Cracking the Conference Code

Amii Fellows provide tips on how to maximize your conference experience

This article was written by Amii Fellow and Canada CIFAR AI Chair Alona Fyshe. Alona is also an associate professor at the University of Alberta with a joint appointment in the departments of computing science and psychology. She combines her interests in computational linguistics, machine learning and neuroscience to study the way the human brain processes language.

Alona has attended, and presented at, many conferences and has even delivered a TED Talk. In this article, she, and a few of her Amii Fellow colleagues, share their tips on how to make the most of a conference experience.

AI conferences have gotten very big, so they can be a bit overwhelming! So, how can you make the most of your conference trip? Well, a little planning can go a long way, so we collected a few tips from our conference veterans at Amii.

Explore new topics

First off, conferences are long and the days are very full. Though the conference program is likely lengthy, it’s a good idea to skim all of the paper titles and abstracts. Amii Fellow Patrick Pilarski suggests students make a concerted effort to “take chances on new topics, not just the thing they think they know the most about.” Amii Fellow Nidhi Hegde agrees, and advises students to ”go to a talk session or poster on a topic you know nothing about.” Hegde also encourages students to “leave lots of time for last minute inspiration for talks and posters or random attendance of talks and posters.”

Pilarski also reminds his students that they should plan to “bring back knowledge to their peers who couldn't go to the conference, so look out for highlights, key ideas, new methods, or a great possible collaborator.” And, “be ready to give a short TL;DR talk when they return to share the knowledge they have foraged.”

Bring back knowledge to peers who couldn't go to the conference, so look out for highlights, key ideas, new methods, or a great possible collaborator.

Patrick Pilarksi, Amii Fellow and Canada CIFAR AI Chair

Meet new people

Conferences are also a great place to meet new people in your research area. Pilarski encourages students to “try (even though it can be scary) to gravitate to new people other than their lab mates … sit at a lunch table with an unknown group.” If the conference doesn’t supply lunch, there are usually groups of people milling around waiting to go somewhere for lunch. They are often open to having someone join them, so just ask! They might say no, but they might say yes!

Poster sessions are also a great place to meet new people. Swing by some posters, introduce yourself, and hear about someone’s research. Take a chance on a poster you’re not sure about, especially if it’s a poster that’s not too crowded. Chances are you’ll learn something new, and that is one of the best outcomes of conference attendance.

There are often meals provided at conferences. If that’s the case, Amii Fellow Matt Taylor encourages his students to “always sit at a table where there’s at least one person you don’t know.” He also encourages his students to step out of their comfort zones in other ways: “Ask at least one question during the conference, ideally during a talk (even at a workshop), but at least at a poster.”

If your Principal Investigator (PI) is not attending the conference, you can still ask them for some tips about who you could talk to or look for. When Amii fellow Alona Fyshe was a graduate student, she emailed people ahead of time to set up lunch and coffee dates with researchers she wanted to meet. Usually they were not total strangers (for example some were collaborators of her lab) which made it feel less weird to send a cold email to set up a meeting. If you’re nervous about cold emailing people, several Amii fellows advise that you ask your PI to email on your behalf to help make some connections.

And, though conferences often draw very famous researchers, don't just "star chase" and wait in line to chat with famous professors. Pilarski encourages his students to prioritize meeting peers and making connections with early career researchers. “Go for dinner, join in a group going for coffee, etc. These are the relationships that will last a career, and early effort at a conference today will echo for decades.”

Enjoy the view

And don’t forget to take advantage of the location your conference is in! Find a session where you can step away without missing too much and go see the city. One of the most amazing things about being at an international conference is being in an international location. Amii fellow Matt Taylor encourages his students to “fit a few hours of sightseeing in, either on your own, with people with you know, or with new friends.” Conferences can also be a bit overwhelming, especially for the introverts among us. Taylor says “Give yourself permission to take a break to hide in your room and recharge if you need to.”

Make an impact

And finally, remember that conferences are work. You are representing yourself, but also your PI, labmates, Amii, and the U of A. We should keep our reputation of being approachable, authentic and enthusiastic scientists front of mind.

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