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I'm an undergraduate about to finish my first year of undergraduate research in CS. This past year has been mostly engineering-based as I learned how things worked in terms of implementation.

I expressed a desire to my advisor about (for next year) moving from engineering / implementation of others' ideas into creating my own novel ideas and research, and how to appropriately bridge this gap. He suggested that I attend a conference in my field to learn more and get a better idea of the sort of problems out there.

My question is -- how should I go about preparing for attending a conference? Should I read all the accepted papers, and read the papers that have background information that they use that I'm not familiar with? Or is there some other better method?

I know that this question is similar, but I'm more interested in finding out how can I learn the most from this experience as an attendee vs a presenter.

  • Welcome to Academia.SE. One question per post, please :) – ff524 May 3 '16 at 6:39
  • ah sorry, i'll wait to post the second question as a separate post. sorry for my oversight! – user53541 May 3 '16 at 6:42
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I wish I had the benefit of this hindsight when I was an undergrad or even a master's student. It took a while for me to understand how conferences (at least in theoretical computer science) work. I speak from my experiences in attending top-tier theoretical conferences. It may vary in your case. But in short: most of what you'll learn will be outside of the talks.

To set your expectations right:

  1. Don't expect to understand a lot from the talks. Reading those papers in advance might be even more boring unless you are already familiar with the background, or at least the starting assumptions, of the presented works. Seasoned researchers have a good idea of results being presented, i.e. the exact formal claim, and they attend the talks just to get a rough picture of the proof and techniques involved. It's like intellectual networking. Get an idea of who has done what and how. Maybe it's useful later.
  2. Asking questions during the talks will be intimidating. As a rule, I always hold my questions for until a couple of slides later. It is always good keep abstracting the ideas presented, and not worry about the details. Details often don't get in the way of getting a rough picture, which is essentially what the talks are for.

Now, ideas for making the most from your attendance. In short: you are charting the territory of your future research, and getting to know the leaders and active researchers in that field.

  1. There are always researchers who have a reputation for nice talks. Make sure you attend their talks. Sometimes, all you learn is how to give a good talk. Which is not to be underestimated.
  2. Go with at least some interest area in mind. Make a rough plan of talks you'll go to. Reach out to presenters during coffee and lunch breaks. Just chat them up. Really. Everyone is waiting to distribute pearls of their wisdom and are happy for dedicated audience. Even better if your professor can help you identify his peers or their students in advance. Go up to them and convey your prof's greetings. Ask how they got to doing what they're doing.
  3. Make friends among other research groups. Hang out with other (also senior) students. Learn about their work. Grab a few drinks together. It's quite likely you'll see them again and even collaborate.

I don't think you first conference would be about gaining deep technical understanding about anything. You would have succeeded if you could remember at least as much as you do after a visit to a museum. This visit will be about learning how the community works, who's who, and what beer tastes like in that city.

  • Last two points closely resemble with my first experience. – Mithun May 3 '16 at 15:20
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Start by checking the program. Conferences in computer science are often organized into sessions, with all papers presented in a session having a common theme. Find the sessions that cover topics of interest to you. If the conference has multiple parallel sessions (tracks), make a plan of which sessions you'll attend.

For sessions you plan to attend,

  • Read up on the general topic of the session, to get a sense of what the important problems are in that area.
  • Skim the papers that will be presented in the session, with the goal of understanding what kind of work is being presented in the session. Try to extract the main idea from each paper, and understand why it is an interesting and worthwhile contribution to the literature. (Don't worry about not understanding a lot of it.)

Does the conference have any panels scheduled? These are a good way to find out about interesting topics in a more informal and interactive way.

Plan to be an active participant, not just a passive listener. Is there a poster session? Poster sessions are great because they're designed for attendees to talk to participants about their research. Go to coffee breaks and lunches, and find some nice grad students (or other researchers) to chat with about their work. If you are having an interesting conversation and the coffee break ends, don't worry about missing a talk you were planning on attending - the ideas shared in hallway conversations are much more useful than the actual talks at the conference.

  • Thanks for your detailed response! As a follow up question: how should I stay in touch with people I meet (I'd imagine there's some sort of etiquette)? Please let me know if i should open this as a separate question. – user53541 May 4 '16 at 2:38

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