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Tips on Attending Graphics/HCI Academic Conferences

李丁泽宇 Dingzeyu Li
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I have attended 5 SIGGRAPH, 1 SIGGRAPH Asia, 1 UIST, 1 SCA, and 2 vision conferences. Big thanks to all my sponsors and advisors!

Recently I attended my first UIST. Compared to my previous experience, UIST seems to be a smaller, more compact, and more diverse conference. While SIGGRAPH hosts 15,000-20,000 attendees, UIST usually has only 300+ attendance, a fraction of its graphics big brother. In spite of the difference in attendance, these two conferences share a lot of common traits – for example excellent paper sessions and cutting-edge demo sessions.

Here are some tips that I found helpful in all these above conferences:

  • Hang out with friends. Attending conference can be scary, especially for junior students. You know nobody, nobody knows you. We all went through this phase. I found it useful to stick with your friends from the same research lab, same intern company, or people you have just met earlier at the conference. This has two major benefits: 1) You are not alone anymore and have someone to talk to. It helps with the scary feeling. 2) You have a chance to meet your friends’ friends, expanding your circle, step by step.
  • Don’t always hang out with labmates. While it’s hard to find comrades in the beginning, it is also very easy to fall in the comfort zone of hanging out with your labmates all the time. It’s so natural because you can carry out conversations just like in your school, no need to make all the efforts to try to connect with strangers. By doing this, you are essentially discarding the best of attending a conference – meet other people and exchange new ideas. My way of coping this is to have some me times. If I don’t run into anyone that wants talk, I can recharge myself from the tiring conference. When I do meet interesting people, I can easily blend in and join lunch, coffee, and drinks. In general, I find that people are also more likely to talk to me when I am alone doing nothing, because they don’t think they are interrupting anything. The bottom line is to meet new people outside your usual circle. When you are back in university, you have all the time to talk with your labmates.
  • Eat light. Usually, I am a big eater. I get unpredictable and impatient when I starve. But at conferences I eat light, for various reasons:
  1. I feel sleepy when I am full. I want to talk to people, awake.
  2. When different people go grab snacks/coffee/drinks, there is one fewer reason for me to say no.
  3. Eating less or not eating reduces the risk of food-related health issues. I may be over-reacting here, but I’ve seen my friend staying at the hotel for days because of seemingly innocent food around the convention center.
  • Choose the speakers, not the topics. Good speakers always give great talks, because they are good and they care. I used to mostly attend paper sessions that I am interested in. There are several caveats: 1) the talks are usually not very technical because of the time limit, so I won’t learn the details. 2) Very likely I already know the presenters in these sessions and I will have chances to talk to them during parties or other events. 3) Since the papers in these sessions are related to my research, I will end up reading those paper in details anyways. For these reasons, I now mostly attend sessions with great speakers. I mainly work in simulation and fabrication. Even if this great speaker might present in real-time rendering or video processing session, I am happy to learn from his/her presentations. I might be very familiar with the technical contributions, but it is so enjoyable to listen to a good presenter. As for identifying good presenters, I use my own judgment and solicit recommendations from friends.
  • Talk to the presenters. If you are really interested in a talk, go up to the podium and talk to the presenter at the end of the session. After every single of my conference talks, I enjoyed the short Q&A. Most of the questions are unexpected, yet interesting. I also greatly enjoyed talking with students and professors who came asking for more details. Some of my projects are 3D printing-related – the fact that I bring real objects to conferences motivates a lot of people to come talk to me and play with the fabricated objects. I would share details or interesting stories that are not covered in talk or papers. I guess most other presenter also love to talk to other researchers. So, go talk to presenters if you find the presentations interesting.
  • When in doubt, watch and learn. There are a lot of things that I didn’t know. For example, when meeting new people, how do I talk about my research? Are several sentences too brief? Do I need to share my whole research agenda? In a SIGGRAPH party, how do I talk to strangers? Do I just introduce myself out of the blue? Is there a better way to approach people? This questions might seem simple, but for clueless students like me, I was overwhelmed in my first SIGGRAPH. In this case, I started to watch and learn. Find senior lab members and watch them interact and learn the language of this community. It takes a little bit of time, but you will pick up the skills fairly quickly.
  • Half of the conference is in the ballroom and the other half happens in the parties. Nobody told me this. I was a naive student and it took me quite a while to figure out why everyone disappeared at night. There are always all kinds of parties going on. Could be university-hosted ones, could be company-sponsored ones, could be just a few friends hanging out. Talk to friends, advisors, mentors to know what’s happening every day and kindly ask them if you can join.
  • Relax, enjoy. This above information is a lot to take in and digest right away. It takes a few conference trips to understand how an academic conference works. I am extremely fortunate and have attended 10 conferences so far. Recently, I have just started to find my way to navigate comfortably in a conference. I wish someone had told me 5 years ago, “it’s okay, just relax and be clueless. It simply takes time. For now, just enjoy the food, the people, the talks, and possibly the same wonderful LA weather.”
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