Getting the Most out of Attending a Research Conference – A How-To for Graduate Students

Before the conference

The elevator pitch: how to respond to “What are you working on?” or “What are your research areas?”.

  • This is very important. You will be asked these questions A LOT. Your response is called your “elevator pitch” or “elevator talk”, since it's the kind of thing you're asked when you're riding an elevator with someone, and you need to get all the important information in before they get off. Practice your answers out loud, in advance. Having a version that's between 30 and 60 seconds is a good start, but have more to say if the person is particularly interested.
  • Ryan's true story: before my first conference (Oakland 2010), Ian insisted that I devise and practice an elevator pitch. It's a good thing that he did, because within minutes of arriving at the venue, I literally found myself sharing an elevator with the conference's general chair, who promptly asked me “What are you working on?”. Because I had already practiced it quite a few times, I was well-prepared (not to mention that I had already given the elevator pitch to the two conference attendees with which I shared my shuttle from the airport.) By the end of the week, I could (and probably did) recite my elevator pitch in my sleep.
Do some homework beforehand.
  • Download the electronic version of the accepted papers for the conference. Take a few minutes to have a quick scan of their abstracts so that you will have a general understanding of what those presenters are going to talk about at the conference. Of course, if you feel very interested in some papers, you can read them in detail and try to criticize them or pose questions in the Q&A periods after their talks.
  • Check who will be invited to speak at the conference. Those speakers usually are very famous in the field and their ideas are of leading influence. Search their names via Google and try to get more information about their research interests, such as what they have done and what they are doing at the moment. If possible, download one or more representative publications or reports from their homepages to read them. When you meet these speakers at the conference, you might feel it is easy to find a suitable topic to break the ice. If you are lucky to find that you share the same interest with some of the speakers, you can even prepare one or more questions you have met with during your work to ask.
Think about giving a rump session talk.
  • Lots of people develop slides ahead of time and give rehearsed presentations. This seems to be an easy and effective way to let everyone at the conference know who you are and what you're working on. And it's a great way to get comments and suggestions on your ideas.
  • Check the website beforehand to see if you need to submit an abstract for rump session talks. Some conferences require you to do this, others do not.
  • One other note about rump sessions: it is often the case (though not at PET 2007, it turned out) that people present intentionally funny talks in the rump session, as opposed to serious research talks. These go over really well, break up the monotony, and to be honest, people remember them (and you, probably) more than the serious talks.
  • Ian's tip: an ideal rump session talk is funny, but should not be apparent that it's supposed to be funny until around slide 3. An excellent example is Ryan's rump session talk from USENIX Security 2011 (you may need to view it with vlc).
  • We maintain a list of rump session talk ideas on this wiki. If you have a funny idea during the year, add it to the list. If you are attending a conference, feel free to use one of these ideas.
Think about presenting a poster
  • Poster presentations are an excellent low-stress way to get involved with the conference, and if your poster attracts sufficient interest they can be quite rewarding (especially if you intend to present that same material at another venue later). Posters spark interesting discussion, help you to meet researchers with similar or complementary interests, and give you an idea of what sorts of questions people might have about your work.
  • Your poster should be easy to digest for people taking only a quick glance. Do not use large blocks of text. Use pictures, graphs, etc. instead. Have a prominent sentence that answers the question (as Lucky Green so nicely put it at Oakland 2014) "What did you find, and why should I care?".
  • If you are going to be presenting your work at an upcoming conference, the discussions you have during the poster session can be invaluable in preparing you for the questions that people at that later conference might have regarding your work. Ideally, once you spot the common sources of confusion or misconceptions, you can revise your presentation to avoid these in the first place.
  • Attach some business cards to your poster (e.g. resting on thumbtacks). They're useful to have around whether or not you're standing in front of the poster.
Check out the workshops
  • The workshop presentations are sometimes more interesting than the conference presentations, since they are less formal and workshops tend to accept exciting work-in-progress type papers. This means you get exposed to more original ideas, rather than the thorough – but sometimes incremental – research that tends to be presented at the main conference.
  • Better yet, think about submitting to one of the workshops.
  • Note that you typically need to register for any workshops that you plan to attend at the same time as you register for the conference.
Find the papers that interest you and read them, either online or in the preproceedings.
  • Otherwise, it is easy to get lost/sleepy partway through a talk and be unable to understand the remainder of the slides. Also, it will help reduce the number of questions answered with “This is addressed in the paper...”
Print business cards with your contact info on them. (Consider including your PGP signature.)
  • They are cheap to make, and people expect you to have them.
  • Somebody will be interested in your research, and you will be interested in somebody else's research. Exchanging business cards is the easiest way to give and receive contact information, which might just lead to future collaboration, hence publications, hence more opportunities to attend future conferences! smile
Survival gear
  • If you have a good lanyard (, such as the ones given out by UWaterloo at the Cheriton Research Symposium (among other events), you might want to take it with you. Different conferences provide different types of name tags, some good and some not so good. Some conferences give you a lanyard for your name tag – which may or may not irritate the heck out of your neck. Others have name tags that attach to your clothes with an alligator clip, and yet others with a safety pin. I once had a perfectly good t-shirt permanently stretched by hanging an excessively heavy name tag off of it using a safety pin.

