The Seven Deadly Sins of Conferences

September 2017
Irene
C.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Past the construction site, across the deserted parking lot, and through the shrubbery, I finally arrived at the front entrance of Northeastern University for my first academic conference.

Over the next two days, with 270 brilliant minds, I learned a lot about machine learning and healthcare. More importantly, however, I discovered how to make the most of an academic conference. Specifically, all you have to do is avoid the seven deadly sins of conferences.

  • Greed: I can have it all.
  • Gluttony: Six cookies sounds like a good idea.
  • Sloth: My chair is so comfortable.
  • Pride: I am awesome.
  • Wrath: Ugh, this is the worst.
  • Lust: Look at that hotter research topic.
  • Envy: I wish I had done that.
  • Greed: I can have it all.

With multiple tracks, industry sponsors, and research titans roaming the floor, conferences provide an abundance of options. It can be almost impossible to take advantage of everything. Before the conference, it’s a good idea to determine what your goal is. Are you trying to find a job? Are you looking for a next project to work on? Are you stuck on a problem and want a fresh look?

As a first year PhD student at my first academic conference, I wanted to get a better idea of the big questions, the major players, and the best way for me to develop my research career. Once you’d honed in, you can chart out papers, talks, or panels that are particularly relevant.

Of course, leave room for spontaneity. Coffee breaks with long-lost friends, mentoring sessions with eager underclassmen, and animated debates might not be on the schedule, but they’re worth it.

Gluttony: Six cookes sounds like a good idea.

At MLHC 2017, the coffee was never-ending, and the sandwiches from Flour Bakery were delicious. The danger here is that the conference cuisine can often create a post-lunch slump.

Pace out the influx of food and caffeine! You can’t concentrate on the newest innovations in machine learning when your body is too busy digesting the six cookies you just ate. By you, I mean me.

Of course, experiencing the local delicacies is important, and memories can be made indulging in local gelato, wine, or paella. At the same time, moderation can heighten conference alertness, increase stamina, and stave off that afternoon nap.

Sloth: My chair is so comfortable.

I get it. Conferences are usually in a foreign environment with strangers around the room, and it can be easy to cling to people you know, stick to topics you’re familiar with, or even go home once talks end and not mingle with the others.

For me and many others, meeting people can be daunting and anxiety-inducing. Maybe you’re worried that you’ll embarrass yourself in front of someone famous. Maybe you’re terrible with faces, names, and small talk. Either way, you’re limiting your possibilities.

At MLHC, the MIT students and professors formed a sizeable cohort where we could easily have only discussed research within our group. But then we wouldn’t have needed to come to this conference with over 200 other researchers.

After the first day of being too shy to approach people, I challenged myself to meet 10 new people, no matter how awkward I felt. By the end of the day, I had 20 names of potential collaborators for the future.

Research careers are long, and you never know who will end up interviewing you, helping you land that dream job, or proofreading your blog posts. Best to err on meeting more people than fewer, and conferences are a great place to do so.

Pride: I am awesome.

Naturally you’re proud of the work you’ve done. Consuming dozens of papers, considering hundreds of bad ideas, and generating thousands of words of rough drafts have sculpted into the researcher you are today.

On the other hand, you’re not so good you can’t learn. The beauty of conferences is that folks come from industry, academia, and other disciplines to converge onto this auditorium. Approaching presentations and conversations with fresh eyes can help harness the cross-pollination.

To be clear, you probably are awesome. Your research is probably amazing. You’re just not so awesome you don’t have room to grow.

Wrath: Ugh, this is the worst.

The operations of running a conference are complex. If something goes wrong, it’s important to roll with the punches.

  • Wifi code doesn’t work? Live in the now!
  • Laptop battery dies? Take notes by hand.
  • Room temperature at seemingly 100 degrees Fahrenheit? Better take off that blazer.
  • No gluten-free options for lunch and you’re intolerant? Grab a friend to step out for an alternative meal at a nearby cafe or munch on potato chips.

Nothing is gained by getting angry. Unless you’re so motivated that you decide to seize control and run it better next year, it’s best to focus on the positives.

Lust: Look at that hotter research topic.

Is it love or is it lust? Especially in research where trends are fickle but expertise takes years, it can feel like there’s always a more popular research area. Within machine learning, deep learning was abuzz on people’s minds at MLHC.

Certainly understanding the field and adjusting your areas of interest accordingly can hugely improve the trajectory of your research. It’s important to discern whether or not you’re lusting after the latest buzzword or whether the inner beauty of the idea can assist with the question you’re struggling to answer.

Envy: I wish I had done that.

With an abundance of impressive research surrounding you, envy seems only natural. I deeply wish I had written many of the papers I read at MLHC with their creative approaches, clever applications, and lasting impact on the field.

At the same time, it’s important to place everything in context. Comparisons can help calibrate whereas competition can narrow your mindset too much. As long as you’re improving, you’re doing fine.

Reflecting on myself, Irene from one year ago was still working in industry and woefully unaware about how machine learning can impact fairness and health care--two areas about which I have now consumed dozens of papers. Aim to be better than yourself in one year, and start planning on how to get there.

Do what you can.

Ultimately, we all have our academic conference sins.

You may choose to embrace the gluttony in order to experience all of the local delicacies with memories made over gelato, soup dumplings, or poutine. Or perhaps that new research idea truly is the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen.

Learn the sins, try to overcome them, and accept the ones you haven’t conquered just yet. We are only human researchers.