SfN survival 101

Nov 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The Society for Neuroscience meeting is huge. I mean, seriously gargantuan. The number of scientists that will descend upon Washington this weekend is over twice that of the population of the town I grew up in, and while it's not for everybody, I love it. I love SfN. I haven't missed a single one since my very first year of grad school, and oh, the stories I could tell!

For some of you, though, I imagine this is your first time, and you may be feeling a teensy overwhelmed, wondering how on earth you can possibly manage ALL THAT SCIENCE! Well, here's a newsflash--you can't, and you shouldn't try. Below is a list of things to help you work your way through the madness without losing your mind and/or will to live.

1. Don't panic. About anything. Pretty much nothing at SfN is worth getting upset about, especially whether or not you get to see every last item on your itinerary. You're simply not going to, so best to accept that fact now. The abstract planner is available long after the meeting, so if you miss something, you'll always be able to contact the authors and ask them questions afterwards. It will probably make them so happy!

2. Don't overplan. Plan a little, but don't plan every second of the day, and don't think you're going to spend 3-4 hrs a day on the poster floor, because you will collapse from exhaustion. What I like to do is scan the daily books (now conveniently available in e-reader form) for sessions that encompass general areas that spark my interest, then stroll that part of the poster floor. Don't worry about the 1-hr time slot that the books list--many presenters stay at their poster the whole 4 hrs.

3. Go to the big lectures. Especially for the n00bs, you can get a very nice sense of recent neuroscience history from hearing some of the fancy people talk. What is considered a Big Deal these days? Now you know, and if you absolutely hate it, you can always leave. The lecture halls are enormous, and people are constantly filing in and out. Nobody will look at you funny or think poorly of you.

4. Go out to lunch. I am so serious, get out there and get some fresh air! We're very lucky because the DC convention center is actually in a part of the city with stuff around it (looking at you, Chicago), so you can easily take 45 min and go have a nice sandwich or something. Convention center food is notoriously bad and overpriced, and I guarantee you'll be happy to have had the break.

5. Comfortable shoes. You are going to be on your feet like you've never been on your feet before, and they (and your back) are going to be killing you. I figure I walk at least a few miles a day inside the convention center alone, let alone going between the CC and my hotel. This is not the time for your fancy dress shoes, OK?

6. Dress in layers. Convention centers are usually cold, especially on the poster floor, but you never know--sometimes the smaller symposia rooms can get warm, especially after a few hours at capacity.  I always carry a scarf and cardigan or hoodie with me, so that I can adjust accordingly.

7. Take a half day for sightseeing, and/or sleeping in. I swear to FSM, the earth will not explode nor will your career be ruined if one afternoon you decide you'd like to go to the zoo (baby red pandas!!!!) or the Spy Museum instead of the conference. You'll feel so refreshed and ready to see more science when you're through!

8. Try to keep your notes organized. It happens. You're at a poster, and all of a sudden you want to write something down or get somebody's email address. You scrounge around in your bag for something, anything to write on, and come up with nothing but your Starbucks receipt. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten home from SfN and found a mess of notes on all kinds of things, and it's all mostly useless. Either bring your own notebook or make a beeline for the Sigma booth, because they usually give out pretty solid notebooks if you fill out a quick survey.

9. Snacks. So you don't end up spending $4 on a yogurt or eating one of those god-awful pretzels, find yourself a 7-11 and buy a box of granola bars. Then, whenever hunger starts to strike but you're not quite ready to vacate the premises, you've got a little something to tide you over!

10. Shmooze. Do not be afraid, padwan, your job is to make friends and impress people. Ask questions at posters and talks, go find your NIH PO, and come to the BANTER party! On that note, if you are a non-tweeting person and are planning to attend, could you do me a quick favor and announce your intentions in the comments? I'm just trying to get a ballpark figure for the bar. Many thanks!

Most of all, HAVE FUN. SfN is not only for you to present your work and find things relevant to your research, but also time away from the lab for you to think about the rest of this crazy, vast, neurosciencey world we live in. Enjoy it!

21 responses so far

  • scicurious says:

    +1 for the Sigma notebooks! Also, I get free pens from everywhere, because I find I always need a pen, and I'll lose as many as I get at SfN.

    Here's hoping Jackson has the little stuffed mice with the magnetic feet this year!!1 I love those little guys.

  • alethea says:

    I'm coming to the BANTER thing...unless I chicken out...but maybe since I made a comment here I'll HAVE to come! (Let's just say outgoing-ness and getting to know strangers aren't my strengths. Which is probably bad...)

  • Ewan says:

    Never knew about Sigma notebooks :). Non-tweeter, planning on BANTER.

