Attending Conferences - Level 1

Posted 15 Jun 2016

This is the third in a series of five blog posts about attending academic conferences (HCI ones in particular). This post describes how to prepare for conferences, and the role student volunteering can play.

Remember that as a professional, you have two sets of obligations: to yourself and your research, and also to your lab. To this end, conference preparation is largely concerned with executing on the following thought, “How can I get the most bang for my buck?”

Bang for buck #1 - Presenting yourself well

In terms of actual cost, this is the cheapest things you can do in terms of getting bang for your buck at a conference. Presenting yourself well refers to primarily two things: (1) grooming and appearance, and (2) having a practiced and well-prepared elevator pitch.

Grooming. Grooming and appearance should be self-explanatory. Studies have demonstrated that people that are considered dressed well and groomed well are considered more intelligent and personable than those that aren’t. In a previous post, I suggested adopting a casual to smart-casual manner of dress. This should be accompanied by an appropriate haircut and proper self-hygeine ritual. Comb your hair, brush your teeth, and change your clothes each day before you attend the conference.

Elevator Pitch. Having a well-practiced elevator pitch is essential when attending a conference. I have written about this many times before, so check out those (1). In lieu of doing that though, the elevator pitch is important because it gives you a way of introducing yourself. People are naturally inclined to label and “box” people (e.g., “Carman does domestic computing research”, or “Sheelagh is an infovis person”, or “Lora is into maker stuff”) – this helps them to remember you and to understand who you are. So, introducing yourself with a good elevator pitch helps people put you into the right kind of box and makes you memorable (even if you do not actually want to be identified with that box).

Your elevator pitch should include your name, affiliation, and a very concise but meaningful description of the kind of research that you do (e.g. your research problem/approach or thesis topic). If you do this well, your elevator pitch will lead to further questions that you can answer easier. For example, an elevator pitch I used in the past was the following:

My name is Tony Tang. I’m a PhD student from the University of British Columbia working with Dr Sid Fels. I’m studying how to design groupware for large interactive surfaces such as digital whiteboards and digital tabletops that allow people to smoothly transition between individual and group work.

You ought to be able to do better.

Note: The key in preparing an elevator pitch is not writing it down and memorizing it. Instead, it is practicing it over and over again with friends, colleagues, your supervisor, etc., taking in the feedback and modifying it to make it work for you. It should be something you can deliver smoothly in about one minute.

Having a solid elevator pitch means being able to effectively introduce yourself into a conversation.

Bang for buck #2 - Attending the right sessions

It is frustrating coming back from a conference and discovering that a paper that you should have attended, but didn’t notice. My suggestion around this is to plan each evening for the next day (at least): figure out which sessions (I usually do it at a paper level) you will be attending. This gives you a default plan that you can of course deviate from on the day of, but something that is less than haphazard.

I usually follow a 1-2-3-4 “must-should-could-meh” rating strategy. For each paper on the day, I grade it (mainly by the title and “contribution statement” – a terse 250 char description of the paper) with a four level score:

  1. MUST. These are papers (or sessions) that directly relate to the research that I am interested in right now.
  2. SHOULD. These are papers (or sessions) that are related to, but perhaps a little oblique to the research that I am doing. I also attend papers and sessions for work that I am interested in doing in the near future.
  3. COULD. These are “like to attend” items on the schedule – sometimes just because I think something is neat or sounds cool, etc.
  4. MEH. These things where, if there’s nothing better going on, I wouldn’t mind attending.

I also have an invisible rating, which means “not interested.”

By default, any paper given by a colleague or labmate is given a “1” rating. It is important to attend colleagues/labmates’ talks as a way of supporting one another. Be careful about this: it is tough to explain to someone why there is a “4” next to their paper if they happen to be borrowing your conference schedule! ;-)

The conference schedule (called a program) is traditionally given to you on paper, though increasingly, you will find them online. The paper ones allow you to annotate the schedule in place, while the online ones come with other features such as filtering/search (and some have crowdsourcing/collaboration features).

If you are at a multi-track conference, you may find that there are multiple things going on at the same time that you want to see. One way to resolve this is to attend sessions that do not have an accompanying paper (e.g. a panel), because you can always read the papers later.

Bang for buck #3 - Meeting the right people

There are three kinds of people you should be trying to meet at conferences (beyond your friends): (1) people whose work you respect and cite; (2) people who are surprisingly doing similar work to yours, and (3) everyone else! I think the first two categories are fairly obvious – I’ll get into it a bit more in my next post; however, the point is this: put yourself in situations where you will encounter these people. This means getting yourself to the right sessions (where they are presenting or likely to be attending) and even seek them out when you are in free-for-all sessions (e.g. poster/demo/reception events).

The third category is important too – people that you didn’t expect to meet. I have found these sort of weak links perhaps the most interesting to track over the years that I’ve been an academic. If you continue to be an academic, you will be surprised to discover that you are encountering the same people over and over again. And, their research interests (much as yours) will change over time. Building relationships with people (however weak) means that you will have friendly faces at future conferences. I think, of course, there is a limit to this – you do not want to be building relationships that are so weak that you can’t remember their face or name when you see them again in an hour, but again, do not be afraid of engaging.

Biggest bang for buck - Student volunteering

I strongly believe that the best experience for a student at a conference is by being a student volunteer (SV).

Being a student volunteer means that you are helping in various aspects of the conference. Many of the tasks are fairly straightforward (e.g. packing registration bags, manning the registration booth, helping to run microphones during a session, monitoring badges of attendees at the front of a conference room, etc.). Depending on the specific operation, you would be requested to work a certain number of hours at the conference (e.g. 20 hours).

For this modest amount of work, the payoffs are pretty awesome: both from a financial perspective (less buck) and from a professional and personal perspective (more bang). Financially, payoffs include free registration, (potentially) discounts on lodging (sometimes free), and (some) free meals. Professionally and personally, the payoffs are massive though: the student volunteer team is a network of students that are your peers. This network extends far beyond your labmates, and gives you access to people and researchers that no prof/supervisor can. The opportunity to SV means the opportunity get a free set of default friends (i.e. other SVs). During shifts and downtime, you can chat with these people without any obligation, make friends, etc. The stakes are very low for everyone, but the relationships you build here will be very useful later in your career. They act as contacts inside organizations both if you decide to stay in academia (i.e. for potential grad positions) or if you decide to join industry.

One other cool thing is that at the larger conferences, some of the bigger name researchers visit the SV lounge for lunch to meet and chat with the SVs. This is a cool, low-risk way of meeting people that you might be too shy to meet otherwise (I was).

I cannot emphasize this enough: if you can SV, do it.

Generally, you will need to apply to be a volunteer months in advance of the conference. Selection is done by a lottery.

A little tip on this is head to the SV desk on the first day of the conference and volunteer your services. They are often understaffed, and may hire you on the spot.

This post is one in a series of five about attending academic conferences.

My thanks to my colleague Carman Neustaedter who provided comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.