My Tips for Attending Academic Conferences

May 25, 2014

An important aspect of research is to attend conferences, as these are events that allow researchers to stay up to date on the recent progress in their field, meet and network with peers and present own research.

Conferences thus come with opportunities for bringing home new knowledge and ideas as well as new relations and potential collaborators, and as someone new in research, Ph.D. students have to learn how to get the most out of traveling away for conferences.

I recently attended my first two larger conferences (SPIE Photonics Europe 2014 in Brussels and META’14 in Singapore), and I decided to summarize what worked well and what didn’t work so well in preparing, attending and evaluating the conferences – to be able to make even more of conferences I’ll be going to in the future. And since I believe some of these experiences might be of interest to fellow Ph.D. students and other researchers, I decided to share them in this blog post.

The points I’ll be covering are the following:

Before the conference

During the conference

After the conference

  • Go through your notes and summarize important concepts, ideas, results and references
  • Send follow-up e-mails to people you talked to
  • Before the conference

    Prepare your presentation before departure

    I prefer to have my presentation done before I leave for the conference, so that I don’t need to spend time during the conference to finish it. During the conference, I’ll be busy hearing presentations, talking to and discussing with peers and reading references from presentations, and I prefer to focus my energy on these things and not on having to finish my presentation.

    Bring business cards

    I actually think business cards are quite old-fashioned in these digital ages, and I would never dream of storing those I get in paper form. But they are a very efficient way of giving people just the information they need to get in touch with you.

    At the most recent conference I went to, I had a chat with someone who wanted to know more about my work. He asked if I had written about it, and it was convenient that I could pull out my business card and add an arXiv reference, so that he got the information he needed to find more details about our work.

    Bring your laser pointer

    Even if you are not going to a conference, you should own a laser pointer/slide shifter for all the presentations you’ll be giving on your research. And when you go to a conference, bring it so that you can use it for your presentation.

    With a laser pointer/slide shifter you are a lot more free and don’t need to stand right next to the computer you are presenting from – which gives better and more naturally flowing presentations.

    At the first conference I went to, they had laser pointers that, however, couldn’t change slides, and at the second conference nothing was provided – so in both cases I was happy I brought my own.

    Bring your tablet

    When I attend presentations and seminars back home, I bring my iPad for writing notes (see My Digital Workflow), and at conferences I do the same. The iPad is lighter than my laptop and thus easier to carry around, and since I don’t want to do work that is more easily done back home, I don’t need my laptop while I’m at the conference.

    For the conferences I attended this year, I brought my laptop for reviewing and rehearsing my presentations – using also my laser pointer – but I left the laptop at the hotel and only brought my iPad for the conference venues. If you prefer to write notes in a notebook, this is also an option, but for me the iPad is the perfect tool for writing notes, reading and answering e-mails, looking up references, and bringing all my reference material, and I therefore encourage you to bring it if you have one – and otherwise to acquire one.

    During the conference

    Make a schedule for presentations to hear each day

    At the first conference I went to this year, I used the app developed by the organizers for scheduling my program during the conference. I read through the titles and abstracts and plugged in the ones I wanted to hear, and on my iPhone and iPad I could then see the schedule with all relevant information (title, location, time etc.).

    Many conferences don’t offer this kind of app, and at the second conference I had to come up with my own way of organizing the schedule during the conference. Inspired by the app, I read through titles and abstracts and marked the ones I found interesting. Then, in Evernote, I noted my schedule (time, type of talk [plenary, keynote, invited, contributed], location, title, presenter, page number in program) and gave each presentation an identifier (e.g., II.b.3 for the third presentation in section b on the second day).

    In my experience, it can be a good idea to only schedule the first day before the conference starts: On the first day, you’ll become familiar with the conference venue and how far apart different presentation rooms or auditoria are. If distances between the rooms are large, this has to be kept in mind when scheduling presentations at adjacent time slots and in different rooms.

    During the day, I used my schedule to know what presentations I would go to when, and in my notes during the presentations I used the assigned identifier instead of writing out the title and presenter name. As I write my conference review in Evernote after the conference, it is convenient for me to have the schedule in Evernote, but it can obviously also be done using other software or on paper.

    Schedule some free time

    It is more important to have energy and awareness for the important presentations than to hear as many presentations as possible. This should be obvious, but I nevertheless wasted some time and energy because I felt I had to attend some presentations during almost all sessions, even when none of them were highly relevant for my work.

