Attending an academic conference

by Michael Ernst (

July, 2004
Last updated: December 4, 2023


Goals of conference attendance

Attending a conference is a professionally rewarding experience. You will get to:

The socialization is fun because you can catch up with old friends and make new friends. It also builds trust and relationships, and you never know what technical ideas might come up in a conversation.

Listening to presentations

Listening to presentations will inform you of what others are doing — sometimes more clearly than the paper, and in any event with a different spin and the ability to ask questions. It may inspire research ideas of your own, such as extending the presented research or using its ideas in a different context. And, it will expose you to different styles of presentation. You will see both excellent and terrible talks, both of which you can from when giving your own talks.

It's tempting to check your messages during the slow parts of a talk. Avoid this temptation. You can usually learn something from the talk. If you miss something important because you were not paying attention, then it is usually impossible to catch back up, and your attendance will be a waste of time.

If a talk is terrible, don't be shy about walking out to attend a different talk, to start a hallway conversation, or just to take a break. There is so much going on at a conference that you cannot afford waste time. If the speaker didn't respect your time enough to prepare a cogent talk, you do not owe it to the speaker to surrender a part of your life to suffering through the talk.

The hallway track

Hallway conversations can be even more fruitful than talks, and as you become more senior they will occupy more and more of your time. Do everything you can to cultivate such conversations: that is your chief job at the conference.

Some people are naturally gregarious; some people have trained themselves to be that way; and others can be shy about approaching people they don't know at a conference. Gather up your courage and do it anyway; you'll learn a lot, and eventually you will get better at it. Most other people in the room were once in exactly that same position. Don't be discouraged if it takes a little while, or a few conferences; the task will become easier. See below for some suggestions for meeting other researchers.

You should tell others about your research. Think about how to frame your work to convey how interesting it is. This is an important skill not just for a conference but in general. Plan your pitch, practice it with your friends, then further refine it through interactions at the conference. You will learn a lot from talking about your work, seeing what confuses people, receiving their ideas and suggestions, and refining your pitch.

To frame your research, talk first about its goals, and only then about the techniques you are using. You have to convince others that the work is worth hearing about before they will be willing to listen to the technical details.

Beware the trap of knowing your work so well that it doesn't sound interesting, or that you can't tease apart the interesting big issues from the details! I always return from a conference more excited about my research than when I left. The topic had become stale to me, but the excitement and admiration of others upon hearing of it reminded me how good my research actually is.

If you are a junior student, you might not have many results of your own to talk about. Here is an idea from Phil Agre's excellent (also long and, in some parts, dated) “Networking on the network”: start a conversation about the best talk that you attended. This is a good segue into other topics. It also establishes you as a generous and thoughtful person (which you should actually be!).

It is essential to listen as well as to talk. No one likes to be in a conversation where someone else chooses the topics and dominates the airtime. You must ask others about their work — it is even polite to do so first. Keep an open mind, and try to deeply understand their research. You'll learn a lot by listening and by asking questions. You may get research ideas or discover collaboration opportunities.

Avoid gossip and bad-mouthing other people. Assume that whatever you say will get around, because it probably will.


Before you attend a conference, make a plan.

One part of the plan is what talks you will attend. You should read the titles, and if possible skim the abstracts, of all of the papers. Because of parallel sessions, you may have to make choices. Write these down (if there is a physical program, you can just circle some talks) so that you don't forget. I rank talks in two tiers: the second tier is for when I have no hallway conversations, or if a first-tier talk in the same timeslot was bad. If I am particularly interested in a topic, I will read the paper before the talk, so that I can understand it more deeply and ask better questions. This can help me formulate questions to ask after the talk, as well.

The other part of the plan is a “hit list” of people whom you want to talk to. The authors of accepted papers and the list of program committee members is a first approximation of who might attend. For each person you want to meet, have a concrete reason and a topic — for example, to get feedback on a particular technical problem or result, or to ask about some of their work. The fact that a person is famous is not a good reason. You will just come off as annoying. Also, don't ask for feedback outside of a person's expertise, such as asking someone who is working in quantum computing their opinion of generative AI. Be judicious. If you have a handful of deep, productive conversations at the conference, then the trip was well worthwhile.

How to meet other researchers

Here are some ways to meet people at a conference. They are particularly useful for those who are shy or who are just entering a research community.

