So you paper was accepted by an in-person conference or workshop, or you are lucky enough that your employer has sponsored your trip to a conference. Congratulations!
If you’re just starting out with your PhD or research career, the conferences you went to in the past were probably online-only virtual conferences. Virtual conferences are still valuable, primarily because they’re significantly more accessible and cheaper (both in terms of financial and environmental cost), but the logistics, objectives and experience of an in-person conference are very different even if the programme looks the same.
I just finished attending the 2022 edition of the North American Association of Comutational Linguistics conference, which was my first-time in-person conference! This was a very fun experience for me, but now that I’ve been, there’s a bunch of things I figured out on the fly and I wish I had known beforehand. So below follows a pile of advice that might be helpful for other first-time conference goers.
Travel and Accomadation: Most likely your institution or employer will be covering most of the cost of your travel and accomadation. However, its worth applying for any available travel grants, especially if its your first time conference, or if your institution doesn’t have a particularly generous budget for you. The grant can make the difference between having a particularly long travel time with lots of layovers and/or not being able to stay close to the venue (therefore missing out on social events versus being able to have the same experience as other people) and having a nice experience. Speaking of travel, try to book it early and if you’re travelling a long way, it may be worth checking to see if you can tack on a few extra days of personal time at the end of your trip, since you might not have the opportunity to go back to that place for a while. For accomadation, you probably want to try and stay in the same hotel that other people will be staying, since that makes post-conference socialization better. This can be expensive though, so its a tradeoff.
What to bring: Its tempting to try and take notes for talks on a laptop, but this will probably mess with your ability to focus during the talks due to the ample distractions available, plus it will likely be heavy to carry around all day. Bring your laptop to the hotel so that you can make summaries and respond to emails, but its better to make quick notes on a phone or a notepad (more on notes in a bit). If you will be presenting a poster, make sure to print it before going to the conference. At least I got caught out not doing this and ended up forking out a fortune at the print shop, as did a few other unforutnate souls who didn’t get the memo. Rolled up, an A0 poster will be larger than what can fit in a checked suitcase, so to transport it you’ll either need a poster tube (which might end up being billed as an extra item), or better yet, print a slightly smaller version of your poster or print it on cloth so that it can be folded up into a backpack.
During the conference
Taking notes: You don’t have to write down a transcript of every single thing said in a talk (there will likely be recordings or slides later on in case you really need to refer back to something). What you want to keep track of instead are things that you’d normally commit to memory but likey won’t end up there because you’re tired and are under a state of information overload. That means things like names, affiliations and what people are working on, any gossip (for example, that professor X has been trying out some stuff on topic Y), papers that people casually mention which you haven’t heard of.
Talks: Its tempting to try and go to as many talks as possible as a means to maximize information intake. This is an understandable mindset but it probably won’t get you anywhere. You’re likely to be exhausted, either from travel, or from jetlag, or from the social event the night before or from trying to listen to lots of other talks. Its hard to take in lots of information in one go. The best talks to go to are the tutorials before the conference starts, since these ones can help familiarize you with an entire area, or help to at least solidify your understanding of a particular topic. For example, at NAACL 2022 I went to the tutorials on text editing models and multimodality, both areas that I knew a little bit about and I thought had some interesting aspects, and both areas where I ended up learning that there were more recent papers with better approaches, and in the second tutorial, a more comprehensive framework to categorize the different research directions. Other than that, a good system for prioritising talks is:
- Talks that are on papers that you’ve read a fair bit in detail, and that are quite relevant to your line of work. Sometimes the author will make some extra remarks about what is actually important, or what has worked well since the paper has been published and what is a promising takeaway for future work.
- Talks by authors that have published papers which are relevant to your line of work, even if the paper isn’t so relevant. They’ll probably end up referring to their earlier works, or explain how their current line of work fits in to their earlier work in a way that you might not have considered. Plus, its a good way to meet those authors and you might be able to grab their attention after the talks are over to chat about their earlier works one-on-one.
- Talks by your friends or colleagues, especially if they are new researchers. Its nice to have an audience, and they’ll remember that you came down to support them.
Posters: This is where the real action happens. If you have the choice between going to talks or going to a poster session that is relevant to your line of work, go to the poster session. Asides from the convenience of being able to pick and choose what you’re interested instead of having to wait through talks that aren’t so relevant, posters are where you can meet the authors of relevant work one-on-one in a much more informal setting. Their poster is where they walk you through their idea and its possible to interrupt and get clarifications or have on the spot discussions about things that might be relevant or even helpful. Not only that, but other people interested in the same topic will probably be at the poster at the same time that you are and you’ll find out who they are, what they are doing and what they think might be important.
