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!