Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order). Continue reading “Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons (Throwback Thursday)”

A few things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference

As conference season approaches, I always have mixed feelings about going. I feel like I’m going to be missing a lot of work time and giving a big presentation can definitely be daunting. Honestly, however, attending conferences and presenting my work have been some of the most important factors in shaping my research.  After chatting with other conference goers and getting feedback on my talk, I came back from a conference last fall with an entirely new game plan for tackling my next research phase. There’s a couple of great previous posts on why to attend conferences and how to get the most out of going to conferences. Here’s my two cents on some things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference:

  1. There’s going to be A LOT of talks and posters to see: choose wisely, make a schedule. One of the first things you should do is open up the abstract booklet with the conference schedule (or download the online version). Make notes of which talks/posters to see and have a schedule for where to be and when.
  2. Go to some talks outside of your expertise. Find something that genuinely piques your interest. You never know where you might find inspiration or what you might learn from seeing how work is done outside of your personal research bubble.
  3. Bring business cards. Check out Rutgers Visual Identity website for a downloadable template for designing business cards. I got 250 cards printed at Kinko’s for cheap and they look good.
  4. Have an elevator speech ready for explaining your research. One of the most common ice breakers when you meet people is, “So what do you do?” Be ready to concisely explain what you do and why it’s important at the level of an educated person who has no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t use jargon. Make it quick; up to 30 seconds is fine and if they want to know more, they’ll ask.
  5. Dress nicely. Talk with people who’ve attended the conference before and ask about recommended attire. If in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to directly email the conference organizers. Always air on the side of dressing up than dressing down. You want to make a good impression – you’re probably presenting yourself and your work to almost everyone in your field.
  6. Make a summary of your conference experience. After you return home, go through the notes you took during talks and type them up. Reference the papers you meant to look up. Organize the business cards you got and follow-up with people you said you’d contact. Talk to your adviser about your experience and compare notes with any other fellow students who attended too.
  7. Try to see the city a little bit. You’re there to go to a conference, but why not plan ahead to see some sites while you’re there during break times? There’s typically group dinners organized at local restaurants, like for a school’s alumni or hosted by a sponsor company – check with your adviser on which ones they recommend you seek out. Maybe you could even extend the trip through the next weekend and do some touring!

Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order).

1. To meet people
A big reason for going to conferences is to meet and meet up with people. Conferences bring together people from all different geographical areas who share a common discipline or field, and are a great way to meet new people in your field. At a conference you will be able to get together with people from a wide range of backgrounds or from a number of institutions, whom you may not encounter at your home institution. As you build your professional network, conferences also become a good place for meeting up with people in your field that you haven’t seen in a while.

2. For people to meet you
It may not seem like a notable thing, but conferences are also a good way for people to meet you. Yes, you, the lowly second year grad student, presenting for the first time. You may meet someone at a meal, or they may stop by your poster, and within a few minutes, you can make a connection with someone that you might not even have met if you hadn’t attended the conference. This is especially important when you are looking for collaborators, or jobs and postdocs, or, in some fields you may even be looking for committee members. Or perhaps you are just trying to build your professional network. Conferences are another way to get your name and your work out there as you begin to establish yourself in your field of study.

3. To present your work to others
This is one of the more obvious reasons for attending conferences: to present your work! It’s good practice in talking about what you do with a variety of people from similar, related and/or completely different areas of study. Presenting will make you more confident about the work that you do, and gives you new perspective about your work as people may ask questions that make you think about your project differently. At a conference you have the opportunity to get feedback on your work from people who have never seen it before and may provide new insight, as well as from people other than your graduate adviser who are experts in your field.

4. To learn new things in your field
As you view different posters or attend different talks, you hear a lot about things in your field that may be new to you. These could be new techniques, new types of equipment, data that is yet unpublished, or investigators that you may not have heard of. Conferences allow you to get a good sense of what’s going on in your discipline that you might not be aware of living in your neck of the woods. You get to hear about the research of some of the biggest names in your field and of some of the newest faces in it. In addition, conferences give you the opportunity to talk to these people one-on-one about what they are working on, and they may even give you advice on how to develop your project. You have the opportunity to ask presenters questions about their work and the rationale behind it, which you can’t do when reading journal articles!

