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Conferences: Do Not Hide Under a Bushel

Tomorrow's Research

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There are several reasons for attending a conference. This is an opportunity for the world to see the face behind the name-you! This is why giving good talks is important. Most talks last 12 minutes, yes, 12 minutes with about 3 minutes for questions. Therefore, claim your fame during your talk! 



The posting below looks at important things students should do at conferences to maximize their time and beneifit. It is from Chapter 8, Communicating, in the book, Navigating Graduate School and Beyond: A Career Guide for Graduate Students and a Must Read for Every Advisor, by Sundar A. Christopher. Published under the aegis of the AGU Books Board.[] © Copyright 2011 by the American Geophysical Union, 2000 Florida Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20009. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis




Tomorrow's Research

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Conferences: Do Not Hide Under a Bushel


Ah! The word conference conjures up images of traveling to Hawaii and listening to talks in the morning and snorkeling in the evening after the conference. Well, let me be the first to burst that bubble. Conferences are not all that glamorous, and they usually require a lot of work and preparation. They can be downright draining.

In most disciplines, there are the revered and the most anticipated annual or biannual meetings. They give you an opportunity to get out of town, travel by plane (usually), stay in a hotel, eat in strange restaurants, meet your colleagues, make new friends, network, listen to interesting talks (and some boring ones), eat dinner while talking science, and lay awake in bed in a strange hotel in spite of the 17 pillows they have to fit your neck curvature just to get up exhausted. And you do this for 3 to 5 days! Cynicism aside, conferences can be good or bad. Some conferences last for 5 days, and there are at least 50 sessions throughout the week. Even your electronic organizer cannot keep up with the scheduling of the talks. Needless to say, it is a nightmare! Other conferences are smaller and are much more focused, so you usually stay in one or two conference rooms the entire time. I tend to like this because I can learn more from these focused meetings.

Here is how the path to a conference works. Conferences are announced months or even a year in advance. The topical areas are listed on the website, and you are asked to submit an abstract (less than a page) and indicate whether you would like to present it orally or in the form of a poster. While most folks like to \"talk\" since it is considered prestigious, I believe that a poster can be equally important. So I suggest that for every conference that you go to (if permitted by the organizers), ask for one poster and for one paper presentation. It is a tremendous experience to interact both ways. There is no guarantee that even if you asked for an oral presentation that you may be given one. You may end up with two posters. It's not that the organizers do not like you; they are simply juggling several things to accommodate posters and presentations alike. Since hundreds of scientists write such abstracts, the organizers have to group them. Depending upon priority, they allocate some for talks and a vast majority for posters. Some conferences only require you to write a one page abstract. Others either require you to write an extended abstract, usually three to four pages, or leave it up to you to write one or not.

A conference abstract is usually written months before you even attend and present at the conference. Therefore, you are doing some work between the time of abstract submission deadline and the actual conference itself. Apart from the obvious-title, author list, and affiliations-remember to specify the session you are interested in and whether or not you are planning an oral or poster presentation. The abstract should highlight why this work is important, what some of the data sets and methods are, some results that you already have, and what you are working on. After you submit your abstract, make sure that when you travel to the conference, you have the same title. Switching titles and focus of the paper is unfair to the audience because in a big conference they have juggled schedules to get to your talk. You need to make sure that you are presenting something true to your abstract.

Imagine this: You are at a large annual conference in California just before Christmas, and there are multiple parallel sessions. All you have is a conference proceedings book that you were given when you registered. You look through the abstracts, and you are excited because someone is going to talk about the effect of agriculture on air quality at 11:30 A.M. in a certain room. You have another talk that you would also like to attend, but you make sure that you are there at 11:30 to hear about air pollution. The abstract had looked rather interesting since that is your area of research. At 11:30, if the speaker stands up and starts talking about some field experiment results related to water vapor, this can be hugely disappointing to you. Therefore, when you write your abstract, make sure that you will talk about things that you say you will when you wrote the abstract.

I was once asked to come up with five things a student should do at a conference to organize their time. Remember that there are a lot of things going on with talks happening in several rooms all at the same time. How does one formulate a plan? I suggest dividing your time between these five parts. Obviously, the percentage of time in each of these sections will vary depending upon where you are in graduate school. Here are some guidelines:

• Attend talks that will strengthen your specific research topics.

