I recently had the chance to attend the NeurIPS conferences in person in New Orleans. Despite being a PhD student for almost four years, because of covid and a research detour this was actually the first in-person conference I attended. Due to its scale, with more than 2,600 accepted papers in the main track and more than 10,000 people attending, it was an extremely overwhelming experience.
Somehow, the simple fact of being surrounded by all these busy people going places and doing things was already somewhat tiring on its own. But it was pretty easy to tell that I was not the only one to be tired from all the social interactions! Many were sitting in the hallways with their back to the wall with their laptop, some scrolling Twitter and some on Overleaf. I was also surprised by the number of people from industry, but it makes a lot of sense to use NeurIPS as chance for talent scouting.
The information overload was insane, with two poster sessions each day for six days and more than 400 posters in every session, and all the chatter about ChatGPT erupting on Twitter. You are obviously not expected to meaningfully engage with even an appreciable portion of the posters. As my research topics only constitute a tiny portion of the total poster area, I resorted to simply walking around and reading the posters’ titles, snapping a picture of those that sound most interesting for me or my colleagues, with the idea of coming back to them at a later point. Even this took me about 45 minutes of each poster session!
It was while dining at a restaurant with some new friends that I had an important insight:
The purpose of conferences is to network and connect with people.
Yes, it sounds really obvious and dumb, but as I said this is the first in-person conference I attend, and the virtual substitutes we tried during covid fell rather short.
I realized this when I started chatting with three guys from the table next to ours, because I thought I knew one of them (turns out I didn’t). They were colleagues from the same company and were rather surprised when I told them that I and the people at my table all met each other at the conference. They asked “how did you meet?” and I replied simply “we started talking”. This almost sounds comical now, but you need to realize that this was a computer science conference with a large number of.. introvert at best, and socially challenged at worst, people.
I confirmed the principle above when I talked to a team lead next to their poster about finding a job in the industry. I was afraid I’d bother him with a question he probably heard a thousand times and my boring story he probably doesn’t care about, but he was actually super nice, gave me a few interesting insights and important “insider” tips about recruitment. He then left me his business card and told me to feel free to contact him if I have something interesting.
You see, almost everybody attending a conference expects to connect with people. There’s no need to worry about asking stupid questions or being boring. Unless you are rude or inopportune there’s really nothing to fear about approaching anybody at a conference, the worst that can happen is that they forget you after ten minutes.
In particular, senior people already expect to be approached by juniors. Yann LeCun knows there will be a bunch of people queuing to take a selfie with him, so one more person will not make much of a difference for him (I used my chance to ask him a research question instead). Similarly, team leads and principal investigators know that interested people will ask them questions about working with them or at their institution, and may even be actively looking for motivated people/
Moreover, everybody loves to talk about their work, so there is also no need to worry about asking “stupid” or basic questions. Especially in this field, most people are very chill and won’t act smug when consulted. One of the friends I made there works with medical doctors and said that things in that community are different and juniors are frequently looked-down by seniors.
Some friends who recently started their PhD asked me whether this or that conference or symposium would be interesting to attend, or lamented that they went to an event and did not find a lot of interesting research. After NeurIPS, my advice is simple:
Go to conferences, meet people, be shameless (politely).
In our field of computer science, machine learning computational biology etc., the technical and scientific content of a conference is less interesting because it probably already appeared as a pre-print months earlier (I remember seeing the poster of some articles I felt were already rather old, that’s how fast the field is moving) or will soon be available in the proceedings.