How to Hack a Conference

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research

It’s about time to begin to think about professional conference travel. This is the time of year where you ask yourself, ‘What kind of things do I have to share next years conferences?’ and ‘Where do I want to go?’ and “What does one do at a conference?’

The reality is that HOW DO YOU DO A CONFERENCE really well is not written down anywhere. It’s really folk knowledge. Its knowledge experts share it in dark corners with mirrors, standing in the fog out on some deck somewhere close to the ocean on the pier secretly sharing how to Thomas Friedman Lecturinghack a conference.

So with that, what goes on at conferences? One of the main things that you see at conferences are keynote talks, or sometimes they are called plenary talks, sometimes they are called prize award wining talks and these are talks by real leaders in the field, or people you really want to hear from. Maybe they are very famous book authors, or maybe they are very famous scientists the organization has either given them a lot of money to come give a talk, or they have given them awards. Conferences sometimes attract big name speakers by saying, “in order for you to come get this $1000 award or this $5000 life achievement award or this $10,000 mentoring award, you actually have to come to the conference and give a talk.” And these are always very well attended. Usually there is nothing else going on at the conference at the same time, so everybody from the conference is usually there. It’s in a giant ballroom that can have 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000 people in them. That’s a pretty important part of many conferences.

Now that’s not the only thing going oGiving a not so well attended contributed talkn at a conference. In a big conference you may only have 4 of these sorts of highlighted, but most of the time, time at the conference is given to what are called contributive talks. These are much, much shorter talks and these talks are not given to rooms of thousands of people. These are talks given to rooms that may have 1000 chairs but have far fewer people in them.

Here is a picture of a contributed talk at the American Geophysical Union. This is where you can speak most often: in general you are standing at a podium a long way away from the audience using a remote control to run a screen that you can’t actually see, to a group of people who are only really there because they also are giving talks in that session and they were too embarrassed to walk in late and they didn’t want to walk out of yours. So there could be contributing talks, or papers they are called, are kind of the mainstay of the conference. And in general these things are not very well attended.  How many people are in attendance is in no way a reflection of how good the talk is or how important it is, which is as odd as it sounds.

Now, in addition to talks, you will often find poster sessions going on. These are really science fairs for adults. And whether your conference you are going to has more papers being presented or more posters really depends on the nature of the conference.

At some conferences, the poster session is where it’s at. Everything goes on at the poster session. Everybody meets at the poster session. There can be beer served at the poster session. There can be free food are the poster session. On the other hand, at some conferences there’s almost no poster session whatsoever and everything is done in the form of contributive talks and contributive papers.

Consider AGU, American Geophysical Union. The AGU has about 20,000 people show up at its conference. It is a very large conference. There are about 12,000 posters being presented at this conference, in a giant warehouse, all at the same time. Posters generally go up all day long. In general, some conferences will assign times you need to stand by your poster. The conference organizers will say, “be at your poster from 10 in the morning until 11:30.” Or, “be at your poster from 4:30 to 6:30 pm.”

Highly Social Poster Session at AGU Or sometimes they won’t assign them times at all. But what people will do is they will self-assign times. So right in the middle of that screen there is a sign that says poster #833 and beneath that is a piece of paper. And on that piece of paper it will say, “I will be at the poster from blank to blank.” and people write down what times they are going to be there.

For conferences like the AGU, or the American Astronomical Society, these poster session is where much of the the socializing happens. People just go and hang out in the poster sessions. They may not be looking at your poster but that is the place where people get together and chat. So poster sessions are really, really good stuff. It’s where a lot of socializing happens.

Something else you may notice about the poster session are there are these brown envelopes hanging on the wall. These brown envelopes hanging on the wall are business envelopes where people have made photocopies of their poster, on 8 ½ by 11, and have them there for people to take. Sometimes people also pin business cards around the bottom for you to take. Or you can have post it notes sitting there and tell people to write notes about the poster and stick them on the poster right there. That way it was kind of a way for them to graffiti a poster, if you will.

At the poster sessions, that poster sessions are often places where you can run into somebody famous. Somebody who is walking around maybe it is someone who has written a paper that you really like. Maybe it’s somebody who’s giving a talk that you are really interested in. Maybe it’s somebody you think would be good on a committee of yours. And these are places you can often find them wandering around and not talking to anybody.

