A Practical Guide to Conferences, Part III: Pre-conference Planning
Initial academic conferences can be a stressful experience for students, especially those presenting their research for the first time. We asked SPIE Early Career Professional Mikhail Kats to adapt his recent Twitter thread — which also recruited advice and suggestions from his colleagues — into this comprehensive guide on preparing for, attending, and presenting at conferences. Part III is below. Don’t forget to check out Part I, Part II, and Part IV as well!
Part III: Pre-conference planning
Traveling on university business for the first time involves some preparation and discussions with more-experienced group members and your advisor. Here are some things to keep in mind:
• Being at a big conference by yourself can be lonely and overwhelming, and is rarely a good idea unless you are naturally very outgoing. Ideally, you should go to your first conference with at least one other person, preferably an advisor, peer, or mentor. If you are going with a group member, great! If not, reach out to others at your university or former colleagues who may also be attending.
• Before you purchase plane tickets or hotel rooms, familiarize yourself with your department and university policies regarding conference travel. Typically, your advisor, department, or university will cover your conference expenses including registration, travel, housing, and food, but there are often various restrictions that will depend on your institution.
• It is common at many universities for students to make all the above payments out-of-pocket and then be reimbursed. This can actually be to your benefit, as you can usually keep any credit card points accrued from such purchases. However, for some students this can be a significant financial burden. In this case, speak with your advisor and department administrator; many universities can either purchase tickets, hotel rooms, and conference registrations for you, or can provide you with a cash advance. Pro tip: Before you purchase plane tickets, sign-up for the relevant frequent-flyer program.
• If your organization or university is a nonprofit or state school, check to see if they have tax-exempt cards that you can use for business expenses. If so, take the card with you so that you don't get charged tax.
• Bring a mix of formal and informal clothing; business casual is a good way to go. Also, comfortable shoes are better than fancy ones since conferences involve a decent amount of walking. I would not recommend breaking in a new pair of shoes during a conference.
• That said, if you are giving a talk, it is useful to have one set of slightly more formal clothing for that session (perhaps a blazer or something similar). Keep in mind that you may be asked to use a clip-on microphone, so make sure that you can attach clips to the front of your shirt or sweater, and that you have a pocket in which to put the wireless transmitter.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: These articles were adapted from a thread I wrote on Twitter in response to a request by Manuel Martinez (UT-El Paso). The various conference-prep strategies described here have been honed over the last five years with my research group at UW-Madison, so I want to extend a big thanks to the students and postdocs who have helped develop these tools. Thank you also to Andrea Armani (USC) and Rachel Grange (ETH Zurich) who encouraged me to write this advice up as a proper article, and to Rachel for her editing work. Special thanks to Jennifer Choy (UW-Madison) for key suggestions, use of a sample slide, and critical reading of the draft.
Disclaimer: The more-specific advice regarding finances may only be applicable for US institutions.
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