How do you attend conferences?

As I’ve gotten farther along in this whole research career, I’ve found it more and more difficult to figure out the optimal way to balance the different things one does at a conference :

  • Going to talks. This is ostensibly the point of the conference. It’s impossible to read all of the papers that are out there and a talk is a fast way to get the gist of a bunch of papers or learn about a new problem in less time than it takes to really read and digest the paper. We’re social creatures so it’s more natural to get information this way.
  • Meeting collaborators to talk about research problems. I have lots of collaborators who are outside TTI and a conference is a good chance to catch up with them face-to-face, actually sit down and hammer out some details of a problem, or work on a new problem with a (potential) new collaborator. Time sitting over a notepad is time not spent in talks, though.
  • Professional networking. I’m on the job market now, and it’s important to at least chat casually with people about your research, what you think is exciting your future plans, and the like. This is sometimes the “real” point of conferences.
  • Social networking. Sometimes conferences are the only times I get to see my friends from grad school, and in a sense your professional peers are the only people who “get” your crazy obsession with esoteric problem P and like to get a beer with you.

So the question for the readership : how do you decide the right balance for yourself? Do you go in with a plan to see at least N talks or a certain set S of talks, or are you open to just huddling in the corner with a notepad?

I wrote this post in an attempt to procrastinate about ITA blogging, which I will get to in a bit. I went to far fewer talks than I expected to this year, but I’ll write about ’em later.