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I am fairly new to academic conferences. I am registered to attend (not present at) a mathematics conference (graph theory, to be specific) in about a week and a half; I recently received the agenda and, based on the topic, some of the talks seem a little "advanced" for me. I have a decent general understanding of the topic (I have an undergraduate math degree and a master's degree in computer science), but am still unfamiliar with some of the advanced topics.

What do I do in cases like this? How can one do self-study to prepare for conferences like this to make sure that you'll understand the topics?

Also, how much of the talks "should" one expect to be able to comprehend? How much is "normal" for individuals at various "levels" in the field (e.g. undergraduate students, graduate students, working mathematicians)?

I do realize that, given the short time frame, there'll probably be a limit to how much I can do to prepare for this particular conference. However, I would like to be better prepared for future conferences in this area.

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    There's a saying about PhDs in mathematics: For most dissertations, there is only one person who understands it and only one person who cares about it, and they are not the same person. – Alexander Woo Apr 9 at 18:22
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    There is a saying that typically, one third of math talks is understandable to any mathematician, one third is understandable to the handful of people who work in the specific subfield, and for the last third... if the presenter doesn't understand that part himself, no problem. And: if the three parts are of unequal size, no problem either. – Stephan Kolassa Apr 10 at 11:42
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    @StephanKolassa I think having the beginning understandable by any mathematician is a goal for general audience research talks like colloquiua and job talks, but not for specialized conference/seminar talks. That said, even for general audience talks, I'm not convinced this goal is achieved the majority of the time. – Kimball Apr 10 at 12:21
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    You might have already heard this. There's a famous quote from Von Neumann: "Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them". I guess by this quote Von Neumann has helped countlessly many PhD students in mathematics (and neighboring areas) not to quit their studies. So, I'd recommend writing that quote as a reminder in every place you could possibly think of (as long as it wouldn't count as vandalism and is legal of course!) – nara Apr 11 at 18:35
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    Isn't the point of attending a conference to improve your knowledge? Isn't that the same as catching up on things you don't (fully) understand? Then again, how much chance is there anyone could attend every talk? Why not just go to those talks that interest you? – Robbie Goodwin Apr 11 at 20:06
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Nobody can know everything. Even just in mathematics the last time it was possible to literally know it all was early in the 20th century. Things have advanced too fast and too far for such things now.

A conference might be expected to present the latest ideas in a sub field. If that is your specialty you would be expected to follow "generally" but would probably require additional study afterwards if the subject of a talk was important to your work. But a "general understanding" and a few notes about how and where to follow up is probably enough for most people.

I doubt that your education, as you describe it, puts you at the research edge in graph theory. If you are doing research in that, then a quick literature survey of closely relevant topics would be good preparation, but I'd guess that few people do that. If the proceedings are available in advance, skimming the papers will give you an idea of where the holes are in your understanding.

But at the conference take a few notes, especially on topics that are not known to you, as a guide for further study. If you attend (physically or virtually) with colleagues, start a conversation over coffee/tea/whatever to ask others for their insights.

On the other hand, if one of the speakers is your dissertation advisor, you'd probably be expected to understand most of it. Or at least grasp the general trend of thought.

Math is pretty esoteric at the edges.


Another kind of "preparation", however, is to prepare to meet new people and share a few ideas. Harder now with thing mostly virtual, but a great way to build contacts.

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  • You are correct that I'm not quite at the research edge in graph theory at this point - my knowledge does have some rather gaping holes in it (which I'm trying to close as quickly as possible). – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Apr 9 at 18:20
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    @EJoshuaS-ReinstateMonica In my experience, the more gaping holes you close in your knowledge, the more you find. Which doesn't mean that you shouldn't fix the ones you know about! Just be chill about it, and accept you won't ever understand everything, or even most of the stuff... – Denis Nardin Apr 10 at 9:19
  • Even in the early 20th century it was not possible to "know all of mathematics". The collected works of Euler alone (18th century) fill over 80 volumes. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 11 at 0:23
  • @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft, well, you couldn't probably have "memorized" them, but that isn't the same. But see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Poincaré – Buffy Apr 11 at 0:33
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    That part about "one of the speakers is your dissertation advisor, you'd probably be expected to understand most of it" came as a huge disappointment to me at least. I barely understand my advisor when he talks about a paper we co-author(ed), yet alone his other works. – nara Apr 11 at 18:30
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Excellent answers here already. I will try to add a little.

