How to improve your conference experience as a junior graduate student

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I just finished the biggest annual conference in statistics, Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM). Such annual national conferences are normally very busy and could be extremely overwhelming to junior people who don’t have a lot of national conference experience. I recall the first time I attended JSM, I felt extremely terrible. I didn’t know thing, about both the talks and the utility of the conference. Frankly speaking, I thought it would be a great networking experience to talk to the big names, which possibly can get me to a good grad school. (That was during the time I was applying for Ph.D. programs) I was completely wrong, at least about my personal capability of networking. Hence, by the time the conference ended that year, I thought it was a completely nightmare, and was complete traumatized. I missed the next 5 years’ JSM until this year. In those 5 years, I turned to ENARs, which is a slightly smaller conference concentrating on biostatistics. This year, I had some work spare to present and decided to presented at JSM. Surprisingly, I had fun at the conference that I used to fear (not that extreme) even in the virtual form. I also imagine I could have more fun if it was in-person, besides its in Settle. With such drastic comparison, I would like to re-visit my nightmare experience and put the myself now in the old shoes to see what could I have done to improve my national conference experience. I hope this could help other junior graduate students to have better experience during their first national conference, and don’t live the nightmare I had.

The rest of this blog is arranged in the order of preparation for conference and attending the conference. I mostly will offer help from the perspective that you are there merely as the audience, i.e. don’t have the duty to give talks/chair sessions. At the end, I will talk about what you can do to involve in the conference more actively.

Preparing for conferences as an audience

  • Do your research

    The most basic fact: you have to know about the conference to attend it. Hence, when entering your graduate program, ask your advisors, mentors and senior students, what conference there are in the field, when those are. Most professional conferences are annual and happen at the roughly same time of each year, so you can plan.

    From here on, we assume we have a conference of target and know we will participate it, either as someone who paid for the registration/admission/ticket or not. Most of conferences, particularly national ones, will not check for registration for the talks. I advice students to pay for registration of the conference as possible, since you could participate programs other than talks. Or at least you don’t have to feel sneaky or inferior. There are many ways to pay for registration fee, most commonly discounted registration fee for students/student members, travel grant and scholarship of the conference, mentoring programs, sponsorship from your department, your mentor, your professor. Sponsorship could be tricky depending if you will present or not, but just ask everybody, shameless and relentlessly. Most faculties who have money would like to sponsor students to go to conferences. Back to the main topic, the bottom line is that you now know you will participate the conference.

    With a target conference, you need first to decide if you have something to present in your hand. Think about do you need to prepare an abstract or a mansucript? Do you have a reasonable timeline? Have a discussion with your advisor and see what suggestions she/he offer.

    Next part, know what program/ round table discussion / short course the conference offer. Professional conference normally have mentoring programs that offer a lot of perks: scholarships, free registration to the conference, 1-on-1 mentoring. It could benefit you more than financially. For programs, look out to those new researcher/junior participants mixer, those provides a lot of network oppurtunities. Sometimes, mentors will be with their mentees in those junior people mixers. Also you don’t get a lot of pressure by attending the newbie mixers. There are also many professional development programs, either as recruiting events or company info sessions happeniing during the professional conferences, where you can get free food/swag and fast interview for your internship or next job. Lastly, the short courses are something you should be consider registering. First of all, you can use to learn a topic in a concentrated time instead of over a semester. Secondly, it is a great networking oppurtunities. You can at least connect with the instructor of the course, which is an expert on the topic. It is a great oppurtunity to build an external reputation for possible recommendation in the future if you made a good impression.

  • Know your aims

    I think this is the most important point to adjust among all. Set up a reasonable expectation for the conference is utterly important. However, what do I mean by reasonable is very individualized. I can not give you an example of reasonable expectation. However, I can provide you some rediculuous unreasonable example I had. For example, in my first conference expereience, I wanted to talk to several of the big names in the field I know. They will be extremely busy during the conference, mentoring their students, giving and attending talks, business, leadership meetings, catching up with personal friends. Besides, you are not the only one who want to talk to the big names. So as long as you are yet having a good understanding of their research, a good idea to propose, or established relationship. It is hard to catch up with many of them. In comparison, it would be fairly to ask for mentorship/ connection with a junior faculties. Also, some of them are right out of the school, and they understand you struggle better and willing to treat you as peer instead of students. That makes big difference. Also, another expectation that is reasonable is to understand every single talk you attend. It is just very unrealistic as a junior graduate student, particularly in the theoretical ones. One simple reason is that some talk have a very deceptive name. A good expectation I will encourage is low expectations. Just talk with one faculty in an external institution, make connections with students in other institution. Aim high, but start low.

