Wading in the Shallow End: Why You Should Get Your Feet Wet at Research Conferences

Recently I’ve received a lot of questions about research conferences I attend and how do I make the best of them. I feel like I touched on this a bit in other blogs about other conferences but I’m going to put this is in context of a recent conference I went to in Cambridge, UK. The conference is titled VL/HCC and it stands for Visual Language and Human Centered Computing Conference. There are actually many reasons, some shallow and some deep, why I like to go to conferences but I’ll just touch on a few here.

P.S. All of these reasons are addressed to you, the reader,  in hopes that each one will encourage you to make it the next research conference you’ve been thinking about going to. I do want to make sure I acknowledge that these are really my reasons for going to conferences.

  1. Get to know the state of your research community….beyond what you can read online

For conferences in Computer Science I feel like this is especially important because I get a LIVE interpretation of what’s happening in the field. One important thing to mention here is that it is a different interpretation from what I get online from just reading the papers. When I’m in the presence of the actual researchers I can engage in intense conversations and go on tangents about our research. I have the opportunity to ask thorough questions and have a researcher’s honest attention rather than adding to the millions of emails that get caught in their spam filters.

Also, something else really important here is that I get to actually put a face to the researchers. This is really important for me since I struggle trying to remember which papers goes with which name off the top of my head. However, at conferences, they are no longer just names on my golden set of go-to papers to cite; they are now tangible beings that have a wealth of knowledge to share. It helped me retain more details about their work now that I had a face and a real person to match with it.

  1. Makes you get on YOUR game

When you’re at a conference you have the opportunity to present your research through a tool demo, poster presentation, or even a 15-30min talk. Preparing for these presentations can encourage you to know what you’re talking about. After all, how can you give a talk convincing others that your research project has made a real impact to the field if you don’t believe it yourself. You also have to be equipped with the ins and outs of the project to answer the detailed questions people may throw at you. Conferences are a healthy way to challenge yourself. For this conference in particular, I should have equipped myself with more of the background literature for my presentation. But this was a nice opportunity for me to recognize that!

I once heard people refer to these talks as a mini interview talks. You want to have a good presentation so audience members can ask  good questions that really make you think about the next steps of the project.

(Quick Aside: You can always tell how confusing your talk may have been if you get a lot of questions about things you already explained)

Me trying to make a “neutral face” as Justin snapped a pic at the Graduate Consortium

Another reason I would say conferences make you get on your game is because there are so many people who are at the conference who are killing the game and doing some down-right amazing things! Being around excellence really does encourage you to strive for more. Conferences are a good way to compare the strive amongst your colleagues. Especially those who are at the same stage in their tenure as you.

  1. The many opportunities to collaborate

At these conferences you will find out that you are not the only who may be investigating a particular problem. In fact, you may find that you have other people investigating a similar problem but from a perspective you never really thought was feasible before. My advice is to definitely reach out to that person! After speaking with them and discussing the pros and cons for each direction you may discover that this will be a great opportunity to team up and work together on a project.

For me it was great to small talk with people about my project at my poster and hear how they were able to connect their research to my own. This drove an amazing discussion about new directions to test out together!

I’m not saying that it’s going to happen so eloquently for everyone but at these conferences you have the opportunity for this to happen naturally.

  1. Gaining mentors (network, network, network)

If I learned anything from my undergraduate schooling, it is to always network and meet new people. Our NCSU Software Engineering rule is to intentionally hang out with people you didn’t know before you got to the conference. The unspoken rule some of us like to go by is to leave the conference with at least 3 new contacts. It’s always great to get plugged into the community and meet the other players of this game we call “research”.

In addition, I think it’s important to network with the other students as well. After all they will become your peers, if you ever graduate(*really just reflecting on my own progress here*), that will write our tenure letters in the future. It’s too soon to tell yet for me but according to what the professors keep telling me, it’s important to form these bonds early before your peers get too famous 😜.

Justin, Pat, and I at Big Ben!

At a small conference like VL/HCC there happens to be a lot of veteran researchers who are open to discuss budding research projects on an intimate level. It’s important to take advantage of these opportunities to put your name and work out there. Especially since many of them have been in your shoes before and can provide 1:1 guidance and informally become one of your mentors.

Picture of the beginning of the Graduate Consortium
  1. “Oh the places you’ll go..”

A faculty member once came and gave a talk about about glorified reasons we should actually finish our PhD and pursue faculty positions. His pitching point: “Oh the places you’ll go”. For conferences, you may travel to places you would have never imagined. Of

course it’s good to keep in mind that you are actually there for the conference, but you also have the
opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture wherever the conference is located. Often times the conference will intertwine the theme of the conference with the location. For me, it’s important to take advantage of this.

The beauty in all of this is that you get to go to these places for FREE(sometimes). The conferences may have funding from your advisor, graduate consortiums(as I participated in at VL/HCC), student volunteers, or external conference travel awards to knock down the full price of attending.

So with that being said I encourage anyone(researcher or aspiring researcher) to jump on the opportunity to challenge yourself and present your research at a conference!

Buckingham Palace and a selfie at the Queen Victoria Memorial

first time’s the charm

As a first year student I had the rare opportunity of having my first paper, Exploring the Causes of Frustration for Software Developers, submitted and get accepted! Writing this first paper was quite intimidating at first. But it definitely helped that I had previously started writing about the work. My advisor and I worked through many revisions before submitting the final product.

#ICSE15 with Dr. Heckman
#ICSE15 with Dr. Heckman

As someone who is still new to technical writing I found it very valuable to have gone through those multiple drafts. In addition to that my advisor recommended writing a blog so that I could be able to talk about my research to the normies(i.e. non researchers). I can honestly say that writing the ‘medium-formal’ research blog and the ‘cool’ buzzfeed post about this work definitely guided my approach for the poster and presentation for the conference.

From the 16th to the 23rd of May I was able to travel to Florence, Italy to attend the conference, #ICSE15, for this work. At the conference I was also selected as the first person at my workshop, #CHASE15, to give a presentation on my paper.

poster presented at conference
Poster presented

Of course, with this being my first presentation I was scared but surprisingly it all went well. It was well received by the audience and I got some pretty nice questions. After my presentation my advisor introduced me to other researchers at the conference. It was amazing because I was finally able to put faces to all the amazing researchers whose work I’ve read.

It was also great to network with other researchers and hear them passionately talk about their research topics. Some being Bogdan Vasilescu’s work on Perceptions of Diversity on GitHub: A User Survey and Maryi Arciniegas-Mendez’s Regulation as an Enabler for Collaborative Software Development. For those who are interested, their slides and papers can be found online.

On top of that, Maryi, a presenter at the workshop, and I randomly set up a trip to go to Rome the next day! This just goes to show you the type of networks that can be formed at these conferences.

at the colosseum
THE Colosseum
Maryi and I
Maryi and I

Going to this conference honestly allowed me to become more comfortable in my skin as a researcher. Getting this paper accepted made me feel like I am personally being accepted as a REAL researcher. Like my work is ACTUALLY impacting the field and other researchers ACTUALLY welcome my contributions. Such an amazing feeling.  

Going to the conference definitely encouraged me to continue my research efforts (Especially since at the conference I was working on another paper 😛). All in all, ending this first year of the PhD program at this conference was truly the icing on the cake. I can’t wait to see what next year has in store!