• Attend talks that will broaden and enhance your research.

• Learn how to have fun at the conference venue.

• Interact with peers from other universities and organizations. Networking with your peers pays huge dividends. Peers today,

  leaders tomorrow!

• Finally, set aside some time to talk to potential mentors and some of the icons of the field. Most senior researchers enjoy

  interacting with graduate students.

There are several reasons for attending a conference. This is an opportunity for the world to see the face behind the name-you! This is why giving good talks is important. Most talks last 12 minutes, yes, 12 minutes with about 3 minutes for questions. Therefore, claim your fame during your talk!

Conferences are also for networking. Networking simply means that you meet people of similar research interests so that you can collaborate with them to further your research and, get this, theirs! Conferences are also great places to meet potential mentors and to gain ideas for deepening or diversifying research.

Here's something you won't hear in any book (except this one!). If you do not plan on interacting at a conference, don't even go. If all you will do is interact with your office mates or your friends from your workplace, you might as well do that over a cup of hot chocolate at a coffee shop in your neighborhood rather than travel all the way to a conference. It's a waste of time and money. At the end of each conference, you should be able to sit down and list specifically the people with whom you interacted and the follow-on action items as a result of those interactions.


This is also a great opportunity to seek out those in the field who have written papers and conducted field experiments. So muster up courage and introduce yourself. Most senior scientists welcome the young researcher in the field and are eager to provide great advice. Early in my career, at an annual conference, I got up to give my talk and saw one of the leading researchers in the field in the audience. He asked a difficult question, and I thought I answered it reasonably well although I wasn't sure. During the break, I approached him and introduced myself. He spoke with me for a while, encouraged me, and provided some valuable advice on how to move my research forward. As a parting thought, he said that he welcomed my collaboration and indicated that there was lots of room in that field. It left a lasting impression that I carry with me today. Even though he passed away prematurely in an accident recently, we wrote several papers together, and I learned from him every single time! Remember that there is a lot of room for people to grow together in your field of interest. Do not slam the door shut on people. They are not competitors but collaborators!

A note about answering questions: Have you ever been at a conference and at the end of a talk, a hand goes up on one side of the room? A question is raised that you can hardly hear, yet the speaker starts answering the question. None except the few people around the person who asked the question have heard this question. Another annoying aspect is when the speaker does not wait for the question to be finished but starts answering in the middle of the question. Rude, wouldn't you say? Or, my favorite, the rambling question that takes up almost a minute or the rambling answer that is not even close to the question that was raised. The list of negatives could be endless.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts. Wait until the question has been completed. Repeat the question if the audience did not get an opportunity to hear it. Answer the question concisely and clearly without being condescending.

If you are attending a conference, then you should present a paper or two. Let me say this upfront even though I will get into trouble for this. Conference papers that appear in proceedings usually count for nothing on your resume as far as demonstrating your productivity simply because they are not peer reviewed. So do not waste your time on writing conference papers unless it is for practice!

Do not waste your time at conferences by endlessly wandering the corridors. It is like a theme park. I didn't say a zoo, but a theme park! You have a short period of time, and if you want to see all the attractions, you had better do some preparation before you land at the conference. Check out the conference proceedings online before you go. Mark all the talks that interest you. Jot down all the folks you would like to meet and interact with and follow a game plan. While you are at it make sure that you have fun after the conference ends or in the evenings, getting to know people beyond only the scientific realm. Lasting relationships are formed during these conferences.

I still remember going to South America during the first year of my life as an assistant professor for a conference. I met a young and energetic graduate student at that time. Little did I know that he would run major field campaigns and become a major force in the field! We ate a lot of meals together and talked about the good and bad of science. We are now good friends both on and off the scientific field. You never know what might happen to the person with whom you interact today.

One last piece of advice! Don't travel too much to attend conferences and only present papers. While it may be good for a while, it does take valuable time away from doing research and that bottom line: Writing those papers! Be sensible about allocating time for conferences and making the best use of your time.