How to Enjoy an Academic Conference as a Student or Early-Career Researcher?

I wrote this article to nag my Ph.D. students when they were attending their first academic conference right after the COVID-19 pandemic. I double-checked with them before publishing this posting, and they all said that it was helpful (well, what else can they say?).

Although I meant to help my own students optimize their conference experiences, I figure this could help other students or early-career researchers who are still new to academic events. The following statement is based on my own experiences, so it isn’t necessarily the best way, but I hope it helps many people who are lost in big conferences.

The opinions are mine and do not reflect my employers’ views (I don’t know why I’m saying this, but it seems that it’s a trend these days, so let me just say it to be safe).

My closest travel companion.

What I write in this article is based on my conference experiences (since Interspeech 2004) as an MS student, full-time researcher, PhD student, and a professor/industry researcher. I have also watched many people’s ways of dealing with these conferences to establish my own perspectives. First and foremost, though, I urge the target audience of this article to seek advice from their immediate peers, including the senior students in the lab, academic advisors, or mentors, rather than relying on what I’m saying here. It’s not because I’m not confident about my opinion but because each discipline has its own tradition, atmosphere, and etiquette. But, I think what I say here might be pretty relevant to CS/EE conferences.

Academic Attitudes

Be Curious

Visiting other people’s presentations is very important. They will get to know you if you visit their poster/talk and ask constructive questions. The most flattering moment for researchers is when someone else is interested in their work. So, show your interest as a compliment. Don’t worry about asking dumb questions because it’s their job to explain their work nicely. The authors will appreciate your question anyway, regardless of its sharpness.

Meanwhile, it’s your chance to stand out in the crowd. If you were a no-name stand-up comedian, visiting presentations and asking questions would correspond to a 5-minute open-mic session: that’s where every little thing begins. So, visit the presentations of the people you are following. This is also a good chance to give them a nice impression of you.

To this end, looking up the program ahead of time is a good idea. Suppose you are at a rock festival. Don’t you want to know when/where your favorite band will appear? Take a look at the next day’s program, at least the night before (I know you must be drunk, but still), so you know which presentation you will be attending the next day. Especially, if you are at a big conference where hundreds or even more than a thousand papers are presented, you will waste time figuring out where to go next unless you have a plan. Conferences have a free app you can use to create a schedule these days, which will help you. If you are busy jumping around different sessions to follow all the important papers for you, that’s the best way to spend your time there.

Be Aggressive

When you ask questions about other people’s work, while being polite, try to ask constructive and to-the-point questions so that the authors can improve the work. It’s basically similar to a reviewer’s job. If you really care, you can take a quick look at the paper in advance to find out the details, too. You are not an observer, but a “participant.” So, participate in.

Be Proud

When you talk about your own work to others, while you should be humble, don’t be shy. You should advertise the work as if you were talking about your kid to other parents—you don’t want to say that your daughter is stupid and cannot add double-digit numbers yet; instead, you want to say she is a bright kid enjoying physical activities such as cartwheel. Try to find good parts of your work and advertise it (while being aware of downsides and failure modes, of course). Eventually, people want to work with a researcher who’s always excited about his/her work, not someone who’s depressed and ashamed of him/herself. Your papers are your academic babies. If you don’t care about them, no one does.

Social Attitudes

Be Outgoing

If you are an introvert (like me), a little bit of effort in trying to be more outgoing would help you. I have met many students at past conferences, and most of them have become good friends. Try to find people who work in a similar area and are of similar status. They will become your friend, so try to mingle with them. I know you are losing your real friends during your graduate studies anyway, so reinforce your pool of friends! Drinking beers at night or having lunch with them would be a good idea. Aside from participating in the technical programs, your week might as well be full of appointments with other fellow students, early-career researchers, and potential employers. Nothing is wrong with eating alone, but spending time with others is definitely better. Eating only with your lab mates and advisor is not wrong either, but getting to know how other labs are doing will broaden your perspectives. I know you don’t have many friends at a conference yet, so don’t be shy and try to share your new acquaintances with your old friends (e.g., lab mates). What I will do for you all is basically to introduce you folks to everybody I know to broaden your network. I know I don’t look like one, but I’m an introvert, too. So, I know it’s not easy unless you are a people person already. So, let’s all try together as a team.

Be Hungry

There are lots of official and unofficial events happening around the conference. What types of events are going to be available depends on each year’s circumstances. But, basically, there can be social events held by big companies (free food!), student luncheons, events for female students, etc. These events usually require invitation or registration, so look out for them.

Be Mine

Don’t be shy and tell everybody that you are my student. When I was a student, I introduced myself, like “I’m Minje from UIUC and I work on source separation,” and nobody cared about me because they met too many random students from everywhere. One of my mentors quietly advised me, saying, “Minje, there’s nothing wrong if you mention your advisor’s name, so people can remember you better.” I might not be famous enough for you to benefit from my fame, but I’m sure there are a few more people who know me better than they know you. So, use me and my name as much as possible. That way, people will remember you better, and probably more people will attend your presentation. Then, it’s good for me, too.

Ethical attitudes

Be Representative

I may sound like an Asian by saying this, but I am, so let me just say this. Now that people know where you are from try to act like an ambassador. What you do out there could create an impression of the entire group.

Be Frugal

Of course, I’d appreciate it if you could try to be frugal at the expense of your conference travel if I fund your travel. But, what I actually mean here is about your time. You should be busy learning new technology, making new friends by enjoying some social activities with them, etc. On the other hand, if you spend most of your time sightseeing or sleeping through the entire morning sessions due to jetlag, that’s not the best use of your time, given that you will miss lots of academic and social opportunities. If you really want to spend some time on excursions, try to use conference-sponsored events or have fun with the conference folks instead of killing your time alone. Or, attaching a day either before or after the conference period for a personal trip would be a better strategy.

Be Responsive

It’s not about ethics, but let me say this one here. If we go on a conference trip, for some reason, some universities consider me as your guardian. So, when you run into an unexpected event or an emergency, please contact me (i.e., your advisor) directly asap, so I can figure something out. I know you are all adults, and you are responsible for what you do, but at any rate, there is a liability issue here. Moreover, I have been on many conference trips, probably much more than you did, so I know all sorts of bad things that can happen, e.g., losing a poster tube and having to print out a new one urgently, missing a flight, losing the passport, drinking too much, catching a severe cold, etc. In the same spirit, be responsive as well. I will need to check on each of you to see where you are and how you are doing. Going AWOL is not good abroad.

Other issues

What should I wear?

This is a recurring question, but unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. Like many other things that don’t have a clear answer, it’s because it differs from discipline to discipline, and everyone has different opinions. My general rule of thumb is that slight overdressing doesn’t hurt. For example, when I was visiting big tech companies for my job interviews, I wore suits. I was worried that I looked like a weirdo. Indeed, obviously, I was the only one who dressed up like that. But, you know what? Nobody cared about what I wore anyway. So, what’s the point? Just be yourself, but if you are concerned, it’s okay to dress up, especially if you are presenting a paper.

What if I’m alone?

If you happen to attend a conference without your advisor, or if you are at a stage where you shouldn’t use your advisor’s fame anymore (e.g., untenured assistant professor), that’s fine, too. It’s actually quite pleasant to see a student who is already independent of the advisor and can make academic friends by being aggressive. It’s totally recommended that the junior students piggyback on their advisor’s network, but a really good researcher stands out alone, anyway. If you have to survive the week without a guardian, that’s actually a good opportunity to show off your independence, so chin up!