  • Very useful! I already forwarded to my students.

    I would also add, if there are posters you really want to see, go at 8 am or 1 pm, since that's the only time when the crowds are small. The crowds seems to be getting worse every year.

  • Khalil A says:

    Dress in layers. Haha, love this.

  • DJMH says:

    11. It is better to see 3 posters per session but understand them really well, than to see 15 posters for 8 minutes each, not actually having figured out what the manipulation was and why it's relevant. Many labs have an SFN debriefing lab meeting afterwards, and it's just humiliating to come up with, "Uh, I saw this one poster and I know I thought it was cool but I can't quite remember what they did."

    The trick, of course, is selecting those 2-3 posters to prioritize.

    12. Also, don't sleep with anyone in your lab.

  • NatC says:

    Actually, I disagree slightly with DJMH:
    13. Take the time to wander through relevant sections of the poster session. You don't have to go up to them all, but check out the titles, maybe listen to a few spiels - there will be research that is interesting and relevant that you have not flagged in your itinerary.
    Ask questions at posters if you have them!

    Also, go to the posters with massive crowds - people will be buzzing about them and at the very least it will give you a conversation starter when you're schmoozing "did you see Dr. Smo's poster? Do you think it's worthy of the hype?"

    14. Schmoozing 101: Go and ask a question of that famous professor whose work you have read extensively. Questions are a great excuse to introduce yourself if you don't love the idea of approaching strangers and saying "hi".

    • DJMH says:

      I don't know, maybe if you are more junior or new to a field it is a good idea to wander a bit aimlessly through some maybe-relevant sessions, but in my experience, being on your feet for 10 hours a day and trying to absorb Science that whole time is utterly draining. I'd rather use my limited resources focusing intently a 2-3 posters/talks per session, making sure I understand them. Otherwise, I come away from SFN with "A lot of people are doing stuff, but I don't remember any of it because I looked too superficially or briefly."

      I check the titles of the crowded posters, but never try to go to them unless it's directly relevant. Elbows in the back and armpits in front of my view = bad time.

  • chall says:

    oh, after this post I wish I was at SfN, although I'm not into brains (oh wait... zombie food 😉 )

    You are going to post about the Banter party, right?! Looking forward to it! (no pressure)

  • Ragamuffin says:

    i started writing my own SfN survival blog post and then read this... Becca, this is a stellar overview, so i'ma just plug your post if you don't mind 🙂

    see you at BANTER, perhaps.

  • Mountainmums says:

    Hey. Non-tweeting lurker who is planning/hoping to shake off the shyness and come to Banter.

  • Laura says:

    I'm hoping to attend BANTER and might bring a friend or two with me.

  • yellowfish says:

    Good tip about the Sigma notebooks- for some reason I have this deeply held belief that Lafayette Instrument has really excellent post its, so always pick up a few.

    I think the other tip for newbies relating to "don't overplan" is that if you make some insane schedule involving changing talks every 15 minutes, at least pay attention to where they are. Unless it's your best friend who will never forgive you for missing it, it is never worth it to sprint all the way down the convention center to get the last 7 minutes of someones talk.

    Also, try to get coffee BEFORE you get there in the morning so you don't stand in a huge line waiting to pay five bucks for a small mediocre cup (and you will need coffee).

  • Dr Becca says:

    Excellent advice, commenters! So glad some of you are planning on coming to BANTER--I'll be the tall one.

  • pinus says:

    I'll be the one with the shirt on at banter.

  • DJMH says:

    15. Oh forgot a big one!! If YOU are presenting a poster to one person, and another person comes up to look at the poster, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD do not stand directly in front of panels A-E as you explain panel F to the first person! As a poster presenter, you should be positioned either at the extreme left or extreme right of your poster, except when it's absolutely necessary to step in towards the middle to highlight one of the tiny dots on your graph in panel D.

    I *hate* going to a poster and not being able to see it b/c the presenter is blocking the view...and is explaining the end of the poster, so I can't even jump in to figure it out.

  • NatC says:

    An addendum to #4: unless you're actively engaged in a talk/poster/chatting with someone, go out to lunch 15 or 20mins early to avoid the crush...

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    This is so 20th century, and my professional society meetings were much smaller. I found that getting to know my peers from other institutions, graduate students and young assistant professors (in the early days, not many postdocs then), was most profitable. The Gurus need to know who you are, but they have their own people to take care of, and you are probably not a major concern. Of course you will grow on them over time as you become more established.

  • drugmonkey says:


    My view is that scientists need to have one small meeting they attend every year. Very subfield focused where all the things you describe can occur.

    SFN is not that meeting. SFN is for the other benefits...

Leave a Reply