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)”

Opportunity for Grad Students: NSF Data Science Workshop

August 5-7, 2015, University of Washington, Seattle campus

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is sponsoring a workshop to convene 100 graduate students from diverse domains of science and engineering and data scientists from industry and academia to discuss and collaborate on Big Data / Data Science challenges. Graduate students are invited to apply for participation by submitting by June 22, 2015 a white paper (no more than three pages in length) that describes a Big Data / Data Science challenge faced by their scientific or engineering discipline or an idea for a new tool or method addressing a Big Data / Data Science problem. Travel support is available.
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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.

Of Academic Sociability and Disastrous Storms

Reflecting on this past school year, it is clear to me that the social aspect of being a graduate student is nearly as important as academic production.  While research is often a monastic endeavor, the occasions in which we do get a chance to socialize with other academics allows us the opportunity to form new connections with key players in our disciplines, as well as to further solidify existing relationships.  Leaving the cloister of solitary scholarship also has the benefit of opening you up to unexpected adventures, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters.  Last October, during Super Storm Sandy, I realized how sociability and disaster can work together to form valuable, multi-faceted life experiences.

Academic conferences are typically social events that provide a venue to have a few cocktails and banquet meals, show off your research, and perhaps, most importantly, make the necessary connections that will one day (hopefully!) land you that nice tenure-track job at a top-tier research university.  My experience at the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) conference Baltimore last October is perhaps an outlier in this regard, particularly because much of the conference was overshadowed by the most significant natural disaster to befall New Jersey in recent memory.  This conference just happened to take place precisely as Super Storm Sandy was hitting the East Coast.  I had decided to stay in Baltimore for the duration of the conference, figuring that a large conference hall likely had generators and would be safer than returning to my home in Jersey City.  In fact, the storm barely disturbed Baltimore, with a broken umbrella the extent of my personal loss of property.  And, after the storm’s passing, the local brew pub was up and running again and things were just fine.  The New Jersey and New York coastline was not so lucky, of course, and finding transportation back to the New York metropolitan area with train service suspended became a challenge for me.  My solution was to rent one of the last cars at the nearby Hertz rental agency, and accompanied with another stranded Rutgers friend, make our way north, as quickly as possible, on I-95.  The landscape seemed virtually untouched, but when night began to fall and we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge into NJ, all lights remained dark.  We did not see a single street lamp glowing on our entire journey up the Jersey Turnpike.

Driving across the arched span of the Newark Bay Bridge into Bayonne, which normally provides an unobstructed view of the New York Bay area, revealed only a ghostly archipelago of darkened landmasses, with the opulent glow of midtown Manhattan and its radiant Empire State as the sole beacons of visible illumination on the horizon.  Driving through the darkened streets of Jersey City, we encountered dazed and lumbering storm-survivors, seeking out food, water, and perhaps most importantly, electricity with which to charge their digital devices.  This surreal environment resembled a scene from the zombie-serial, The Walking Dead, with city streets abnormally darkened, and slow-moving pedestrians lurching into oncoming traffic.  Fortunately, everyone maintained peace and civility, and surprisingly little crime occurred during this ordeal.  And when I finally returned to my apartment, my girlfriend was fine, cooking up some excellent stir-fry and sipping wine with friends.  So, thankfully, my fears of a zombie apocalypse turned out to be unfounded, but it would be about six days before we saw our electricity fully restored.

The experience of my trip down to the ASIST conference was clearly instructive as life experience on multiple accounts.  I was able to show off and discuss my academic research, and socialize with new professors, established luminaries, and friends just entering the job market.  Okay, so maybe a calamitous weather event that precipitated loss of life and billions of dollars in damage was not the ideal background for such an experience, but it did prove that traveling away from home and expanding one’s horizons does make the return home an entirely new experience.

Post Script:  Having just returned from a weekend at the Jersey Shore, I can report that there has been considerable work done on moving towards recovery from the damage wrought by Sandy.  There is still much work to be done, especially for private residences, but it is heartening to see how much has already been accomplished.  Even the Pinball Museum in Asbury Park, which is precipitously positioned right on the boardwalk is back in business!