5. To learn new things outside of your field
This is a two-fold benefit of going to conferences, since not only may you learn things outside your field about other areas of research in your discipline, but conferences also have many sessions for professional development and career advice, particularly at large national conferences. Chances are, when you go to a conference the attendees are united by a single broad topic, such as immunology, but they have many different sub-fields of study, and many projects will be multidisciplinary. Thus you have the opportunity to learn about a different area of your field as a way to develop your dissertation project, for your own personal pursuit of knowledge, or if you are looking to change your research focus. Moreover, conferences (especially the big ones!) have many professional development workshops and seminars for graduate students, where you hear from career professionals about skills such as networking, creating a CV or resume, different types of careers, and interviewing skills.


So why go to conferences? I guess a short summary reason would be: for your continued personal and professional development. Take advantage of these opportunities, even if you can only attend smaller local conferences. Meet people. Network. Learn new things. Who knows, you may even end up leaving a conference with a job offer!

What are some other reasons that you might have for attending a conference? Share them in the comments below!

Making the most of scientific conferences

Conference experiences have been explored a few times on this blog before, but given the apparent diversity of conference formats across disciplines, I think another perspective might be valuable.  The topic is particularly on my mind since I recently attended the American Physical Society (the major professional society for physicists) March Meeting, which took place in Denver this year.  March Meeting is by no means the only important conference in the physical sciences, but it is probably the biggest — almost 10,000 people, from undergrads to Nobel Prize winners, attend from all around the world.

I’ve been to March Meeting three times now, plus a few smaller conferences.  Now that I’m nearing the end of graduate school, it thus seems like a sensible time to reflect on how to make the most of these trips.  Optimizing your conference experience is important, since conferences are usually a substantial investment of your time, energy, and money (maybe your advisor’s money, but still…), and they can be key opportunities to advance your career.  So here are some thoughts on the matter I’ve acquired over the past few years:

  • Don’t try to attend everything.  This was probably my biggest mistake at earlier conferences, and I think it’s a common one to make.  It’s so easy to have eyes bigger than your brain when you look at the schedule of talks.  I would try to attend everything the first day or two, and then I would inevitably burn out and end up missing or sleepwalking through some more important events later on.  Try to prioritize the absolute most important things on the schedule before the trip, and make a reasonable plan of how much you can actually do.  Be conservative with your judgment.  It’s better to sleep late and attend only a few talks that you really pay attention to, rather than to wake up early and attend everything but be so tired that you don’t learn anything.  So how should your prioritize events?  Well…..
  • Meeting people is the most important thing.  Specifically, it is more important than any talk.  Talks definitely can be useful — they put your finger on the pulse of cutting-edge research and can expand your breadth in unexpected ways — but there are still alternative ways of learning about research.  You can always read someone’s papers if you really want to know about their work.  But there is no substitute for interacting with people face-to-face at a conference.  This is how you form new collaborations and meet people who may someday offer you a job.  So when budgeting your time and energy, opportunities to meet people should always come first.  Skip the talks and just go to the reception afterward if you have to.  Now that I’ve stressed its importance, how do you actually go about meeting people?
  • Be a little shameless.  It’s hard to summon the courage to ask questions during a talk or introduce yourself to someone new, especially when they are much more senior and your questions and ideas seem naive.  But you have to be a little shameless and do it anyway.  The particle physicist Tommaso Dorigo has some nice ideas on his blog about how to come up with questions for these occasions.  The point is that even if your questions are a bit vacuous, or your attempt to introduce yourself and shake hands with that famous person feels awkward and forced, the mere process of getting practice doing it will be beneficial.  By the time your questions and ideas are more substantial, you’ll already feel quite comfortable speaking up.  Despite science’s reputation as being the domain of introverts and nerds, in my experience the scientific community rewards assertive, outgoing social behavior, people who are aggressive about seeking knowledge and maybe even a little self-promoting.  Being “that person who keeps asking questions” will make you stand out and gain respect as a passionate seeker of knowledge.  I played such a role at a few events in the past (ones with small audiences, which made this a lot easier), and several people even told me afterward that they noticed me because of all my questions.  Hopefully I wasn’t too annoying, but at least they noticed me!  But besides meeting new people from scratch, a much easier route is to…..
  • Use your existing connections to make new ones.  It’s always easier to meet people through people you already know.  So if you already know one or two people at a conference, spend enough time with them to meet some of the other people they know.  Getting to know grad students or postdocs at other institutions is a great strategy: as a grad student yourself, it’s usually not too hard to meet and get quality time with other young people (compared to, say, faculty), and once you get to know each other, they should be more than happy to introduce you to their friends at their own institution or other people they happen to know.  And you can do the same for them.  Finally, once you’ve met some new people…..
  • Follow up with the new people that you meet.  This can be tricky, but it’s important if you want those new connections to last.  I have been able to invite a few people I met at previous events to give seminars for our group here at Rutgers, which obviously helped a good deal in solidifying those relationships.  But that’s not always possible.  Sometimes it’s reasonable to send a follow up e-mail to someone you just met.  For example, you might talk to someone about a paper they wrote, and after you go home and read it, you could easily send them an e-mail with a generic pleasantry (“It was nice to meet you at that conference…”) followed by a question or two about the paper.  There’s no need to be sycophantic, but if you are honestly interested in their work, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a few genuine questions.  A short e-mail exchange like this will go a long way in preventing you both from forgetting each other.  In the worst case, try to track down your new contacts at the next conference, even if it’s a year or two in the future.  They’ll probably be flattered that you remembered them and reached out.  If your memory for names and faces isn’t acute, find other ways of keeping track of the people you meet: for example, you can ask for business cards (not common in science, but apparently common in other disciplines) or keep a list of professional contacts.