You should feel completely free to walk up to those and talk to them. You can usually tell in the first thirty seconds if they are conversationalists or not. What I wouldn’t recommend doing, though, is going up and interrupting a conversation. It is usually best to try to catch them in between conversations. Which can be a bit of a trick to doing that. If are looking to meet famous people who are just wandering around that you really want to meet, and you really do want to meet these people, poster sessions are the way to do that.

Presenting a poster is a low stress way of presenting the kinds of things you are working on. Because, if you get nervous and you feel like going somewhere else, you can always just leave, but your poster is still there. And you get to talk to people on your own speed. Most people come up and they are looking at your poster and they’ll look at it for a little while and then they’ll say, “hey could you tell me about this?” it gives you a chance to interact with people at the level and depth that you want to practice talking to people

So those are the three really big things that happen at conferences, the plenary invited talks that everybody goes to, the contributive papers that the speakers go to, and they can be anywhere from six minutes, which is very, very short to thirty minutes, which is relatively long, and then there are poster sessions that sometimes last all day. And all three of these things are very different ways of sharing science at a conference.

Conference Panel SessionsBeyond the big three, another thing that happens at conferences are panel discussions. And you probably saw this in your reading. Panel discussions are where you get a series of experts together to present their views and argue with each other. Specifically, they talk to one another and let the rest of the audience listen in about what’s going on.

Now, for my nickels, panel discussions in and of themselves are just ‘ok’ things to listen to. What’s really important is if you are able to become the organizer of one of those panel discussions. What happens if you are the moderator is you get to interact with each of these speakers and you get to get together with them early, maybe meet an hour and a half before the session and have coffee with them.

Even better, if everyone is able to be there the night before, what you do is you have a panel dinner where everybody gets together at a restaurant. You get to pick the restaurant. Everybody pays their own way and you get to spend an hour and a half eating drinking and having conversations with really important people in the field who are experts at the kind of things you would want to pay attention to. So panel discussions are really, really neat things to put together because it allows you to get to know people you wouldn’t otherwise get to know.

Meetings are really for networking. They’re really, really for meeting people. That’s why they are called meetings. So I encourage you to take advantage of as many of these avenues things as you possibly can.

Slide08In addition, many conferences also offer half-day workshops, or full day, or once in a while even two-day workshops. At CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, we tend to offer a lot of workshops because this is a good place to get to spend a lot of time sharing research ideas you have, sharing the instructional strategies you’ve been working, and on getting to know people pretty well. Often these workshops are run by book publishers, by computer programming software people, even by hardware telescope people who often are going to be running workshops—and often you get free stuff. So that’s usually a good reason to go. Usually you get free coffee.

Sometimes you can get free breakfast and free lunch. So workshops are often a good thing. They usually do charge a little extra to go to these workshops usually to cover the cost of coffee and registration. And it’s going to cost an extra night or two of hotel rooms, but again I happen to think all day conferences is a really good way to get in-depth study of a particular kind of thing.

Long registration lines are common at too many conferencesNow in addition to the plenary talks, and the contributive talks, and the poster sessions, and the pre-conference workshops, one of the things you are going to find are really, really annoying very long registration lines. Why is it a bunch of scientists who pride themselves on speed and efficiency can’t figure out how to do fast registration? I just don’t know.

Some places you are able to get your registration information before you get there or download it online and can avoid these long lines. If there is anyway at all you can avoid these long lines you need to figure out a way to do it. Every conference is a little bit different in how you pull that off. Sometimes of you go really early or really late or sometimes in the middle of the day or sometimes even if you wait half a day before going and registering all those things can help.

Conference Booklet or App? You decideBut when you get to the front of this very long line they give you a whole bunch of promotional material that you really aren’t interested in and you really don’t need. Usually they give you a really big heavy meeting booklet.

Recently, some conferences have started figuring out how to do apps. iPad apps, iPhone apps, Android apps and these are really, really cool things, because you get all your information, you can go through it and figure out exactly what you would like to do and schedule things out so you know where you are going when.

So as soon as you get your big book, or get your app, the first thing you want to do is spend some time going through it. And you want to pick, throughout the day, two things that you would like to do. You always want to have a first choice and a second choice. The reason you want to have a first choice and a second choice is sometimes you go to the room of your first choice and it will be completely full and you just can’t get in, so you want your second choice.

