place whenever there is an exchange of ideas
Moral: Research uses taxpayer money so there should be an obligation to give back to the community that enabled us to do the research in the first place
Business: If it’s required or encouraged, then at some point you’ll need to do it to get grants
Academic: It’s a place to get new ideas and collaborations while increasing your personal profile
While this all sounds well and good, there are certainly limitations in the way that research is done at the moment that may make it hard to find the time or the infrastructure for these types of activities. For starters, you need to align your aims with those of your research group, institute, or university in order to get a bigger organization on your side, instead of just doing something on your own. For many, it’s likely difficult to find the spare time when public engagement is not explicitly part of your job. In a survey from 2006, 64% of scientists said that the need to spend time on research kept them from doing public engagement-and 20% even said that peers who did this type of work were looked down upon by their colleagues because they were wasting time which could have gone to more papers.
How to engage the public
Since you only have a small amount of spare time in the day to do non-research ‘work’, you’ll want to be efficient about it. In the workshop, Steve gave us a great model for how to think about public engagement activities. His mantra is to avoid focusing on the activity (e.g. ‘it would be really nice to do seminars with Q&A for non-scientists every other Thursday), but instead to think of the aim of the public engagement as well as who the audience will be. Identify your audience and an activity to address a specific set of goals and aims.
Steve also provided a great template for thinking about the two-way aspects of the activity. Once you’ve established the aims and the audience, you can think about how your activity provides specific outcomes for both parties involved. For example, in the ‘skills’ outcome, if you can only fill in something in one box (e.g., just the audience or just the researchers gain some skill after the activity), then what can you do to try to provide some training or enhance the knowledge of the other group?
When working on a project for our own institute’s public engagement group, I found the diagram extremely helpful-and it made me realize the project had other outcomes I hadn’t considered when when I was drafting the idea. It’s also a nice way to visualize exactly what you’re giving to your audience, and to see the possibilities for enabling and empowering people with your activity, which can certainly be a motivator on its own. Another take-home that I got from this workshop is that you don’t have to make huge changes all at once. You can do small things to empower groups one event at a time. Even if the level of empowerment is just a few take-home facts, a small amount of knowledge added up over time can amount to a lot.
Who is the public?
While talking about public engagement, it may seem trivial to take a step back and define what ‘the public’ actually is. During the workshop, it quickly became apparent that the public is not a single entity, nor one that can be talked to or interacted consistently. The public is a diverse, heterogeneous set of people with varying interests, experiences, and backgrounds. Part of the workshop involved brainstorming specific audiences for events and thinking about who would actually turn up to a public engagement event. For example, events held at museums will have a different group of people depending on the time of the week and the day. If you’re there on a Saturday afternoon versus a Monday morning versus a Thursday museum late-night event, the primary groups at each of those will be different, so the approaches used at each event to engage with people should also be different.
It soon became clear that when thinking of the audience before drafting an activity that we can’t assume the audience is ‘everyone’, and as part of the workshop we were given an exercise about tailoring approaches based on the demographic and their interests. Our group had to construct a persona of a young couple on holiday who came to the museum and saw our science outreach activity, and we had to imagine the their attributes in terms of their interests, free-time activities, media consumed, brands, favorite foods/film/books/games, emotional needs, and life stage. The exercise felt like being an advertising executive, but breaking things down in this way helped us see the barriers as well as the ‘ins’ to a person’s perspectives that could help drive a message home. It helped us see how we could meet people where they are and made us appreciate how events are promoted to target certain groups and who might see and share things based on where they’re advertised.
Making science communication count: get out there!
Public engagement is not limited by public interest, and it still seems that the public has the impression that scientists put too little effort to tell the public about their work. Even in 2016, when scientists are embracing social media and new outlets for communication, there might still be a residual ivory tower mindest that is holding us back from sharing our research. Given that the public is hungry for science, we as scientists should work to give it to them! You can start off by finding events already happening in either your research community, university, or city-whether there’s a museum you can volunteer at or a school that’s looking for a scientist to talk to primary school students about ecology, there’s always a way to find events to connect yourself with. Think about what you already enjoy doing, whether it be writing, working with kids, organizing or participating in debates, or making creative and colorful visuals, and look for ways to incorporate your talents and interests to events and activities already happening. Then when you’ve had your feet wet, think about why you want to make a change in something, who you want to reach, and what you can do to get there.
This weekend in the UK we had our first Monday holiday of the summer season, festively named ‘Early May Bank Holiday’. Being the travel-loving person I am, I decided to head out of town for the weekend. My husband and I greatly enjoyed the weekend hiking along the Pembrokeshire coast in southern Wales. In true Bank Holiday fashion, it was an equal mix of splendid, sunny days and miserably windy and rainy ones. It was a great break after a busy week and a chance to celebrate my contract extension and new UK work permit, which finally just came through about a week ago.
As exciting and relaxing as the weekend was, I knew that after heading home from the holiday weekend, I had a lot of work on my plate, and only 11 months more to get it all done. While having a job is always a reason to celebrate, the fact that my job was still a temporary one made the reality of my career sink in: I got my post-doc contract extension, finally! So…now what? What comes after April 2017?
There are numerous parts of research and graduate school that are stressful, but the uncertainty, transitions, and transient status that define the early stages of a career most definitely add to the stress. There is always uncertainty in the sense that you have ideas of what you want to do, but can’t ever be 100% sure you’ll get there until you do. Your career transitions include going from student to trainee to expert, all in a relatively short yet intense period of time. And the transient status is part of the process, since once you graduate or your contract ends, you need to move on to the next stage.
