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.

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7 thoughts on “How do you attend conferences?

  1. “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.” <- I'm not sure this is true. I think I can get the same amount of information out of a paper that I would out of a talk by reading the intro, and skimming the rest, which takes me less than twenty minutes.

    I do think conference talks expose me to papers I might not otherwise read.

    • Well I should clarify : a good talk can be faster than reading the paper for me. And I do go to talks on things I don’t work on for some perspective, and also to talks by people who I know are good speakers.

  2. I usually pick a few (about 3-4) talks I’d really like to go to every day. The remaining time is spent talking to collaborators, hanging out with friends, and talking to people about what I have been doing. For me, the division of time between these three happens quite naturally, depending on who is at a particular conference or workshop, and how things look at the moment.

  3. Depends on the conference and the timing. I’m going to two in April – one, I know that most of the talks aren’t worth my time, so ill focus only on the one or two strands that I know have higher quality people in them and probably spend more time socializing and being a tourist, since it’s in Puerto Rico. The other is bigger with more talks that I’ll want to attend. And since I’m going on the market next year, I’ll be focusing on networking more than I ever have before at both of them, which will suk because I’m really bad at networking.

    • Yeah I think it definitely depends on how in/out of area you are and so on. I just find that I often enter without a game plan and then end up missing thing I wanted to see or failing to talk to people I wanted to talk to, etc… also my work is a lot easier to do collaboratively over a distance (not as many experiments!) to the collaboration time can be super valuable.

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