Monday, November 28, 2011

Grad Students: Conference Etiquette

Last week, I posted on Engineer Blogs how I was thankful for conferences. Ok, I know it was cheesy but I was going to post about conferences anyway. Rather than harp more on conferences, I thought I would give out some tips to graduate students/postdocs and what they should do at conferences. For more senior grad students, who've been to several (many?) conferences, this should be a no brainer, but for first-timers, conferences can be an eye opening experience.

This year, to show of my new tenure track hotness, I decided to take a few students with me. I did this for mainly three reasons. 1) I'm taken more seriously now that I have a TT position and am managing a group (personal benefit). 2) The students can really get a feel for what is relevant in the field and what sort of problems need solutions. This is something that is difficult to describe in meetings/discussions on campus but is in plain sight at conferences. 3) Students can use conferences to get new ideas, get added motivation to do good research, and can meet potential employers. There's also another added bonus for me which is once I take a few students, the next year, those students can show the new students the ropes. That ends up freeing my time because I don't have to introduce them to everyone.

Aside from that, there's other things that students should know before entering the conference arena. I'm just going to list a few main ones that come to mind.
  1. Be approachable and outgoing: At many conferences, you have people that tend to be high up in a particular field. Make sure your initial impression to someone else is that you're approachable (and outgoing if you have that personality). You never know if that someone is the head of R&D of [insert large company] or CEO of [insert company]. It's ok to be shy if you're not the outgoing type and the easiest thing to mention is that you're new to the field and that this is your first conference. That's generally a good ice breaker statement. Presumably, if you're talking to a more established person, they're going to more easy going and friendly if you mention you're new.
  2. Be excited to talk about your work: This should be a no-brainer but if you're excited and enthusiastic about your work, it will show. And like #1 says, you might be bending the ear of the head of R&D. However, if you're concerned about IP stuff with your work, make sure to ask your prof what you can and cannot say. The prof should know this but it will help you play your cards closer to your chest.
  3. Sit with different people: At conferences, there's going to be coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, and cocktail hours. Make sure to make the rounds and sit with different people at different tables. This is a surefire way to meet new people. If you have the opportunity to go out with other people than from your lab, make sure to do so. You don't have to drink (I think GMP wrote a good blog post about this but I could be wrong) if you're not a drinker. But going out with people is better than sitting in your hotel room. Trust me. I have been out with many well respected people in the field that do not drink and that's fine. Going out with people shows that you're social and you have a life outside of work.
  4. Accept the free drinks/food: Often, senior people in the field (or your prof) will pay for your drinks and/or food at a conference. Unless your university/lab has a policy against it, say thank you and accept it. If you're out in a group, someone may be able to count the meal as "business dinner" and get compensated for it. Other times, it's simply the older crowd being nice to the younger crowd. They remember what it's like to work for peanuts as a graduate student and they know conferences are expensive. If they feel like paying, let them. Your time to pay will come in a few years when you're making a real income with a real job and you're on the opposite side of the table with the new group of grad students.
  5. Find the other grad students: If you want to be active in the field, get to know the other grad students. As time goes on, these people will be your peers and can help you get a job (or find out who's hiring). If you become active in the society, they will be in planning meetings with you and it's better to be friends than mortal enemies.
  6. Take Notes on every talk and poster. Learn to know what each company is doing. Learn to know who are the higher-ups at each company. This will serve you well when you're hunting for ideas or what to talk to someone knowledgeable about a problem you're seeing.
  7. Find the universities in the area: Presumably, you're going to a conference not next door. If that's the case, search the local university's website to see who is working in a related field. If you find someone, ask your prof if they know that person (or anyone else). If you're at the point where you are presenting posters and give talks, this is a prime opportunity to resume pad. Contact that prof at the local Uni and say "i'm in town for this conference and I've never been to this town/city. I'm working in [closely related field], is it possible to get a tour of your group and see what you are doing?" Chances are, that prof will say "sure. Do you want to give a talk about your research?". And your response should be "That would be fantastic". And Boom! you've just added an invited talk to your resume. This is a great way to see how other groups operate, get new ideas, get more exposure, and those other Uni's are always looking for potential candidates. If you give a great talk, chances are you might get to come back for an interview if they're hiring in your area.
That's all of the things that I can think of at this time. Any more that I'm missing?


  1. Great post! I've never been to a conference before but I hope to attend one relatively soon when my MS thesis is done. 4 & 6 were good non-obvious pieces of advice. Thanks!

  2. Yeah, #4 isn't a no-brainer. I, at first, thought it was companies trying to bribe future potential employees (and I guess there is some of that). But most people feel some sort of nostalgia for the "poor college kid". And let's face it, if you're meeting with people that have PhDs and work in corporate R&D or are full profs, they're not hurting for money.

  3. This is true, if they're that well off spending 20 bucks to take you to lunch isn't a big deal to them. Plus it looks good on you for accepting, win win. Also I realize I had a typo before. When I said 4 & 6 were non-obvious I meant 4 & 7. I would have never thought to call a university up, ask about similar research, and potentially give a talk.

  4. Yeah, it's worked out well for me for giving talks at places that are pretty prestigious. The trick is to ask for a tour and a meet'n'greet and generally you will be asked if you want to give a talk. If you suggest giving a talk, then it doesn't count as "invited". :-D

    You can also make use of this outside of conference events. For instance, when I take trips with the family, sometimes, I can spare about 4 hours to visit a place and maybe give a talk. There's no conference or work reason to be in the area but that doesn't have to stop you.

  5. That's sneaky. I like it. I should check around universities down South by me...Good advice, I'll try and take advantage of it.