Society for Neuroscience: coming back after leavin...

Society for Neuroscience: coming back after leaving academia

The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe.

— Michio Kaku

I’ve attended the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting since 2008. I’ll never forget my first time at SfN and how overwhelming it felt. With about 30 000 attendees, countless talks, symposia, and poster sessions, it can be hard to figure out what to see and where to go. I remember getting so much more out of SfN in the years after that first time, once I knew the lay of the land a little bit better.

This year was my first time back as a professional after leaving academia, and attending as an exhibit with our own booth. It’s been a couple of weeks since the Society for Neuroscience meeting wrapped up, but after 5 full days of conferencing I jumped right back into work and it’s been a hectic month altogether.

The differences between attending a conference as a student, and as a vendor:

  1. You don’t travel light as a vendor. It depends of course what your booth setup is like and whether you choose to ship your equipment. In an effort to save money and stretch our budget further I carry all our equipment to conferences myself. We do not ship anything (one may argue this reduces our carbon footprint somewhat because all modes of transport I’d need anyways we use to transport our booth at the same time). Given there is only so much you can carry on a plane anyways, you need to keep it somewhat “light”. The large hockey bag has our carpet and small miscellaneous items. The black suitcase has our inflatable back wall for the booth. The box is filled with goodies and giveaways and finally, the only personal item in the mix is the orange suitcase with my belongings. It’s always a bit of a guessing game and this time, I had to pop a stack of postcards and flyers into my handbag because the hockey bag was “2 lbs overweight, making it officially cargo with Air Canada”, according to the person at the check-in desk. Then again, the Society for Neuroscience always expects upwards of 20 000 attendees, so we had a lot of things to carry to accommodate speaking to more people than we are used to at other conferences. Chicago trip
  2. One of the good things about attending a conference as a vendor is that you are forced to arrive a little earlier than you would otherwise. You need some time to set up your booth, and you are attached to certain move-in times from the convention center. This means you can do some sightseeing as well. We arrived late on Friday afternoon, and after a quick shopping trip to get some last minute items for the booth, we could relax over dinner and get an early night’s sleep. The next morning, we moved into the convention center.
    moving into the convention center

    Moving into the convention center. We got it down to two trips (between two people) from the car to our space on the floor.

    This is where jetlag is your friend because our move-in time was 8am-10am. We moved in around 9 am and were done setting up by 11 or so. After dropping off the rental car and taking a few things back to the hotel, we had the afternoon to walk around beautiful Chicago and take in some sights.

    chicago bean

    One of my favourite sights in Chicago is “the bean”

    Chicago pier

  3. Your goals are different as a vendor compared to when I was a student. Previously, I was promoting my research and myself. Now I was promoting Papers and trying to chat with as many researchers as I could about their needs in a reference manager.
  4. More so than as a student you have to pre-plan everything. Especially at the Society for Neuroscience there is a lot going on: posters, socials, talks, meetings, and, of course, manning the booth. If you are not hyper-organized before even arriving at the conference you will miss out on opportunities. This relates to anyone attending, though but is even more important when you are representing a company.
  5. Whether you are a student or not, you are always on a budget. Whether that budget is set by yourself, your graduate department, or you have a budget through work, doesn’t matter. However, as a graduate student, I certainly had less financial freedom than I have as a professional, and that changes what I do on work trips. I am more willing to treat myself when on the road. This time around I wrapped up a successful conference with a quick spa treatment before my flight. Granted the exchange rate was also in my favour. Also, you are probably not sharing a hotel room with 5 of your closest lab-mates. This makes a huge difference in how much rest you actually get, but then again you need it more than when you were in your early twenties.
  6. Learning new things in your field is always one of the reasons to attend a conference. Once you leave research or academia for the private sector, “your field” changes. I am still interested in keeping up with the latest developments in neuroscience, but it wasn’t my main focus because the goals I had set for ourselves related directly to our business. I still attended a few talks, poster sessions, and absorbed quite a bit of news in the field, but all within the scope of our business goals.

Have you attended a conference since leaving graduate school, or after leaving academia? How was it different for you? 

Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".


  1. Janine

    9 November

    I am an ex-academic coming from physics. Like you I love attending conferences in my field and staying up to date on what is new. However most of my time at conferences is now spent networking. It’s the nature of the job, but whenever I can I find an opportunity to attend some key talks as well. Ultimately staying abreast of new work out there helps me do my job as well.

  2. David

    9 November

    Ah yes…. the days of sharing hotel rooms! I don’t miss those.

  3. K

    12 November

    That flight path in the first photo – I’ve flown that SO many times in the simulator 🙂 Taking off from Meigs Field Runway 36 (which no longer exists, sadly) and turning left after Sears tower towards O’Hare airport for a quick landing before I took off again for Midway airport or further afield to Champaign-Urbana (Willard) airport. Fun times! 🙂

    • Christine Buske

      12 November

      You’ve flown a simulator? that’s so cool!! May I ask why?

      • K

        12 November

        It’s how I started out with computers. I love planes and flying, and I made my dad buy me a computer when I saw a friend running a flight simulator on his, this was the early 90s! I loved it, used to go sleepless nights sometimes just having fun with it. Pretty soon though I also discovered programming and within months I was showing others how to write programs 🙂 More sleepless nights!

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