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AIhub coffee corner: Attending an in-person conference for the first time – hints and tips

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18 July 2022



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AIhub coffee corner

The AIhub coffee corner captures the musings of AI experts over a short conversation. This month, we discuss in-person conferences. With conference season now in full swing, and with many events returning to an in-person format for the first time since the start of the pandemic, we provide some hints and tips on how to get the most out of your next conference.

Joining the discussion this time are: Sanmay Das (George Mason University), Sabine Hauert (University of Bristol), Michael Littman (Brown University), Lucy Smith (AIhub), Anna Tahovska (Czech Technical University) and Oskar von Stryk (Technische Universität Darmstadt).

Sabine Hauert: I found myself having to explain in-person conferences to my PhD students recently because they just hadn’t been to any conferences since the start of their PhDs, because of COVID. What are the good tips to make the most of the big conferences? What advice do you give to your students?

Sanmay Das: In some ways, it’s quite difficult being at a large conference as a young student. If you don’t have an advisor or a network that is going to introduce you to people, it can be really intimidating. If I’m there, I try to introduce my students to people. There’s a little bit of a balancing act of trying to make sure that they’re comfortable and they get something out of this, and, at the same time, not babysitting. I do tell them that the two main things are to meet people and to get a chance to tell them something about what they are doing. I feel like things are so different now. When I went to conferences as a grad student, NeurIPS poster sessions were the best thing in the world, because you’d get lots of people coming to your poster, they’d be drinking a beer, and you could have a long conversation. There would only be around 400-500 people at the conference. Now it’s just a completely different kind of atmosphere. I honestly don’t know how one gets the most out of these enormous types of conferences. I’ve actually been trying to go to smaller things myself because I find them much more fun.

Oskar von Stryk: For me it depends on the events. Usually the big events have many, many tracks and many, many participants. To go there, first you need to make a plan of which sessions and talks you want to go to. You have to organize this in advance otherwise it’s not going to work well. When you are there, I think the easiest way to get in touch with people is talking with people about their research and asking them in person about something, perhaps about some of the talks you’ve been to. So, you get connected to people, you exchange ideas, and I think the good thing is to get excited about ideas, and to get inspiration. And once you have this spark of inspiration, the rest happens automatically.

Sabine: I agree. I think there are really two types of conference. The small conference that’s in your niche area where you network, you grow your friends, and you see them year after year. And then the big conference, where you go to learn about the breadth of your area. So, I agree with Oskar, having a good plan allows you to make the most of that learning phase. Those bigger conferences are definitely harder to network in. But, you can get a lot from them in terms of just understanding what everyone is thinking about working on, who the relevant companies are, who’s in the exhibit hall, who wants to hire – this all gives you a good snapshot of what your field is like. So I think it’s a balancing act, maybe starting with the small conferences so it’s not too intimidating, then going to the big ones to hear that breadth of your discipline. I think it is important, those friends that you make – they just really become your community. Often it’s during these discussions at conferences with your community where new ideas form. So, it is worth making those connections even if it’s harder at bigger conferences.

Michael Littman: I have a top three, and I think you guys just hit on a couple of them. One is to meet your peers, because that forms your network. The next one is to attend invited keynotes. I find the keynotes to be really valuable because, first of all, they’ve been vetted, and this is what people are excited about, but then, they also become the focus of conversations. As so many people get to see those talks it ends up being a really useful cultural web that forms. And then, the third thing is to get annoyed, which is related to what Oskar was saying about inspiration. My most successful conferences have been when I’ve gone to hear a talk and somebody said something and it gets me really steamed up. Then I go back, do some research, and I write a paper. Very many of my papers early on were because of something that annoyed me from the previous conference. It feels weird to say it that way, but it just means really engaging with what people are saying and taking it on board and thinking “do I believe that? If I don’t believe that, what do I think is wrong with it?” And that can really be a good way of spurring new ideas.

Oskar: When you said that something annoyed you, would it be the case that it challenged you?

Michael: Yeah, and I look around the room and other people are listening and nodding and I’m like “but this is wrong, why are they all agreeing with it? I need to set the record straight.” I feel like it’s my responsibility to let people know that they’re wrong. Obviously, by the time the paper gets written, it’s a little more nuanced and measured. But, in the moment, it’s about feeling frustrated.