    One way to stay productive when there are no important and interesting presentations is to review your notes from previous presentations and look up potentially relevant references. This is something that needs to get done anyway.

    Approach other participants to discuss their and your work

    As mentioned in the introduction, conferences are at least as much about networking and talking to peers as it is about hearing and giving presentations. At the first conference, I talked to an experienced researcher who said that for him attending conferences is all about networking!

    In scheduling your program, note in particular if there are people that give presentations on topics similar to your own work. If yes, go and listen to their presentations and approach them afterwards to present yourself. In my experience, people are very keen on discussing and explaining their work, and additionally this is a chance to tell about your work – and to encourage them to attend your presentation.

    At the second conference, I talked to two people that work on topics similar to mine, and I did as described above – and ended up discussing with them several times during the conference.

    Likewise, if I hear an interesting presentation on a topic that is not exactly mine, but still related, I approach the presenters, introduce myself and have a small chat about their work and its perspectives. I don’t have any particular goal with this kind of interaction, other than to meet people and informally discuss research with them.

    Send follow-up e-mails to people you talked to

    If it makes sense, then send follow-up e-mails to people you talked to to express your interest in their work or in their opinion or advice on your own work. Ask clarifying questions about their presentation or journal articles or forward them your own presentation or article(s).

    This can also be done after the conference, but if you do it during the conference, there might be a chance to discuss things in person during the conference.

    Live tweet from the conference

    I like to tweet interesting slides or quotes from presentations or other things that come to my mind during the conference. This is a way to share with the world what is going on during the conference, and since I save all my tweets in Evernote, I simultaneously keep these details stored for later reference.

    For example, I liked several of Eli Yablonovitch’s slogans during his plenary talk at META’14 and therefore tweeted some of these.

    Don’t work on things that are more easily done back home

    As mentioned previously, there are plenty of things to do during a conference – presentations to hear, people to talk to and new references to look up – and this can all be pretty tiring.

    On the other hand, your work at the office or in the lab back home doesn’t get anywhere while you are at the conference, and it can be tempting to try to get some of this done, e.g. at night.

    In my experience, however, this is not necessarily a good idea. At the second conference, I spent some hours one evening at doing some work from back home, and it ended up taking longer than expected and I didn’t manage to finish it – maybe because I was tired after a long day at the conference.

    Smaller things, like answering e-mails and scheduling meetings, can quickly be done, but in the future I’ll avoid to start working on more comprehensive tasks that are more easily done when I’m back home at my office.

    Go and explore the place or city you are visiting

    If the conference is being held somewhere you haven’t been to before, then don’t forget to schedule some time to go and explore the place or city. This can be in the evening or in the morning or afternoon if there are no important presentations to hear.

    This is obviously not directly related to your work, but is personally rewarding, and will also serve as a break so that you are mentally and energetically ready for the important presentations during the conference.

    For the first conference (Brussels), I didn’t schedule any time before or after the conference, but took time in the evening and one afternoon to walk around in the city centre. For the second conference (Singapore), I scheduled some days before and after the conference to visit the city as a tourist, and also spent one or two evenings during the conference to explore it further.

    After the conference

    Go through your notes and summarize important concepts, ideas, results and references

    After the first conference, I went through my notes and did a small summary of the presentations that were most relevant for my work and the work in my group. I noted one or a few main points from the presentations and in particular also noted related references, to be able to find out more if needed.

    I wrote this summary primarily for myself, but also forwarded it to my supervisors, of which at least one of them found a few interesting points and references. Also, going through the notes may make you aware of an interesting or unclear point from a presentation, which, as discussed in the next section, may be a reason to get in touch with the presenter.

    Send follow-up e-mails to people you talked to

    If you didn’t get in touch with relevant people at the conference – either in person or via e-mail – then right after is a good moment, while people still have the conference fresh in the memory.

    Likewise, going through your notes after the conference might make you aware of an interesting or unclear point in one of the presentations, and this would also be a reason to get in touch with people that presented at the conference.

    The important tips that I forgot

    All the above points are my tips for preparing, attending and evaluating conferences, but I most likely forgot something – which I will add when I think of them. Also, feel free to share your own tips in the comments below for what worked well – or didn’t work well – when you attended a conference.

1 thought on “My Tips for Attending Academic Conferences

  1. Vishal srivastava

    This article is really exhaustive discussion much needed for a guy planning for moving to a conference. Recently I tried to share my own experiences about conferences and what they needed to be a successful event for your research life for showcasing your ideas and meeting and networking potential collaborators. I hope you would like my list posted here-


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