Part of the reason for attending a conference like this is to learn what's out there that you may want to learn - not necessarily to understand it there. So read the abstracts and decide which presentations to attend (if the conference is large there will be simultaneous ones).

You may find times when no talk is even close to your interests. Skip those. Take the time for a cup of coffee - maybe with someone you introduced yourself to at an earlier time. Other junior people like you will be easier to connect to than senior featured speakers. Making connections is as important as learning from the talks.

This is from https://www.conference-service.com/conferences/graph-theory.html about the 25th Ontario Combinatorics Workshop 15 May 2021 - 16 May 2021 • Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada (maybe it's the one you're going to)

The objective of this meeting is to have an atmosphere conducive to research discussion and collaboration. The setting of the meeting is informal to provide a friendly environment for students and post-doctoral fellows to present their results, to exchange ideas, and to gain exposure to various topics in combinatorics. It is also a place where students and faculties meet, which may foster future collaborations.

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You don't go to conferences to hear things you already know. You go to conferences to learn about things you don't know yet.

In that respect, you are in the perfect situation: You have lots to learn, and you will learn a lot. You should look forward to the conference, rather than being stressed about it.

Of course, the stuff you learn will be different from what people who are experts in the field will learn. But this is not the point: You will learn lots of things which are new to yourself, and this is what counts. (In fact, you will likely learn much more than the people who are familiar with the field: The conferences where I learned the most new things were certainly the ones which were out of my own comfort zone.)

Of course, you should try to do something to increase your learning experience. As far as I would say, this mostly means talking to people at the conference, in particular about the things you would like to understand better.

You will notice while at the beginning, there will be lots of things you won't understand, this will get better by the end of the conference, since you will have learned a lot of new things.

And if you feel like you don't understand a word, keep in mind that at most conferences most of the attendants can't follow a non-negligible part of the talks!

Enjoy the conference!

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    "You will notice while at the beginning, there will be lots of things you won't understand, this will get better by the end of the conference, since you will have learned a lot of new things." - I think this is quite an optimistic view, and depends on the structure of the conference. Things don't necessarily feed off each other at a conference they way they do in a structured course, and it may be that OP only gathers a little bit of something here and there and may be totally burnt out and unable to process anything more by the end, and that's okay. – Bryan Krause Apr 9 at 21:24
  • @Bryan I never claimed it would be like a lecture course, and I didn't recommend doing homework! But after hearing the same introduction for the 10th time, one starts to understand and things start to make (some) sense, even if it is only about the basics of the field. Again, let me repeat what I said above: I learned most at conferences which were clearly outside my comfort zone, even though the things I learned were of course more basic, and it was super exhausting. If the OP wants to relax, I recommend a vacation at the beach. – user151413 Apr 9 at 23:41
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    I don't know how conferences you've attended relate to ones that I have, but I certainly have not heard the same introduction 10 times at a conference. In any event, I think most of your answer is good advice, especially about appreciating the potential of learning a lot as a novice, and of learning something different from what 'experts' will learn. I just think that my own experience and the experience broadly shared by people in my own orbit both more and less experienced than me is that by the end of a conference they're pretty exhausted and it gets harder rather than easier to learn. – Bryan Krause Apr 9 at 23:54
  • @Bryan I'd say whether you consider an introduction the same or not basically to a large extent depends on your distance to the field. From the further away you look, the more similar the things you hear in the beginning will sound. – user151413 Apr 10 at 15:40
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There's a saying that each talk should contain a part that everybody understands, a part that only the experts understand, and a part that only the speaker understands (some also include: a part that the speaker does not understand either). When you're not an expert (as most people on most subjects) the point of going to a talk is to understand the first part and get the general flavour of the argument from the remaining parts.

I would advise against trying to prepare for a conference. To me, conference talks serve as an invitation to read the corresponding paper(s) or study the subject. If a talk catches your interest or turns our to be relevant to your research, then it's the time to study. Plus, there's a fair chance the recordings of the talks are going to be available online so you can revisit them later, and if not you can always ask the speakers for a copy of the slides (they're almost universally happy to comply).

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This is a non-math perspective, but similar problems are faced in other fields as well.