  1. If someone gave a talk, then introduce yourself and ask a thoughtful question about some issue that you are curious about or found interesting.
  2. Use a mutual acquaintance. It is easier to walk up to a group if you already know one of them. Making some contacts early on eases meeting people during the rest of the conference. Even just listening can help you learn. If there is something that confuses you, ask (or at the very least write down the question to ask your friends later — but typically you should just ask).
  3. Get an introduction. This is your advisor's job, but he or she may often be busy (such as being involved in other conversations or making other introductions) or might not attend the conference. You can use your acquaintances to make introductions. However, it is not acceptable to hang out just with other people from your own institution. It is your responsibility circulate broadly. A good rule of thumb is not to join a group if you already know (well) half or more of it. Another rule of thumb is that it's fine to travel in pairs — have a buddy to help you meet others — but do not hunt in larger packs. It's fine to check in with your friends once in a while — to take a break from being social, to learn about someone you really ought to meet, etc. But use such time to recharge, not as your standard mode at the conference.
  4. Talk with people at meals. Show up early in the day to get breakfast and especially to schmooze. Going out for dinners is good, too. At lunch, meet everyone at your table, find out what they are doing, and tell them what you are doing. At conference lunches, I often sit at a random table with people I don't know, which has led to a few boring lunches and many valuable new contacts. This hit-or-miss approach is riskier at the conference banquet, where you may be stuck at one table for hours.
  5. Don't obsess over famous people. They are usually busy, and sometimes they are not as interesting as you expect. You can have a great conversation with anyone.
    You may find talking with other students less intimidating than talking with more senior people. Feel free to approach other students to learn what they are doing and to spread the word about your own research. This is an easy way to expand your circle of acquaintances and eventually meet the more well-known researchers. As a side benefit, in a few years, the students will themselves be more senior and may even be famous, and you'll already have a relationship with them.
    Being a student volunteer at a conference is a great way to network with other students. As a secondary benefit, it also stretches your advisor's research funding. It does require you to spend time on tasks such as checking participants' badges, staffing registration and information tables, etc., and to go to all the student volunteer meetings. You should try hard to get jobs that won't interfere with the conference — the best jobs are checking participants' badges outside the sessions that you want to attend, since once the talks start, you can slip inside and listen to them.
  6. If there's someone on your “hit list” of people you want to talk with at the conference, just go up to that person and join or start a conversation. If you have a topic to discuss, the person will be grateful to you for broaching it, and that person is unlikely to have known to approach you. You can also ask a mutual acquaintance to introduce you; this may be essential at a large conference where you might not encounter the person by chance.
  7. Help others: make introductions and tell others of related work or people they should talk to. Not only is this the right thing to do, but others will remember and will do the same for you.
  8. Send email ahead of time. Ask the person if they will attend the conference, and perhaps even shedule a time to talk.

I'm sure you will come up with additional techniques of your own: use whichever are effective for you and fit in your style — but make sure that you do mix and mingle.

David Notkin's “Advice for first-time conference attendees”

[This is a revised version of a message that David Notkin sent to his graduate students in 1993.]

Why are you going to the conference? The major reason is that it's good for you:

So, you should work hard to attend lots of sessions and read lots of the papers. But it's unlikely that you'll go to every session: some will be genuinely uninteresting to you. In addition, the most important part of a conference is “schmoozing”, standing in hallways talking to colleagues (satisfying most or all of the items in the list above). You'll see lots of people doing this.

It's scary trying to meet “famous” people. It's usually best to get an adviser or a colleague to introduce you to others. But you shouldn't rely solely on this: it's OK (actually, it's more than just OK) to be a little (or a lot) pushy. If you see people you want to listen to having a conversation, feel free to move on up to them and try to listen (unless for some reason it seems like it's a personal conversation and is thus inappropriate). Sometimes they'll acknowledge you, sometimes they won't. But it's worth trying to get involved in these conversations when possible. (Even listening by itself can be valuable.) Of course, the best way to get involved is to ask a question: it flatters people and makes them respond to you. And you learn something.

Trying to have meals with folks is a really good way to meet them. Some people you know probably know other folks; make sure to remind them to bring you along if they set something up. There are occasionally womens' lunches, which I recommend that you join (if eligible); watch the bulletin board for announcements.

Hang out some with the folks you already know. But don't do this exclusively, since you can do that elsewhere, but you can only schmooze with other folks here. Debriefing with each other on sessions, papers, interactions with others, etc. is of value, though, and you should do this with each other on occasion.

I hope you will find the conference enjoyable and professionally satisfying.

Back to Advice compiled by Michael Ernst.

Michael Ernst