In grad school you likely oftentimes feel like you just can’t wait to get to the next stage, since no one wants to be in school forever. You might find yourself intensely focused on the goals at hand, such as finishing crucial experiments or writing before you get close to the submission deadline. You might also spend time daydreaming of how great it will be to graduate, to be Dr. So-And-So, and to propel yourself off into the real world. But then, oftentimes, as you get closer to becoming Dr. So-And-So, you realize the reality of the situation: graduation is not an end-all to your journey, and things are only going to become a different type of complex at the next stage, whether it’s an uncertain job market or just feeling like you’re not cut out to do what you initially dreamed of doing.
For those of you with goals of staying in academia, a post-doc is obviously a logical option, but here the waters certainly feel choppy at their best. With only temporary roles and positions to get more training and write good papers, it can leave even the calmest of people feeling stressed when getting close to the end of your funding. Then once you get your dream job, you’re still in a similar boat, with a different set of waves: there are more grants you need to get to keep your lab running, a tenure review board to keep you on your toes, and don’t forget that your primary job title is to still actually do research!
An industry job can offer some solace in terms of more job security and less abrupt transitions, but in return you may jump from project/department/boss more often than you want. And the path up the career ladder might not look the same as you might expect—it could even differ from company to company, and office politics will come more into play than just your work alone. And while job security is certainly not an issue in the regulatory/government sectors, getting one of these jobs is definitely half, or even 3/4th, of the battle.
It can be a difficult thing to feel like you can relax regardless of where you end up, but that’s not to say that relaxing isn’t possible, or that whatever position you end up in will have some doom-and-gloom aspect of it. All it means is that while you’re in the transitional parts of your career, you should think about where you want to go next and how you can get there. It’s a tempting question to try to avoid, or to try to delay making a decision by taking endless odd jobs and temporary roles, but if you use these transitions to your advantage, you can end up exactly where you want to be:
Don’t avoid thinking about the question of ‘what next?’
Maybe the #1 reason that this question is scary to think about is because there’s always some fear or some chance that you won’t be able to get there. While that may or may not be the case, simply not talking about it won’t solve the problem. Even if you tell yourself that you’re just leaving your options open, going blindly down a path to something that you don’t actually want can make things more difficult when you do get to that transition point. Figuring out what you want to do and where you want to go next is a difficult question, but the bright side is that there’s always a way forward, regardless of what stage you’re at now. The key is to really, really know what you want to do, and once you do then identify a mentor or set of people in your professional network that can help you understand what it will take to get there.
Think about what’s driving your career choice.
Many of us will walk into graduate school with different expectations of what we want from a career. Science is attractive to all of us when we begin school, and a research professor job can seem like the ideal career choice for someone in the sciences. But there aren’t enough professor jobs out there for all of us, and oftentimes the things we value can be met in other positions outside of academia. As you think about what comes next, focus on what’s fundamentally driving your career forward and what you value from a vocation. Is it independence of ideas? Doing impactful work? Being actively involved in lab work and experiments? Working with students?
There are a lot of ways to make an impactful career in research, and you don’t have to be a university professor to make a big impact. When looking at what you value, think about what excites you or drives you the most about science. If you like solving real-world problems and working in a fast-paced environment, then industry could be a good fit. If you like what you do being connected to national policies, then a government role could be a glimpse into doing work that can get that done. If you’re a creative type, then there are jobs in writing, communication, and outreach that can keep you working alongside science from a different angle than research. If you think about what you want the most and it’s the scientific method and research that drives you, then you should certainly go for it-just be ready and willing to give the time and energy to get there, because there are other researchers out there with a lot of drive to get to the same place as you want to be.
Do what you can with where you are right now.
It’s one thing to daydream of graduating or thinking about how easy things will be when you get a permanent job and quite another to get out and do the work that can get you there. On the flip side, there’s a tendency for us to think back on our work or decisions that led to a certain point in our careers. To see the positive of both sides of these two opposing perspectives, focus your thoughts instead about what you can do now in order to set yourself up for something better. This can include networking, identifying a mentor or someone with your dream job, getting some specific technical training, seeing if a short-term internship at a company is right for you, and a myriad of other things that you as a scientist-in-training should see as valuable uses of your time. Whatever it is that you think can help you at the next stage of your career, go for it! Remember to do the best with whatever place you end up in and at whatever stage you find yourself. Even if you don’t like your current post, give yourself some time and energy to invest in your own professional development that can help you get somewhere else.
Remember to make time for yourself.
It’s good to have time for some personal professional development, but remember too that we all need a break in the day or a bit of a holiday to step back from work and stress. Recognize when you feel like you’ve hit a wall in terms of a day’s productivity or are dragging after a busy few weeks or months of hard work. It may feel counter-intuitive to take a break when you feel like you’re not quite there yet, but these breaks can help re-inspire and unwind your mind, making your thoughts and goals more clear for the next push ahead.
It’s not just about where you make it but also in how you get there.
I’ve been to a few career panels and seminars, usually of researchers who talk about their career from the beginning, how they ended up in their current role, and what working for their organization/institution is like. My favorite career talks have been from people whose path to where they are now was anything but pre-planned, smooth, and without some unexpected twists and turns. One of the themes I take home from these types of talks is that often times we end up where we are not just because of our career plans, but from all sorts of other factors known as life and luck: being married, having a family, knowing someone who knew someone who had a job, and a lot of times just chance or luck come into where we end up in life. In these career talks, it’s clear that while the person may not have ended up where they thought they would originally, they loved where they ended up nonetheless, bumps along the road and all.
Life certainly won’t always be a smooth journey, especially when you’re in a research-oriented career. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make the absolute best of it or that you can’t enjoy the turns and face the trials that come. As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy the weekend breaks and summer holidays as they come, knowing that when I’m home I have a lot of work to do both in the lab and a lot of mental musings on where I go after April 2017. Thankfully I already have some ideas for both!