Sometimes what you’ll want to do is you’ll want to go into your first choice and it really, really is terrible. That speaker is just awful and so then you will want to be able to go to your second choice. But sometimes you won’t get to your first choice or get to your second choice because you are busy meeting with somebody out in the hallway that you have always been wanting to meet or you are going to spend all meeting figuring out how to meet. So you are just going to miss half the stuff you want to do. That’s just the way it is.

Some things are video taped, or audio taped, or digitally recorded and put onto websites. Most are not. But again, you want to be sure you do a lot of preplanning, because if you are sitting there at 8 o’clock trying to figure out what you want to do at eight thirty you are going to be in a real mess. So take some time, even if it’s just a half hour away, to get that stuff figured out.

What’s most important when you register is getting your name badge. The name badge serves a bunch of really important functions. One function it serves is it has your name on it. And if you wear it and you are walking around then people can talk to you and call you by name and even remember your name.

Your name badge probably also has a barcode on it. And that barcode, whether it is a barcode or QR code, is very useful because when you go to the exhibit hall, which we’ll talk about here in just a minute, vendors can zap your barcode and they have you on record and they can send you free stuff and add you on their mailing list, which of course you can delete. But often you get free stuff.

Slide11So your name and your location is on your name badge. And then underneath your name tag, at some conferences, they have a bunch of crazy stickers on there. These stickers are very, very important. Because these stickers, sometimes you get them at the registration desk, sometimes you get them as you are wandering around the conference, these are great conversation starters. If you see someone you would like to talk to, and you have no idea how to start a conversation ask them about one of their badges, stickers, even if you know what it means, ask them about it, because people seem to wear things pretty proudly.

Reminds me of the old Steve Martin bit. He was doing movie called LA Story about living in Los Angeles and there is a particular scene where he is sitting at a dinner party next to this women and the person next to her goes, “hey did you know that Susan is taking courses in conversation?” Steve Martin goes, “Really? That’s fantastic!” and the lady who is taking the courses says, “Yes.” So remember you are dealing with scientists. And so scientists often aren’t very good at conversations so these things will help you help them to have a conversation.  The bottom line here is that I recommend you take your name badge very, very seriously.

In addition, your name badge will get you into receptions. There are a gazillion receptions that go on at these conferences and they are characterized by two things. Number one, they are characterized by expensive drinks, I mean like $8.00, $10.00, $12.00 for a beer, and often free food. Let me put the emphasis on free food. Now notice that there are a gazillion people there. They eat that free food really fast. So if the reception starts at 6:00 don’t show up fashionably late at 6:20. Show up there at 5:55 get your free food and then head over to the bar to get yourself an expensive drink, because there is another reception starting at 7:30 and you want to make sure you are ready for that reception at 7:25. Again the free food things don’t last for very long, but you can reception hop, to reception hop, to reception hop.

You don’t want to have your backpack with you; you don’t want to have your coat with you, or your briefcase. You may not even want to have your purse with you; because things are tight they are crowded. You don’t want to carry anything. They are typically noisy but everybody is there and it is a great place to meet people.

Slide12And if you tell people you are a graduate student sometimes people will buy you drinks. I have been telling people I am a graduate student for years just to get free drinks. No not the bartenders. The bartenders won’t give you free drinks, but often whomever you are talking to will because they will take pity on a poor graduate student.

Now one of the things I should point out here is the way you purchase drinks here is very strange in some cities. In general, you do not give the bartender money. In general, there is somebody standing next to the bartender that you give money to and that person then gives you a ticket and you go stand in the bar line and buy drinks from them. Why this is true I just don’t know.

But you want to be alert to when these receptions are and when they are going to be, because they often aren’t advertised. So put on your eavesdropping ears when you hear people say, “Hey I can’t meet you because I have to go to such and such reception.” That is defiantly where you want to be, at the reception. So don’t miss the reception. It’s most often code for ‘free food.’

Let’s talk about something that is perhaps surprising to you–exhibit halls. In addition to plenary talks, invited talks, poster sessions, panel discussions, and standing in long lines, and going to receptions, there are exhibit halls. The exhibit halls, I’ve got to tell you, are where I spend most of my time. These are where you get to meet famous people, you get to talk to book authors. Many of these booths have free stuff. Maybe its free books, maybe its free pencils, maybe its free mouse pads, maybe who knows what kinds of things are there.

