A Practical Guide to Conferences, Part IV: At the Conference
Initial academic conferences can be a stressful experience for students, especially those presenting their research for the first time. We asked SPIE Early Career Professional Mikhail Kats to adapt his recent Twitter thread — which also recruited advice and suggestions from his colleagues — into this comprehensive guide on preparing for, attending, and presenting at conferences. Part IV is below. Don’t forget to check out Part I, Part II, and Part III as well!
Part IV: At the conference
The first thing to do when you get to the conference center is to head to the registration desk. You will get a nametag and lanyard, and often a physical copy of the conference program. You can leave the paper program at your hotel if the conference app works well, but wear the nametag at all times while in the conference center.
Preparing for your presentation
• If you are giving a talk or poster presentation, one of the first things you should do after on-site registration is find out about your presentation set-up. For talks, some conferences allow you to use your own laptop, while others have you upload your talk in advance. Read the instructions on the conference website, and make sure you follow them.
• Conferences often have "ready rooms" or “speaker check-in” where you can confirm that your PowerPoint is working properly with the conference software, projectors, and other equipment. At many conferences, checking-in your talk is required. Even if there is no such requirement, it is a good idea to do so.
• If you can, approach the speaker’s podium before the session to test out your talk. The session chair or a staff member should be there to help at least a few minutes before the session starts. Make sure you understand how the microphone works: sometimes it is on the stand, in which case you need to figure out how close you need to be for the microphone to pick up your voice. Sometimes you will get a clip-on wireless microphone; make sure you know where to clip it and where to place the wireless transmitter (usually in your pocket).
• Always use a microphone if one is provided. People at the back of the room and anyone who is hard of hearing will appreciate it.
During your session (if presenting a talk)
• Your talk will be part of a session that will typically last one to two hours, if not longer. It is considered professional courtesy for all speakers to be present and engaged throughout the entire session. You should arrive prior to the start of the session, introduce yourself to the session chair, be attentive during your colleagues’ presentations, and perhaps ask a question or two.
Getting the most out of the conference
• Most conferences publish their schedules ahead of time on their websites, and many now have conference apps that you can install on your phone. Sometimes the apps work well, sometimes not so much. Install the conference app and explore the schedule ahead of time, identifying talks you would like to attend. However, refrain from going overboard, and don’t expect to stick rigidly to your plan. Go with the flow, and don’t feel bad if you miss some of talks you selected in advance.
• When listening to presentations, there may be many certain things — often entire talks! — that you will not understand. This is very normal, especially at your first few conferences. As long as you occasionally pick up an interesting concept or idea, that is good enough. You will also find that you learn more than you think you do by osmosis: as you get used to listening to talks in your field, you will understand more. Just be aware that this process takes time.
• Carry a dedicated notebook with you and take notes when you see something interesting or have an idea inspired by a talk or conversation. Conferences can be idea factories and can help plan your future research.
• You may also record notes by taking occasional photos of slides when you see something interesting, but, before you do that, make sure that this does not violate conference rules. If you don’t see this rule on the conference website, confirm their policy with a conference staff member. Even if the conference allows such photos, take them sparingly as taking photos of every slide can be perceived as rude.
• After others' presentations, ask a question or two. It is a good idea to make sure you ask at least one or two formal questions during the entire conference, just to get the hang of things.
• Don't make it a point to attend back-to-back talks from morning to night. Even very experienced people can only really digest and internalize so much new material in a day. Exhausted in the middle of the day? Go back to the hotel to take a nap. Conferences are exhausting, and you will get more out of them if you are well-rested.
• Do seek out and attend free or inexpensive conference events such as organized lunches, dinners, and receptions. As well as being fun, these events offer terrific networking opportunities: introduce yourself to people around you and ask about their work.
• Outside of organized events, invite people to coffee, lunches, and dinners. This is easier if you are in a group, but you can do it on your own as well. Did someone give a cool talk? Go up to them and say, "Hey, that was a fascinating talk, I'd like to learn more. Any chance you'd like to join me/us for coffee/lunch/dinner to discuss this?" If they decline, don't take it personally! They might already have plans, they might be exhausted, or they might have work to catch up on.
• Keep your receipts. It is likely that your transport, hotel, and food will be paid for from your advisor’s research funds or another university pool, but policies and practices differ. Keeping those receipts ensures that you will be reimbursed later. Be sure to get itemized receipts at restaurants as well as the receipt showing the tip line, since tips are usually reimbursable.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: These articles were adapted from a thread I wrote on Twitter in response to a request by Manuel Martinez (UT-El Paso). The various conference-prep strategies described here have been honed over the last five years with my research group at UW-Madison, so I want to extend a big thanks to the students and postdocs who have helped develop these tools. Thank you also to Andrea Armani (USC) and Rachel Grange (ETH Zurich) who encouraged me to write this advice up as a proper article, and to Rachel for her editing work. Special thanks to Jennifer Choy (UW-Madison) for key suggestions, use of a sample slide, and critical reading of the draft.
Disclaimer: The more-specific advice regarding finances may only be applicable for US institutions.
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