Activities at Conferences

Opportunities at professional conferences can be broadly categorized as:

Technical Sessions

Technical sessions featuring three or more oral presentations, individual or panel discussions, at professional conferences can be generally broken down in to symposia and contributed sessions. Symposia are technical sessions featuring invited talks. Contributed sessions are technical sessions featuring contributed talks. All technical sessions whether symposia or contributed are usually organized topically around themes related to the overall conference theme.

Invited Symposia

Symposia can be further categorized as award symposia or topical symposia. Award symposia are sessions intended to recognize an individual for either a specific research accomplishment or sometimes a lifetime of professional service. Speakers in award symposia are generally longtime friends and colleagues of the award recipient. Consequently, award symposia are wonderful opportunities to learn about not only the technical contributions but also the personality of respected researchers in a discipline. Topical symposia are generally focused on research problems or methodologies. Sessions may be organized to present a historical perspective or the talks may highlight the most recent developments. Sometimes talks will present a longitudinal perspective on a researcher’s career or on a specific subject. These talks focus less on the technical aspects of the work and more on the “big picture.”

Other Technical Offerings

Many other opportunities exist for learning and professional development at technical conferences. These include workshops and short courses, poster sessions, expositions, and the employment bureau.

Workshops/Short Courses

Often conferences will provide workshops and/or short courses to meeting registrants. Workshops are sessions often free offered by companies to introduce potential users to their products. Short courses are literally that half-day or full-day long courses taught by experts from academe as well as the private sector intended to provide registrants with specific technical knowledge that will allow them to learn new technologies/methodologies and/or while participating in the technical conference. Private industry loves this approach to professional development as it minimizes the time and cost of employee training and improves productivity and job satisfaction.

Poster Sessions

Refer to the Poster Presentations section.


Many conferences hold exposition that showcase the latest products and services available to educational and technical professionals in the fields represented at the conference. Exhibitors include book and journal publishers, instrumentation manufacturers, companies selling reagents, consumables, software, services, and representatives from professional societies, granting agencies, recruiting firms, etc.

The benefits of attending an exposition are many. The experience can be educational, valuable in terms of networking, and simply just plain fun! Many vendors offer all kinds of freebies including candy, pens, raffles for laptops, software, equipment, gift cards, etc. in order to attract potential customers to visit their booths. If you are a student in the science, technology, or engineering disciplines many companies will bring working models of their latest instrumentation or software to the exposition. You can learn about new instruments/software, compare features and capabilities. If you are considering a career in the private sector you can learn a lot about the different participating companies and make valuable contacts. Be sure to bring plenty of business cards with you!

Employment Bureau/Career Center

Some larger professional conferences may offer an employment bureau or career center during the week of the conference. Access to the meeting career center may be limited to registered conferees and may require payment of an additional fee. Conferees interested seeking employment may be asked to complete a general application form and to submit one or more copies of their current resume. In general some of the career services that you may find at meetings include workshops on career-related issues, opportunities to hone your resume writing and/or interviewing skills, and opportunities to participate in private screening interviews with interested employers on-site.

Social Events

There are many social events at professional conferences. These include breakfasts, luncheons, dinners, receptions, and local tours. Depending on the size of the conference, meeting organizers may provide tours of local attractions for attendees. Some social events are free and others are paid. Depending on the occasion, such as at an award dinner, formal or semi-formal attire may be required. Participation in these events is perhaps as important if not more important than participation in technical sessions as it is in these informal sessions that researchers freely exchange ideas and information and it is in these interactions that friendships, collaborations, etc. are forged. Go! Participate! Don’t worry if you don’t know anyone when you first go. Just be yourself, be friendly and you will have a great time! Last word of advice: Be sure to bring plenty of business cards to exchange with everyone that you meet!