  • Find your supporting network

    The first time I attended the national conference, I was sort of alone myself. I don’t handle well and back then I dont communicate well (I was very shy and unsecure). I can’t remember when my “friends” (The PhD student that more senior in the department but I don’t know well.) coming or leaving the conference together, and I have to take greyhound back to school alone. So in advance, plan the travel, ask to travel with your classmates together. There are also many other ways, to form your support network, such as schedule meals with your old friends who are in the same field, somebody you meet during the conference, and most importantly, you advisors/mentors. Ask them if they can mentor you about conference during a meal, or if they can introduce you to other people. The key is be proactive. The least you can do is ask you department chair, if you can be responsible for planning a department happy hour during the conference. The reason why I particularly mentioned to ask to have a meal with your advisor and mentor is that to get to know them as person instead of idol. Particularly after couple drinks, they may tell you anecdotes about their first conference experience or grad school, which could be suppurisinly interesting. It is an amazing experience when you having drinks as friends, even though its not gonna happen to everyone. You need to read the room a little bit. particularaly the part of travel alone. Go ask a lab mate, or a old friend of yours. The least you can do is to ask to hang out with your advisor, telling she/he that if you can simply observe how she/he attend conference, at least the first day to ease in. There are many ways to find your supporting network. If you have friends

  • Sign up for mentoring programs
    Most professional conferences offers mentoring programs. Mentoring program is a great place to know about the conference or you field in general. You will meet people who don’t have deep grasp on how the society works and ask the questions that you don’t have to be feeling emberassed to ask, since trust me somewhere in the room, somebody is bearing the exactly the same question as you are. Most importantly, you are gaining perspectives. Sometimes you may not encourter a range of questions yet, but those questions are waiting in front of your without letting you know. Your peers may be experiencing the problems and the answer to those questions can help you easily overcome your future hurdles.

    Some other perks of program include limited scholarship which will help you with your registration fees and traveling. Some mentoring program offers 1-on-1 mentoring, where you can meet a every established people in the field, where you can ask about expereince and also professional advancement oppurntunites.

  • Spend some money

    Money is a scarce resourse for graduate student. Hence, normally we would make every penny worth it, or worse, even when we have the money, we would wait until necessary. This thinking could probably hinder you from success in the future. If you could afford, consider registering short courses or some other workshops.

    Meanwhile, book a good flight or good hotel, find a good restaurant to try out. Conference is not the best time to work hard, instead of enjoy your life. Don’t have to think about making PBJ every of your meal during your conference unless you have to or enjoy it every much. Try to indulge yourself a little bit.

    A anecdote. I was attending ENAR couple years ago with limited funding, \$400 from a travel grant. I talked to the department for help, but not explicitly. Since the conference was in another city (Philly) . The 400 dollars barly can cover the travel and lodging. The first thing I arrived Philly was going to the local grocery store and buy grocery. I was making sandwich for meals. Even when the conference ends, I had couple apples and half box of spinnich. I was using them as a meal at the airport. When I got back and got to the financial staff in the department, they asked me the receipts for meals. I told them I was making sandwich the whole time, they laughed at me and told me I had another 400 dollars to spend in addition to the travel grant. I could have enjoy my “free” meals. So ask your department for help and be explicit how much support you got. At least enjoy your meal and save your receipts.

  • Prepare you CV

    As previously discussed, most professional conference have professional development component. It could be either some form of training or recruiting events. So prepare your professional packet and attend the recruiting events. The benefit of the recruiting events is they will provide on-site interviews, and its much easier to find a inter/job than applying online.

Attending the conference

  • Mental preparation

    There are couple perspective to prepare the conference mentally. First of all, depending on the size of the conference, there could be overwhelming amount of people in the conference venue. The venue would be crowded and people having conversation everywhere. If you don’t enjoy crowd like me, you may need to prepare that mentally.

    Secondly, prepare that there are great people whose work seems awesome than you. Using JSM as an example, there are many theoretical statistician participating JSM and will deliver talks about cutting edge theory in statistics. I as a methodologists do notunderstand most of what they are talking about. personally, I feel frustrated about it. and Be prepared about the feeling of frustration and use it positively. Also, if you think you are a good presenter, there are a lot of people out there, looks similar age as you are, but doing much job then you are. Don’t be discouraged, use it as motivation.

    Sometimes, it could be the other way around, you think you can totally understand somebody’s work and even think it is too easy to present. This is the time you should adjust yourself. Do you really understand the talk? Can you actually improve on it? At the time I would suggest you to drop you ego and have a conversation with the person. Sicnerely and politely provide critics. It may develop to a collaboration in the future. And this is also how you can network with others, make friend and build you external reputation.

  • No shame, be brave

    As a junior researcher, I always have deep shame burried in my hurt. Is my question too stupid? Is my research too easy? Is my question worth asking? This imposter symdrom questions is really harmful to one’s career development? If you didn’t ask a question because of you are doubting youself, you are essitially losing a great oppurtunity to network with somebody. A counter intuitive question, would you rather answer a easy quesiton or hard question during a presentation? I think most people will prefer the prior. Same thing to the expert. Secondly, answer a question can reflect the level of professional of a person. If a person think you question too simple to answer, the person is just not professional, which is rare in a professional environment. Hence regardless what you heart tell you, if you have a question, just ask in public or private. You can always wait until the end of the meeting and talk the presentor in private, or send a DM in virtual format. The least you can do is send an Email to ask for an answer. However, it is not as efficient as asking the quesion in person.

