Thoughts On ACS Fall 2014 Meeting

After a great week spent in Columbus, Ohio with the Future Leaders in Chemistry, the cohort continued on to San Francisco for the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall National Meeting. Here are some of my reflections and thoughts about the experience.

View from the swanky hotel I stayed at, The Westin Market Street

View from the swanky hotel I stayed at, The Westin Market Street

[Having a gameplan is crucial]
The ACS National Meetings are massive. Massive. There were over 15,000 registered attendees at this Meeting – which is bigger than most of their meetings…but not by much. There were 29 ACS Divisions (covering all areas of academic, governmental & industrial chemistry); in the Division of Organic Chemistry alone there were 30 technical sessions spread over 4 days – lasting anywhere between one afternoon and 3 days apiece – most running simultaneously. And that ignores the vitally-important Trade Fair expos, socials, Career Fair, professional development training programs and plenary seminars. It is hard to NOT feel overwhelmed.

For this reason I picked up a paper copy of the full program and carefully circled all the events that I wanted to attend. I had a couple of main goals: absorb as much new, relevant and “hot” synthetic organic chemistry as I could; get some ideas from recruiters about what they looked for in PhD-level job applicants; take a bit of time off to explore San Francisco. Those goals helped me to structure the week to ensure I wouldn’t end up in the airport cursing myself for what I missed.

Immediately after my presentation (by @SciFinder)

Immediately after my presentation (by @SciFinder)

[Give a talk, ask questions]
My own oral presentation went well. It was quite early on the Sunday morning (first day), which had initially worried me. However, attendance was good: by Tuesday and Wednesday I think that everyone was too chemistry-ed out/hungover, and the Big Name Scientists had most of their award symposia & aforementioned hot chemistry sessions later in the week.

I’m bullying myself into the habit of asking questions after talks. It is a useful exercise to make myself think critically about a presentation and look for the bits I don’t understand: when I pay close attention to the talk I usually understand the material more. I also think that it is a positive gesture when you show engagement with a person’s talk – it’s a bit of a shame when NO ONE has anything to ask after somebody’s presentation.

[Dress how you like]
The only difference between the clothes I wore for my presentation and the clothes I usually wear as a PhD student is…that I ironed my top in the morning. I have a variety of everyday business casual clothes that are smarter than jeans & t-shirt, those were OK in the conference setting. I saw the full spectrum of formality, seemingly an even distribution amongst grads/undergrads, faculty and industrial scientists.

Fashion advice from the St Andrews Lynx would therefore be to wear a smart version of what you’re comfortable with. A full black or grey suit would be overkill.

Looking up Lombard Street

Looking up Lombard Street

[Plan your career early]
I would argue that the biggest advantage of attending a mega ACS Meeting as a PhD student (over smaller, more specialised conferences) is to job hunt. The careers fair is a sprawling beast, with a lot of recruiters and slots for interview sessions. Most flavours of industrial science were represented, it appeared.

I visited a couple of company booths and asked them a lot of questions about the type of PhD candidates they recruited, and what (ideally) should be on my CV. I’m fairly jobmarket-smart, but it was better hearing from the recruiters themselves how they recruited, and what an Organic Synthesis PhD needs to have. I don’t want to learn 4 years down the line that my CV is weak (when I’m handing it in to those very same recruiters), I want to be able to take corrective action while I am just starting out.

If and when I want to secure an academic postdoc, I think I would be better going to a smaller specialist conference (e.g. the National Organic Symposium or a Gordon’s Research Conference). It is easier to corner an academic when they don’t have 15 other simultaneous conference-activities to hop between.

View from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge

View from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge

[It’s supposed to be enjoyable]
The ACS Meeting required plenty of stamina…but its supposed to be challenging in a
*good* way. At my first ACS Meeting I recall being so overwhelmed that I gave up on the whole thing quickly, this time around I felt that I made the most of the experience. I got to meet some new people, hear some great talks and do a bit cool stuff in a cool city.


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