The Changing Purpose of Professional Conferences

Last week, I along with two of my students flew to the west coast to attend the AIAA SciTech 2016 conference. It’s the AIAA’s largest conference each year and combines just about every discipline they serve except for maybe propulsion (there’s a separate conference for that). There were thousands of attendees (~4000 I was told at a committee meeting) and 1000+ technical papers and presentations. I never counted. I’ve been going to conferences for a long time and I’ve noticed what I’ve paid attention to and my personal goals at conferences have changed. That makes sense. As your career level changes, your job description changes, and thus what you need or look for to get the job done also changes. So let go through what a conference may mean for different people in academia and what they may want to focus on or try and get out of it.

Undergraduate Students
If you’re an undergrad presenting at or attending a conference, it’s pretty much a spectacle for you. You should be there mainly to meet people, see what research sounds cool, grab vendor swag, and have a good time. There’s almost no need for you to shake hands and schmooze besides for the fun of it. It’s always fun to talk to new people and learn new things. If you tell people you’re an undergrad, you will most likely get advice, asked for or not. The majority of conference attendees are academics, industry, and government professionals. In most cases they’re farther along in their career path. As social animals, humans like to share experiences and give advice. I think giving advice makes us feel good on some level. So take advantage of this if you don’t mind advice and ask questions that pertain to what you want to do. If you’re a senior, it’s also a great chance to ask about employment opportunities. A lot of times you may get directed to the company’s website, but if you hit it off with someone and give them a business card or get their email, that may help get your foot in the door.

Graduate Students
If you’re a grad student at a conference, you’re mostly likely presenting research. If you’re a first or second year grad student, you’re operating on a similar level at conferences as undergrads. You’re still considered “new” to the field and you should mainly go to present your work, meet people, learn things, and have fun. You’ll also get lots of advice.

If you’re a senior grad student looking to graduate, then your focus changes. Now you’re looking to meet people not just for fun, but to look for job opportunities. This puts a bit of pressure on you since there’s now something at stake, namely your career. Looking for employment at conferences is not like a job fair. Mostly people aren’t actively seeking people to hire at conferences. So your best bet is to strike up conversations, talk about what you do, ask about what they do, and see if there are mutual needs. One strategy I’ve found that works most of the time is to say you’re looking for a job and ask if they have any advice. Going back to humans are social animals, you’ll almost always get some kind of advice. They’ll also usually ask what kind of career you’d like, whether it’s academia, government, industry, or otherwise. If you don’t have a preference, then pick the answer that matched with the person you’re talking to. Getting their advice will put them in a more helpful frame of mind since it make the speak feel like a mentor which engenders a bit of desire to help. Then you can ask if they know of any openings in their place of work. Most of the time the answer may be no, but they’ll usually trade business cards with you. Then it’s your job to email them after the conference to follow up and see if the mentor feeling lasts long enough for them to poke around in their work place for you.

This is where I fall right now. As an academic, and a new one, my biggest goal is probably to try and get funding and collaboration. Both aren’t easy. In the same way people don’t go to conferences to hire people, they don’t go to give out grants either. The government agencies all have defined processes to give research funding. At a conference you can talk to the program managers and get a sense of what they’re interested in, but in my experience the program managers tend to be general in their advice. No one ever says “write this proposal and I’ll fund it.” Well, there is the exception that was the BP oil spill when certain agencies were funding lots of research in oil cleanup.  But unless there’s some crisis that needs immediate attention, program managers aren’t usually specific.

Industry managers are the same way, though they may be more willing to give you specific interests based on their current projects and products. It is possible to start the process to funding with industry from a conference by meeting them and setting up a later visit.

The second part of conferences is collaboration. We academics are very specialized in our research because we’re just one person. While the university may have hundreds of research areas, we don’t represent the whole university. So to do complicated research, you need help. A lot of times that help can come from other people at your university. Sometimes though the specialty you need is not at your home school, especially for smaller schools. Thus you have to look elsewhere. Conferences are a pretty good place for that since you get to see the kinds of research different groups are doing through the presentations. Most of the time people are willing to talk about collaborations, especially academics. The question of money and funding will always come up, but the first hurdle is to get the conversation started.




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