Getting Ready for the ACS National Meeting

Expo scene at an ACS national meeting
Photo by Christine Schmidt

Are you ready for the ACS national meeting? Let us help you get the most out of your experience and put your best (professional) foot forward.

ACS Fall 2019 national meeting sessions and events for students

I’ve been to ACS local section and regional meetings before. How will this be different?

An ACS national meeting is a big deal, sometimes drawing as many as 18,000 attendees. Events are everywhere—the convention center, surrounding hotels—and everybody has their own agenda. While some events, like the Expo and Sci-Mix, are huge, bustling events where you can feel lost in the crowd, technical sessions and poster sessions are smaller (25–100 people). You might even rub shoulders with some famous chemists!

If you are prepared to be the enthusiastic budding professional chemist that you are, this is a very good thing. The trick is to be noticed for all the right reasons. This means your professionalism is important.

The program looks so overwhelming—how do I know what to attend?

ACS national meetings offer something for everyone, and it would be impossible to attend every session that piques your interest. Fortunately, every meeting has a program just for undergraduates that focuses on your specific needs and interests. From the graduate school sessions and the Graduate School Recruiting Fair (see participating graduate schools) to career workshops to a special lecture by a renowned scientist, you can find it all in the undergraduate program. Even better, stop by the student center on Sunday morning to meet and mingle with program organizers, student leaders, and ACS staff.

Looking beyond the undergraduate program, you can search the technical program online or use the scheduling mobile app to find people or topics that you might be interested in, whether it’s a potential graduate advisor or a research field that is intriguing to you. The app can help you keep track of your schedule. Use the "Filter by themes" feature and select “students” to find presentations flagged as student-focused presentations.  

Professional Conduct

ACS expects its members to adhere to the highest ethical and safety standards. The ACS Volunteer/National Meeting Attendee Conduct Policy provides that attendees should contribute to a collegial, inclusive, positive, and respectful environment; avoid taking any inappropriate actions based on race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, marital status, political affiliation, presence of disabilities, or educational background; and refrain from using insulting, harassing, or otherwise offensive language in their ACS interactions.   

What should I wear? Do I need to buy a suit?

A good rule of thumb is to dress as though you will meet your future employer at any given moment and make a good first impression. Most people are dressed in business casual. Slacks, a skirt or dress, and a professional top (button-down, blouse, or sweater) are all safe choices. You don’t have to sacrifice your personal style, but you should avoid clothing and footwear that’s too revealing or too casual (e.g., ripped jeans, cropped tops, sandals, and flip flops).

For posters and oral presentations, dress in professional attire. This is your time to impress people with a look that says, “I’m a professional.”

Here are some tips for conference attire:

  • Thrift and consignment shops are great places to pick up suits, blazers, or other professional clothing on a tight budget. And most dry cleaners offer budget-friendly alterations services for that all-important, well-tailored fit.
  • Be sure to wear comfortable, supportive shoes—you will be walking a lot on concrete floors and pavement. Break in your shoes before the meeting.
  • Make sure to have a good, sturdy bag that you can easily carry around all day for your notebook, water bottle, extra shoes, and, of course, all the swag you’ll pick up at the Expo!

How should I do my poster?

Each poster will have its own dedicated poster board that is 4’ tall by 6’ wide (including the frame). Your poster must fit within those dimensions (buckets of pushpins are available, but it's a good idea to bring your own). Many students take advantage of the large poster printers at their institutions and bring their posters rolled up in tubes, but it’s also possible to bring a digital copy and print it at an office supply or print shop in the city. If need be, you can print individual panes on letter-size paper and neatly tack those up. Your poster may not look as professional, but it is a workaround for emergency situations.

As far as the layout and content of your poster, check out the Anatomy of an Ace Research Poster infographic for key information that should be included and layout tips.  

Remember that you will be present at your poster, and figures and graphics are much better starting points for discussion than paragraphs, so try to limit the amount of text by using just enough to help tell your story. Any figures, images, and text should be large enough to read clearly from a few feet away.

Every poster board will have a number that corresponds to the abstract number in the program, so find yours and tack it up. This takes less than five minutes, and you’ll have access to the room 30 minutes before the session start time, so don’t stress about the time. Beware! Posters put up before the designated set-up time will be removed.

Instructions for poster presenters

What should I expect at my poster session?

A poster session is a place to share your science with others. Everyone who comes to view your poster is looking to hear about your science and learn about your discoveries. There will be an ebb and flow of foot traffic, with some people simply reading your poster and others wanting to talk to you a little bit about it.

Don’t judge yourself by how many people visit you; one or two meaningful conversations with good mentors can be more important than a bunch of students stopping by to say “hi”.

If there is a lull in the foot traffic around your poster, it is completely appropriate to talk with the poster presenters around your poster; in fact, this is a great opportunity to practice your short research introduction with a peer!

How much should I share about my research?