I’m sure five years from now my views on conference-going will have evolved even further, but the foregoing points have at least served me well as I finish up my Ph.D. and prepare for the next stage.  So I hope someone else will find them useful as well.  In any case, I’m sure these issues probably vary widely across disciplines (and even within a discipline, too, depending on the conference), so different perspectives are welcome in the comments!

Conferences in Mathematics

Attending conferences is an important part of academic work. Conferences help us share our research with one another, find new collaborators and research topics, and keep up to date on our fields of interest.

I recently attended a bi-annual conference hosted by Integers (The Electronic Journal of Combinatorial Number Theory). I should say that my travel was generously supported by the conference organizers (i.e. the journal, via the NSF I believe) and my department & advisor, although I should say that one part of the conference experience is waiting with bated breath to get reimbursement forms processed. The government shutdown doesn’t help with that long wait either.

Rather than talk about the math, which isn’t really the point of this blog, I wanted to share some of the peripherals — the details of the conference, its format, what the experience is like. I have heard stories from other fields of study, and conferences seem to be very different from place to (figurative) place.

The departure is usually a bit of a rush of packing and preparing slides for presentations. Beamer (or equivalent) have become the de facto presentation method at math conferences, having (somewhat recently…) displaced the long-reigning overhead projector. After a day of travel, including a bit of a drive to Carrollton GA (home of UWG), I got some sleep before the first long day of presentations. I don’t travel much, and it is certainly stressful and tiring, but in the end I do enjoy it, especially driving.

Conference presentations are usually split into short (20 min) and long (50 min) talks, the later being given by specially designated (invited, plenary, keynote etc.) speakers of the conference. Most talks aim to communicate some new results, ideas, or insights into some type of research, and even for a specialized conference, there is a great deal of diversity in the subject matter. Some speakers speak to the general conference audience, while others speak to the very best experts in their slice of the research world. Many of the most interesting talks, to me at least, don’t probe into the depth of the subject, but give a gentle introduction or overview, and then outline or sketch the major new results or ideas. I’m more of a breadth-first guy.

The conference lasts for several days, as many conferences do, with talks back-to-back from about 9 to 5 every day. There are breaks for meals and coffee, and many conversations — professional and social — branch out from the main group during and after the sessions. Conferences are a great way to meet, re-meet, or quasi-meet people. I re-met Brian Hopkins, who has done some work related to my talk, and Bruce Landman, who has also worked in a related area (and is one of the conference organizers). Both of them (and several other audience members) had interesting questions and comments following my talk — one of the best parts of a conference is getting insightful feedback from colleagues. But I also met a few people more socially. I had a short chat about hockey with Cam Stewart after overhearing him talking about the sport, and sat at a table during the conference banquet with Steve Butler, Mel Nathanson, and Neil Hindman. Mel proposed an interesting problem at the conference that provided stimulating discussion and that I’ve found to be an interesting diversion even after the conference ended.

I also met other grad students like myself, many from closer to UWG (from schools like UGA, Georgia Tech, etc.), including Kate Thompson, whose advisor Jon Hanke  spoke here at Rutgers (by coincidence) only a few weeks after the conference (he was not at the conference). Making acquaintances can be quite beneficial — in this case, Kate and Jon know quite a bit about quadratic forms, which is something that is at least tangentially related to some long-term research ideas I’ve kicked around for a little while (but quadratic forms, on the whole, is a foreign subject to me). One day, if it comes up, I know somebody I can email if I stumble across questions or ideas I can’t wrap my head around.