Going to the conference

Keep required documentation for reimbursement

  • To ensure a fast and smooth reimbursement process save your meal and travel receipts and boarding passes.

At the conference

Attending the talks

  • DO try to attend every talk that interests you, but DO NOT feel obliged to attend each and every talk on the program.
  • Some conferences have two or more “tracks” with concurrent presentations, so in these cases it would be impossible to attend all talks. Many conferences have only one track of presentations at a time, in which case you could (in theory) attend them all. However, one should always consider attending the lesser-mentioned “hallway track”. In other words, it is always a valid option to skip the presented papers and spend your time talking to the numerous conference attendees who are wandering the corridors (in search of free food, drinks and marketing material). This is an excellent time to introduce yourself, discuss your work, learn about others' work, and – of course – have a bite to eat.
  • If you need motivation, talk to Ian. He believes that getting/staying connected (networking) is the most important part of a conference.
  • Some student-oriented conferences (e.g., the MITACS annual meeting) even have networking sessions devoted to teaching student conference attendees how to make the most of the conference through networking.
Meet new people
  • It's easy to stick to people you know, but the conference is a rare chance to meet some very intelligent and interesting people in the field. Knowing them could come in handy for collaboration, choosing a PhD supervisor, or finding new research areas that interest you.
  • There are plenty of good opportunities to meet new people:
    • Breaks are the best time for meeting people. You will encounter three types of behavior: people standing still, people walking around, and people standing in groups. Do not stand still unless you don't want to talk to anyone; people generally won't engage in a conversation this way unless they are specifically targeting you (e.g., to ask a question about a talk you gave). Your goal should be to be part of a group with people you don't know. If you are not in such a group, attempt to join one by injecting yourself into the circle (preferably when the group's conversation has slowed or stalled) and introducing yourself when greeted. Likewise, if you are already part of a group and someone joins, greet them. Note that larger groups give each individual less time contribute to the conversation.
    • You can also meet people in the "hallway track" (the area normally used for breaks, but during the talks). However, the effectiveness of the hallway track depends on the conference, the time of day, and the popularity of the coincident talks. Conversations in the hallway track tend to last much longer than those during normal breaks.
    • Conference meals are a good way to have long conversations with people. Try to sit with people that you do not know. Joining a table with existing people is more likely to result in interesting discussions than sitting alone at an empty table and waiting until people join you. If possible, see if you can find somebody who is working in a similar area or who gave an interesting talk. Racing to be the first to lunch (or being the last to find the lunch room) decreases the choices you have when selecting a table to join.
    • After the talks finish for the day, conference-organized social events are also good places to meet people. Try to attend these if possible. If nothing is scheduled for the evening, try to arrange or join a group dinner.
    • Ask Ian where the party is. (If you happen to find yourself with an unusually party-friendly hotel room, you should strongly consider having people over yourself.)
  • The classic icebreaker is "are you presenting a paper?". Master it. Other common variants are "I enjoyed your talk" or "what are you working on?".
  • Top secret tip: when asking somebody about their role or job title (e.g., "so are you a Ph.D. student at [institution]?"), always overestimate. It's much better to ask a Ph.D. student if they're faculty than the reverse. If this happens to you a lot, it may be because others are also using this trick.
  • Although you should not spend a significant amount of time talking to other people from your own research group, a valid strategy is to travel in pairs and join existing groups simultaneously (using the techniques described above), which can decrease social awkwardness. If you have not attended many conferences in the field before, pairing with a more senior student can help with introductions.
  • Ask for business cards, and hand out your own business card liberally.
  • Keep track of who you talked to and what you talked about. Actually write it down / type it in. Writing it on the back of the person's business card is often helpful.
Eat, drink, be merry
  • If you are feeling a bit peckish, take advantage of the free food. However, before you gorge yourself on a three course meal at the reception, consider having only a light snack and then asking some other conference-goers to join you for a meal at a nearby restaurant. This will provide you with some additional networking opportunities.
  • Helpful hint: I sometimes like to sneak a drink or light snack back to my hotel room. Conferences tend to be in fairly expensive hotels, and the cost of a bedtime snack can be outrageous, especially considering the heaps of free food that are available to you throughout the day.
Take it with a grain of salt
  • People may ask you to join a group/work on a project, etc. Not all of them are honest people, and some only care about forwarding their own agenda.

After the conference

Write things down

  • Make a list of interesting papers or concepts mentioned during the conference. Spend some time after the conference looking them up.
Present something interesting at the next lab meeting
  • Need I say more?
Update the wiki
  • So you don't make the same mistakes next time.
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Topic revision: r20 - 2016-10-25 - NikolasUnger
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