  • Ask, ask, ask

    What I mean by “ask” is to initiate with another part of your interest. It could be the presenter of a talk, or a senior professor in a mentoring program, or your own advisor. Ask is the easiest step to initiate a process that you think will be beneficial to you. We have already talk about why and how to ask question to speakers in the last section. But you could also ask senior professions in external institutions to chat with you. I think the tricky part is that how you would like to implement the initiation. The better your implementation is, the more likely you will have postivie reply or positive impression in the other party. Hence, try to ask substaintial and relavent questions. When asking questions, try to think of th questions that more likely she/he is the only person who can answer it. However, I don’t want this to be a discouragement of asking the question. I simply suggest that it would be better to ask thoughtful questions.

  • More than statistics (or whatever the discipline you are in)

    Theory is indeed very import part of a professional conference, but it is only one part of the conference. There are many components that you can start to take advantages early. Besides the mentoring and professional development programs, you can also participate in the talks that emphasize on how to develop other perspective of you profession, for example how to successful implement education, how to guard equality or how to engage that . These are normally easier understandable than complete thoery talks, but also can benefit your career in the long run. At least, it is a great oppurtunity that you can use to broaden you career choices after graduation.

  • Be flexible and HAVE FUN!

    A conference could be a good oppurnity to have fun. If you have to take a trip to another city, why don’t use the oppurnity to explore the city a little bit. Here I just want to suggest that, you don’t have to have a full schedule during the days of the conference. Be flexible, and leave some time to yourself to meet with friends and explore the city.

Be a better presenter

  • Whats your problem?

    As a junior researcher, the best opputnity to present research projects is probably by a 15-min talk oral presentation. Sometime, you could end up with a 3-min speed talk or a poster. In this case, it is definitely not possible to give a thorough introduction to your project. I see many junior researchers tend to use the couple minutes to go throught the technicality of the projects, while ignoring why your projects are impact. Compared to more senior researchers, who tend to spend more time to introduce the problem. I prefer to spending more time on introducing the significance of the probem instead how the problems are solved and how simulartions shows the result is good. My reasoning is as follows: 1) if you are not familiar with the sub-area, no body can understand the techinicalilties in short times. Use a movie metaphor, nobody try to put the whole story plot in a trailer, you need to go see the movie to understand the full story. 2) No body is interested in the simulation results, since we know that you are going to show that your the proposed method works better than previous methods. I remembered that Dr. Michael Wu from Fred Hutchinson talked about people are interested in the story. For people who cares about the project, if they are intrigued about the story, they will hunt it down. For people who are expert, they can image how the solution would look if you give a big picture description about the technicality.

  • Practice

    Only practice can be your presentation perfect. Here I would like to offer something reminder that can potentially help you with your presenting. The most important thing among all is to practice to speak slow. The benefit of speaking slow is to make your speaking more clear and the audience can listen clear. Secondly, by speaking slow, you can only focus on your presentation rather than rushing though your talk. If you are luck to have friends who knows about your research, let them give you some suggestion on your presentation, either as a safe-gard for conceptual mistakes, or clarifying the point that you didn’t eliberate well. If you don’t have that resource, you can record yourself and go over that to you. Another suggestion here is never to prepare a word-to-word scription that you would like to read during the presentation, you can easily fall when something uncertain happened during your discussion.

  • Set time-stamp timer

    This is inspired by Dr. Aaron Scheffler from UCSF. I was attending his talk and heard this weired reminder sound on the background, which i realized that it is a pacer for his presentation, where he knows if he is at the right pace to finish the talk. To implement this you can use a interval timer, or a stop watch for. However, I think a sensitional queue is better than checking the stop watch, as you are super nervous when giving the talk and you might forget to check the timer.

  • Know your answers

    It is good to have your answers prepared before your presentation, and hence, when the questions come up, you can answer them confidently and shows you professionality. Here, I am not necessary suggesting your answers have to be theoretical, since you could never know what questions could be. You should be preparing generalized answers, for example, “I don’t quiet get your question, can you elaborate it again.” “This is a very good questions. However, I didn’t consider it when I was doing the work. Do you mind if I will think about it more carefully and get back to you.” FOr this one, it could be a tricky, epecailly when you are talking to a senior person. You would like to diverge the problem curerntly, but not running away for it. The suggestion I got is that after the question and answer, try to have a conversation with the person who asks the question and ask a contact. Later, you want to prepare an answer and get back to the person. By that time, the person may not care at all, but he will develop a good impression about your professionalism.

These are my personal experience that I think you could do to optimize your national conference experience. However, consider how heterogeneous the word “junior graduate” could mean, you could skip some of these advices.