Conferences in other fields can (apparently) be very different — my friends in the humanities tell me that conferences sometimes (often? always?) consist of reading papers aloud and asking prepared questions, while I have seen that some (many? most?) scientific conferences revolve around poster sessions and other such media. But for us in math, at least in my experience, it is a long sequence of presentations aimed (usually) at general information for the research-level audience, describing research ideas and perspectives and leaving technical details for the published page. I like this format, especially because it promotes dialog, discussion, and feedback — and helps people like me reach out a bit and meet others with similar interests and ideas in mathematics.

Spring Break as Conference Prep Time

When I was an undergrad, Spring Break meant a whole week to do absolutely nothing. Some years that meant traveling to a warmer locale with friends, others were of the “staycation” variety, but in both cases Rest and Relaxation were the name of the game. 

As a graduate student, things are a little different. This year, Spring Break meant a week of not needing to commute to New Brunswick from New York City, catching up on episodes of The Walking Dead, and starting the research process for end-of-semester seminar papers. Mostly, though, I spent this week putting the final touches on a paper I will be presenting at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference at the end of March. 

As the name suggests, the ACLA is the national organization for scholars doing comparative work in the humanities, and the director of Comparative Literature here at Rutgers encouraged us graduate students to apply. This year’s theme is “Collapse/Catastrophe/Change,” and so I dusted off a seminar paper from a few semesters back and jumped at the chance to put myself out there and see if something stuck. And it did! I’ll be presenting a paper on two unconventional war movies: Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir and Katherine Bigelow’s independent film The Hurt Locker (both great, highly recommended). This will be my third conference presentation, and while I still have much to learn, I thought I would share some of things I know now but wished I’d known earlier about applying to and presenting at conferences.

What is a conference? A conference in the humanities is typically a meeting of scholars who convene over one or more days to present papers on a particular pre-determined theme. Some are local and run by graduate student organizations (these are a great entry for your first conference); others are larger and run by national or international organizations (these are often held on university campuses or large hotels). There are often keynote and plenary sessions open to the public where notable scholars in the field offer some thoughts on that theme, concurrent sessions of panel presentations, as well as a reception to allow time for mingling. Other formats exist, but I’m not familiar enough with those to comment (though if you can, please do!).

Why attend a conference? Participating in conferences is a key part of professionalization in the humanities. They offer opportunities to meet other scholars whose interests you share, and allow you to keep up with current scholarship in your field. And while we’re being honest, it is actually quite fun to spend a few days with people who are just as obsessed with interested in the kind of work you are doing as you are.

What do you do there? This certainly came as a surprise to me when I first learned about conferences, but what typically happens is that a panel of 3-4 scholars is allowed 15-20 minutes each to read a prepared paper. That’s right — they read their papers to an audience. A Q&A session follows the presentations, and I consider this one of the highlights of conferencing.  During this time, I have been offered helpful suggestions on additional sources to consult and new angles to consider in my work. Thinking of your paper as a solid work-in-progress really takes the edge off the experience of public speaking, and allows you to share your ideas while also opening yourself to feedback. Depending on where the conference is held, you might also get to travel to a new city, so why not take some time to get to know a new place?

How do I apply? Organizations put out what are called “Calls for Papers” (CFPs), which are a few words describing the conference theme and the kinds of papers they are looking for. In fact, you need not have written the paper when you apply (though having a clear sense of what you would argue is key). Most CFPs ask for a short abstract, about 150-300 words, summarizing your main ideas and how your eventual paper would fit the theme. Once your abstract is accepted, you will either be asked to submit the paper before the conference, or simply show up with your paper in hand to present.

Where do I find Calls for Papers? While this list is certainly not exhaustive, you’ll find a wide range via UPenn’s English Department Call For Papers website. Scholarly associations such as the ACLA and the Modern Language Association also post Calls on their websites. Department administrators also do a wonderful job of circulating Calls via email, so keep your eyes peeled!

Fun Fact: Searching CFPs is also a great way to come up with a paper topic for the end of the semester. Just knowing that other scholars are thinking about the same topics and themes can help motivate your research, and that strong end-of-year paper can become a great conference paper (and possible future publication). 

So what are some of your best conference strategies?  What is the most surprising theme you’ve come across? What are conferences like in other fields?

Share your thoughts in the comments!