Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Professor PaleoGould's completely unvetted guide to surviving five day conferences

Five day conferences are fun, and intellectually stimulating, and will provide you with experiment and grant ideas for months. They are also an absolute physical and mental marathon, not to mention a financial black hole, that can leave you a drained zombie surviving on complimentary SouthWest peanuts by day three. I have been doing five day conferences since I started graduate school, and after ending up as said zombie one too many times, I have developed a few ideas to help. These ideas primarily work for a man travelling alone without children who is comfortable navigating big cities, and is a pretty extroverted and social person. I understand that there are challenges for others that I don't address. If there's anything you think I have missed that is important, please weigh in in the comments. The focus here is not on how to get the most out of the talks (though I touch on that), but how to manage your physical and mental energy to make it through tfive days without needing a holiday to recover.

1) Travel is exhausting, recognize this. If you're travelling more than two hours to get to the conference, you will be exhausted by the time you get there. Doubly so if you're flying through multiple time zones. Don't plan to go out or catch up with friends the day you arrive. Register, attend the plenary, shake a few hands, drink a lot of water and have a light quiet meal and get to bed. Start day one on the right foot.

2) Plan ahead. Both for the science, and the practicalities. Figure out how to get from the airport to the hotel. Does the public transit system run when your flight lands? How long does the journey take? Both before hand (google maps is your friend) and on the first day, do some quick reconnaissance. Find the nearest coffee place that is not in the conference hotel, the nearest chemist (for my UK friends) or drugstore (for my US friends), and the nearest grocery store. The aim here is to emancipate yourself from the conference hotel's amenities. That will save both your pocketbook, and your sanity when it comes to dealing with milling crowds of grumpy, jetlagged academics waiting to order theirs first coffee.
As for the science, go through the talk titles and circle the ones you are interested in. This is a great use of airplane time. Get a rough idea of what days are full of things that might be important, and what days less so. Identify conflicts between concurrent sessions in advance, and only read abstracts closely in that case. Write down clearly when your poster or talk is, and recognise the restrictions that places on what you can do. This will help you when dealing with the rush and panic of finding a talk to see among a dozen concurrent sessions.

3) Once you get to the meeting, accept serendipity. Talks will run over, you will miss sessions you wanted to see. You will oversleep. Lunch will take too long. You will run into a old friend/collaborator who is leaving that evening right as you're about to enter the most interesting session of the day but you haven't seen this person in two years. It's fine. The plan you did was to help guide you through the chaos of talks. It is not a map of your actions. Conferences are about serendipity and happy accidents that result from concentrating a bunch of people with shared interests in one space. There's actually research on this stuff.

4) Pace yourself, and take downtime. Don't force yourself to go to an entire afternoon if you only saw one talk you were interested all afternoon (in my case, invariably, because it was Fish and Dinosaur day at SVP). Go up to your room, sit, read a book, call a loved one, take a nap.

5) Exercise, but differently. The hotel will have amenities but not the ones you're used to. And your body is not in the state you're used to. Now is not the time to try to break your rep max on deadlifts. Pick an easy half hour workout. A good body resistance circuit if the hotel has a fitness center. A three mile run if weather permits. Swimming if there is a pool. A simplified vinyasa if all you have is your room. The aim here is to exercise and stretch your body, and take your mind out of the crowd and conference space.

6) Don't party every night. Conference parties are fun. Hanging out with old friends at the hotel bar until 2am is fun. But do not do it every night. That way lies missing out on the conference. And even if you stay up until 2am, stop drinking alcohol much earlier. Go to bed tired, sober, and well hydrated.

7) Vary your diet. Don't eat at the nearest sandwich place every day. Find the food trucks. Explore. Your body will thank you.

8) Say yes to random invitations, but learn to eat alone. If you're chatting enthusiastically with someone you've just met, and their friends turn up, and they invite you to join them for lunch, say yes. Good things may come of it and you'll have more friendly faces in the crowd. On the other hand, learn to eat on your own. Sometimes you won't find anyone to go with. And sometimes you'll want to be as far away from people as possible. Take a chance: pick a restaurant you like the sound of, go there, sit at the bar with a good book and order a meal by yourself. It is a very calming experience in the middle of a meeting.

9) take time off. Remember that afternoon with almost no relevant talks? Take it off. Go to a museum, or exploring, or to a slightly further away but well regarded restaurant. Some meetings include afternoons off in their schedule. If your meeting doesn't, schedule your own.

10) If your hotel has a 39th floor bar with panoramic views of the city, go there. Part of meetings is embracing what the moment brings.

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