Your poster session: More people will come to your poster than you think and more people will be interested in your poster than you think. When designing your poster, try to make it simple enough that the main point it can be understood in about 10 or so seconds. Think of your poster like a billboard ad for your work. This will mean that you probably don’t end up communicating of of your findings, so you’ll need to make a judgment call about what is important for that conference. In general, images work much better than text and big text works much better than small text. And by big text I mean big text, like at least 36 point, not text that happens to be a few point sizes larger than a usual paper’s font size. Remember that everyone is tired just like you and will struggle to read a wall of text full of technical content of text hung up on a literal wall. It makes sense to print off a small copy of your poster and do a few rehearsals with your labmates to make sure that you didn’t miss anything important, for example axis labels. People will probably ask you to walk them through your poster after making a few unsuccessful attempts at trying to parse what you’ve written despite any best efforts to make it easy. Its good to rehearse this and try to keep it as simple as possible. For example you could start with a brief description of the problem that you were trying to solve or the research question that you were trying to answer and why its important, then go over what briefly prior methods have done (or talk briefly about why nobody has really looked into this), then present the solution that you came up with and how it works. You can also talk about stuff that didn’t really work as well as you would have liked. The main point of your poster session is that people who are interested in your work are going to interact with you and ask you questions. Answer their questions and try to engage in the discussion with them! It could provide some useful insight or applications of your work, or where the owrk could be extended. Take notes on these! Take notes on who asked you questions as well and ask them questions on what they’re working on or why they came to your poster. The poster is really just a starting point, the main purpose is to provide a launching point for you to meet people who are interested in your line of work, so try to make the most of it!
Hallways and Social Events: If you don’t have too much to do, you can mix with people in the hallways. Pretty much everyone in the conference isn’t going to know 99% of the people who are there, so just popping up and introducing yourself is usually fine. It helps to have an introduction which is a little funny and memorable as opposed to just introducing yourself by what you work on. In my case this was sort of done for me, since apparently I look like Noah Smith, so that became my sort of go-to line, after mentioning that I was a lost Australian living in snowy Finland. Its tempting to try and search around for big names to chat with, but usually this isn’t the best use of your time. It will feel forced and you won’t actually have all that much to talk about other than probably fanboying/fangirling about their work, which is probably a bit weird for them. Better to mix with other PhD students. Most of the time people will be working on things which are quite different, but you’ll hear lots of familiar terms and you might accidentally run into someone who is working in the same domain. Make sure to take notes once you talk to someone, eg, what you talked about and if there was any interesting information they gave to you. Hanging out in the hallways is also a good idea just before lunch or dinner time, since then people will naturally form groups to head out for a bit.
Networking: Networking is really the main difference between the online conferences and the in-person ones. However, to introverts like me (and probably like many other students), networking is a bit of a scary term since it feels like artificial and forced social interaction. I think a better way to think about this is making friends. This implies two things, first that when talking to people, maybe you will talk about work a little bit, but most of your time is better off spent talking about other random things, for example sharing stories or anecdotes, funny gossip, what you think of the place that youre in, things you do outside of work, where you’re from, what you want to do after you’re done with your PhD. If you’re not sure what to talk about, a good ice breaker is to ask people where they live or where they’re from and then bring up some story or quirky thing you’ve heard about that place. The second thing making friends implies that you will want to hang out with the same people multiple times so that you can make more of this kind of talk or go to activities and social events together. Finally, making friends means following up. One thing that is probably a little underrated is offerring to help people out who are more junior than you. For example, there are a lot of bachelor or master students working as RAs attending conferences these days and they’re likely to feel a bit out of their depth as they apply for PhD programmes or jobs. Offer to review their applications or give suggestions about places that might be worth applying to! This kind of help doesn’t go forgotton.
After the conference
After the conference, try to get some rest. You’ll be exhausted, probably even by day three before the workshops have started. Make contact with all the people who you kept a note of and thank them for taking the time to chat with you and offer to stay in touch. Write a blog post or two as a way of decompressing what you’ve done. Type up interesting things you had in your notes or things to follow up on. Chat to your supervisor about all the gossip that you heard or the people that you met and what they’re working on, since they’re most likely keeping up to date in the field by following second hand information such as that coming from yourself.
Finally, try to be grateful for the experience you had that week. You would have met lots of new people, learned about all sorts of new and exciting stuff and hopefully made a few friends along the way. I’m certainly grateful for my time at NACCL 2022 and I’m hoping to submit something to another ACL conference soon so that I can meet everyone again!