The biggest challenge for many students is determining how much information to share with people. The best rule of thumb is to start small and expand if your audience wants to hear more or has questions. Be prepared to have a brief (1- to 2-minute) introduction as to what you have done and why you did it. Many guests at your poster will start with, “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your work?”, but bear in mind that there are a lot of posters to visit, so “a little bit” means short!

The most successful poster presenters are those who can focus on the “take-home” messages of their research project and communicate those messages in a short amount of time. What did you do/study (in simple broad terms, 1 to 3 sentences)? Why should the listener care (again, 1 to 3 sentences)? Once you give your brief elevator speech of your project, you can gauge how much more your listener wants to know. Ask them if they want you to go into more detail about anything, or ask them questions about their background so that you know how specific you should be when answering additional questions.

How to Kill Presentation Nerves

My oral presentation is at 9:00 a.m., but I want to meet my friends afterwards to go to the Expo. Can I leave when I’m done?

Congratulations on giving an oral presentation! This is a major accomplishment and opportunity for you to present your research. Oral sessions are conducted in blocks of four or five talks (40–50 minutes) with short intermissions in between each block. As a presenter, you need to arrive either at the start of the session or during the break immediately preceding your block. Be sure to introduce yourself to the chair of the session and other presenters, and load your presentation onto the computer.

And, yes, it is a good practice for you (and the rest of your squad) to stay after your talk, at least until the next intermission. Not only will you have the opportunity to learn about some other high-caliber research projects, but this is also a way to show support and camaraderie for the other presenters in your block.

I heard there’s free food and drink. Is this true?

There are definitely events at ACS meetings that offer refreshments, especially in the student program. In the fall, that includes the graduate school workshops, the grad school fair, "Ocean science: Reflections at the marina," and the reception with Derek Muller of Veritasium. Students also get free tickets in their registration packet for the Eminent Scientist Lecture & Luncheon, so take advantage of that free lunch!  

The Sci-Mix poster session includes popcorn and two drink tickets. Just remember that Sci-Mix, like all social events at professional meetings, is intended to promote networking and social interactions with a diverse array of presenters and disciplines. Trying to present a poster or network while inebriated (or with a mouthful of food) looks bad. Potential future employers and colleagues are everywhere, so know your limit or avoid drinking alcohol in order to put your best foot forward.

There are back-to-back talks at opposite ends of the convention center that I want to attend. Can I enter a talk late?

Sure, you can enter a talk late, but be discreet. Enter quietly, open doors slowly (you don’t want to knock into anyone near the door), and be mindful of closing the door without making it slam.

Slip into an available chair, if you can do it without climbing over anyone; otherwise, move to the side of the room. Once the speaker has finished, you can look around and quickly find a seat before the next speaker starts. Likewise, if you see an attendee come in late and you can easily scooch over to free up a seat, please do so.

I’m so excited to see a talk by [bigwig chemist’s name]. Can I ask them a question during or after their talk?

Absolutely. Here are some tips:

  • Save your question for the end when the speaker asks for questions.
  • Speak loudly and enunciate your words so that the speaker, moderator, and others in the audience can hear your question clearly the first time.
  • Keep your question short and focused on the topics covered in the talk.
  • Ask them something that only they, or a similar expert, would know the answer to, not what you would expect them to know.

You also can talk with a speaker after their talk. If there is a small crowd of people asking questions, politely ask your question as time permits. If the speaker needs to rush off, ask if you can contact them by email later, and be sure to follow up on your request.

One of the best things about attending a national meeting is the sudden realization that you are not alone. There are literally thousands of people who have the same passion for chemistry that you have. It is exhilarating to discover all the shared experiences, from the first time leaving lab with your goggles on to late nights in the library to surviving P-chem. Battle stories from labs gone by (Grignard reaction, anyone?) are always great for a groan and a laugh.

You will discover that the “geekier” you are and the more you enjoy chemistry as a field and as your major, the more you will fit in, which is thrilling.

The consensus from students who have come before you is that their first ACS national meeting was a turning point in their professional lives. Taking this important step toward your education, career, and future as a member of the professional chemical community will surely be unforgettable. We hope that your experience at your first national meeting is positive and meaningful, and we look forward to seeing you there!

Student Chapter Awards Ceremony

One of the biggest highlights of ACS Spring national meetings is the ACS Student Chapter Awards Ceremony. Nothing can compare to being in a room full of your peers with active chapter members from all over the country and the world celebrating chemistry and each other.

The ceremony is a semi-formal event in a professional space, so this is the time to dress up (in formal attire, not nightclub gear). In addition, while the awards are handed out, try to be as enthusiastic when you support other chapters as you will be when you celebrate your own. It’s a wonderful gesture that your peers will appreciate.

And do stay for the entire event. Everyone is excited about the recognition, so be considerate and let everyone have their moment to shine.

Last updated 8/7/2019

About the Author

Amy Keirstead
is an associate professor of chemistry and associate dean at the University of New England in Maine. She is also serves on the ACS Undergraduate Programming Advisory Board.

Michelle Boucher
is a professor of chemistry at Utica College, chair of the Undergraduate Student Advisory Board, and a longtime ACS student chapter advisor.