As correctly mentioned in another answer, nobody can know everything. As a corollary, nobody at a conference will attend/carefully listen to all the talks (even if it were possible to). Time and mindspace are both limited, so it is a good idea to plan beforehand which talks/presentations to attend. I personally don't like to attend more than 3 in one session (assuming each is 20 odd minutes). This allows time to absorb and network, which is an important part of conferences.

Once you've chosen the talks to attend, it may help to do some background reading on the speaker rather than the topic itself. If you read some of the recent work done by them, you may get a better perspective of their direction, way of approaching the problem, and this may help you follow the talk better. The same topic can be interpreted quite differently by different speakers (again, I don't know if this is true in math), so reading up on the subject will not necessarily going to equip you well. Knowing the general research interests of the speaker will atleast facilitate a discussion with them (most speakers are happier to talk to you if you have some familiarity with their work).

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Personally I go to talks I don't understand all the time. I love diving in over my head and getting to know a new field. If something looks really cool, then I go read the paper. Or sometimes I just read the interesting papers that the speakers cite, rather than the speakers' own papers.

Many people do the opposite --- they read in advance the abstracts of all the talks and then the papers of the talks that seem most to their research and then go into the talk prepared to either learn or ask questions. This is just a matter of personal choice and style of learning, and maybe discipline as some may be be easier to communicate in talks than others.

Other people only go to the conference to pick up the proceedings and schmooze. They think you never learn anything from talks, you should just read the papers, and you get the real work done at conferences through meeting people and collaborating.

Sadly, some people go to conferences only to be seen, or perhaps as some weird ritual of academia, and don't seem to be trying to learn at all. I don't understand that and I'm glad you aren't in that category. You are off to a great start to be asking this question!

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The first thing is I think it's important to have low expectations in terms of how many talks you'll really get something out of. When I go to a conference I feel like it's been a really good day if there's one talk that I really got something important out of. And that doesn't mean I understood the whole talk!

The other key thing (both as someone going to a talk and as someone presenting) is that a large function of a talk is to serve to advertise and introduce a paper. Sometimes that means the talk leads me to go read the paper, sometimes it just means I'm aware that a certain result is part of a certain authors work and then I can find it if it turns out that I need it down the road, and sometimes it lets me understand a paper that I tried to read but failed to understand. So don't think of the talks as something that you need to prepare for, but rather the talks are the preparation to read papers at some later point. As a grad student its fine if you don't understand any of the details of any of the talks, if it means you've learned a bit about what kind of questions which people in your field are working on. Then you'll learn who would be interested in your results and where to look if you need certain kinds of techniques.

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There's a helpful approach that I've heard ascribed to Uri Treisman with the Emerging Scholars programs he developed in California and Texas. This is for students from various groups who historically don't do well in calculus. In addition to extra sessions with specially trained TAs, the students in the program also attend math research talks! Here's the advice they were given.

There are people who love going to the opera. It's usually not because they speak the language of the libretto, know the plot well, or have memorized the score. Rather, they find it a beautiful experience and enjoy whatever they get out of the evening---the staging, the emotions, the melodies, the costumes, the orchestra... Going to a math research talk is like going to the opera: Almost certainly you won't understand every idea presented, just enjoy what you can---the overall structure, examples, small details, how it's similar to or different from other talks, possible connections that pop into your mind...

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  1. Pace. This applies even with ACCESSIBLE, enjoyable conferences (like chemistry). Go through your book and make a list of the talks and do some selection of them. Not 100%. Something well short of that. You just don't have the capacity to get use out of the stuff anyways. Look at the list and decide which ones are interesting or comprehendable or close to you or cute speaker or whatever criteria. (It won't be perfect and you will miss something interesting and go do something not, but forcing a selection process increases investment and you will have some Bayesian effectiveness also.) When taking a break, grab a longer coffee. Check email, whatever.

  2. If it is a several day conference try and sneak off and do a half day golfing. Or at least look someone up in town (outside the conference) for dinner. Obviously don't completely ditch the conference. But get a little non-binded-oxen-mouth grain.

  3. Emphasize coffees, beer drinking, etc. CHITCHAT!

  4. Make it a goal to come back with at least one collaboration. Make it a game and see what you can do. Cool things happen at "boundaries". Preferrably something small, tangible. (Not some grand collaboration that we read about here with sob stories of not getting published. But just some human "connection". Shit is so lonely otherwise.)

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