Sabine: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about getting annoyed as a goal! But it does make sense. Actually, in robotics (at ICRA 2022) there was a whole day of debates where they presented for and against arguments on specific topics – I guess just to annoy the maximum number of people over a one day period!

Oskar: Maybe it’s getting challenged. “Annoyed” can have multiple other interpretations.

Sabine: Challenging your thinking, yeah.

Oskar: I know what you mean. But, Michael, what you just said needs a strong person, to think this way and to do it this way. It would probably not be the average first year PhD student.

Sabine: It’s good to tell students that they can disagree, though. Because I think there’s this view that you go and see these big speakers and you take this as the holy grail for what your discipline thinks. It’s worth being explicit that a lot of them have different opinions, or there’s different schools of thought.

Oskar: In any mainstream area of thinking there’s always some statements that people take for granted and don’t challenge them anymore. Of course this is dangerous, but also it’s interesting – if you get annoyed about this, then you have a challenge.

Sabine: And the other thing is to encourage students to not come in thinking they should do what the other people are doing, which I think is very much a tendency. You see the big shots, and what they are doing, and everyone starts piling on in terms of advancing that discipline, instead of thinking of where the holes are. So, if they come in thinking about which niche areas that aren’t covered, that opens up areas to publish papers in the future. So that’s a good point.

Sanmay: I think that what Michael was saying is absolutely brilliant, and I’m going to use that to tell all my students in the future.

One thing occurred to me, which is more about the discipline as a whole. One thing that I really like about social science conferences is the format where the presenter talks about their work, then there is a long discussion afterwards. The discussion gets almost as much time as the presenter. I feel like that’s one of the most valuable learning experiences. Somebody is presenting the work, which has been judged good enough to be at the conference, and somebody is taking it apart as nicely as they can, and suggesting things that the author needs to do better. You can learn so much from that process. Someday, it would be awesome to be able to do stuff like that, in at least parts of our field.

Sabine: The formats are so different from conference to conference, and even every year for the same conference. There’s a discussion about whether we make the talks longer, or shorter, or have a talk and then a poster so you can have those in-depth discussions. I think no-one has really cracked the right formula. Discussions are hard in big groups, so the posters make sense, but then you have fewer people at your poster. It’s something I feel the field hasn’t figured out how to do – to nurture both delivery and discussion.

Many students want tips on how to do the networking bit, or how to approach people. For my part, what helped me was just knowing that everyone is awkward. At ICRA [International Conference on Robotics and Automation], 60% were first attendees, which is huge. So, 60% of these people had no idea what they were doing or who they should be talking to. The thing to do, if you are brave enough, is just to show up at a table and talk about your research, or ask someone about their research. You could also start the conversation with any topic that’s vaguely related to the conference. Another important point is that you don’t need to socialize, if that’s not your thing and if it’s stressful to do that. You probably get a lot from just going to the conference.

Lucy Smith: I’d say in terms of meeting people and talking to them, I’ve always found that poster sessions have been probably the easiest. It’s like an automatic conversation starter. You’re perusing a poster and then you can automatically start up a conversation rather than having to seek someone out. I’ve also found that emailing people in advance of the conference to set up a specific meeting has worked well. Going back to the planning element that Oscar mentioned, that has been key for me at past conferences. The more I’ve planned for the big conferences the more I got out of them. I don’t necessarily stick to the plan that I’ve come up with, but it is still very useful to have a basic plan of the sessions you want to attend.

Anna Tahovska: I set myself a goal to put myself, at least once, out of my comfort zone. So I push myself a little to do that, because all of us are awkward, but all of us are also there for the same or similar reason. So I just push myself to start a conversation.

Sabine: That’s a great tip. Sometimes we do need that nudge.

Sanmay: The other useful time to catch people is right after the end of a session, where people are milling around and having conversations and it’s a very natural thing to do – to go up and join in. It’s less awkward than doing it at other times.

Sabine: Just thinking a bit about conferences where there is a virtual element as well. At ICRA recently, they had telepresence robots, so I could virtually turn up to my PhD student’s poster. There are bits of technology that are trying to bridge that gap, they are not yet there. Maybe that’s something for future discussion – how do we do hybrid virtual-physical events?



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