Exhibit hallThese exhibit halls at some conferences that are very small; it will take you five minutes to walk through. Or some places, like NSTA, can be incredibly large and they will take you literally eight hours to get through. Some conferences have not only has commercial vendors, but also have a lot of scientific equipment vendors. And so it is often really fun to go through and see the telescopes, see the compasses, and see the geodesic domes, all kinds of crazy things that you have. It’s a really, really good place to spend quite a bit of time.

One of the reasons it’s a good place to spend quite a bit of time is often they have free food, free coffee, and at places like AGU they will often have free beer. And I don’t mean cheap beer I mean really good beer.

And you can get free books sometimes too. All you need to do is go to a publisher who publishes books for courses you teach (or someday might teach). You can say, “Hey I am in the market for a new book. I’m teaching this new class next fall. I’ve never taught this geology class or this astronomy class, I’ve never taught this chemistry class and I’m trying to decide what book to use.” Often you let them write your name down and your email address they will give you free copies of books.

Stephanie J Slater doing an author signing in a vendor boothNow for those of you who have been in the K-12 world, those conferences do not often give away free books to teachers like they will in a college world. In higher education world, in college university science world free books flow like water. So you can often get free books there. The authors are often standing there during beer time. So you can go by talk with them, you can have them sign your books for you. Which is really kind of a fun thing to do. Sometimes, they will even sign your books for you, which is very cool.

Really, don’t miss the exhibit halls, just find out from people what time the free beer is served. You don’t want to be there at one o’clock and get yourself all worn out if the free beer isn’t there until five o’clock. Some serve ice cream during the day!

Finally on the last day of the conference the last hour of the conference vendors are not allowed to pack up anything early, but they start looking at all the books, all the materials that they have there and they are saying, “you know what? I really don’t want to ship all this stuff home.” And many vendors will start giving you stuff. They will give you aquariums. They will give you posters. They will give you books. They will give you butterflies. They will give you hermit crabs. They will often give a lot of stuff away during the last hour. So if you have something’s that you want, that you would like to have but you don’t want to pay for, go to the exhibit hall on the last afternoon and politely poke around.

My heart in San FranciscoAnd you know to be completely honest part of going to conferences also has to do with where you are going. The AGU conference where many of these pictures were taken was in San Francisco. It happens in December. It happens right before Christmas, so everything is completely decorated for Christmas. This is Union Square in San Francisco. You can see pictures, excuse me, you can see all the windows of Macy’s all which have giant wreaths in them. They also have puppies in the windows from the humane society. San Francisco is also famous for the number of homeless people it has and the creative ways that they have to chat with you and make you feel uncomfortable.

If you go year after year, you get to hang out with friends that you’ve known a long time. If your family gets to go with you, you get to go to really fantastic beautiful places and do science at the same time. So you cant ignore this idea of traveling. I think that’s a pretty important thing to remember that traveling does happen. And you should take in some of the sights.

You don’t want to skip the meetings to do those things, but what I would recommend is if you want to go explore a city you haven’t been before to go early to do your exploration. Because by the end of the conference you are so tired you are not going to want to the zoo or go see anything.

You really should try to find a way to get to one professional conference a year, even if it has to come out of your own pocket. Because at these professional conferences that’s where people are giving talks about papers that won’t be published for eighteen more months. It’s where a chance to meet people for research collaborations, for committee assignments, for people to write you external letters for review.

How to pay for a conferenceBut, cost is a real issue. Some conferences allow you to volunteer to cut down on registration costs. Others cut the cost if you sign up early. Registration at some of these meetings can be extremely expensive. If you are a member of that society often you get a big discount break, but if your university is paying for your trip they will not pay for your membership. So some people will not join an organization, go ahead and pay for the higher cost registration because their university doesn’t reimburse them for the cost of a membership.

Another strategy is to share a hotel room. For me, the hotel room is the most expensive part of these conferences, particularly if you stay in the conference hotel. Sometimes right next door to the conference hotel there is a Best Western or a Hampton Inn, which can be half the price. Often the lower price hotels have free breakfast. The lower price hotels often have free Internet. Because people who go to the five star hotels have budgets to pay for their Internet, pay for their parking and to pay for their breakfast. Often you get a better deal both food wise and price wise if you can find a cheaper hotel next door, as long as you feel safe.

What to do at a conferenceWe have talked about invited talks, contributive talks, poster sessions, exhibit halls, panel discussions, registration lines, name badges, program booklets, program apps, and how to find free beer, and how talk to people. That’s a lot to manage; and it’s totally worth it!

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