I began the week with the idea of summarizing the 2018 Meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (DAMOP). I’ve been taking notes of the talks and trying to write up something coherent, but I’m not very good at that so I’m changing course. If you’re interested in topical things, I suggest following the live twitter action at #DAMOP or watch for blog updates from folks more practiced at this than I.

Instead, I decided to do a couple of meta posts on conferences in general (with one notable exception that I hope to post later today). Most of my students have never attended a national conference, so I’d like to give them some small insight. Think of this first post as a “How To” document. The writing here isn’t my best as I’m typing this while trying to follow talks, so forgive me. (Also, typos abound.) That being said, I hope it’s useful.

What’s a conference

In brief, a conference is a gathering of folks with related interests to share information and ideas with similarly minded folks. In this case, the DAMOP conference consists of academic faculty, students, and researchers in atomic physics and related areas. Most of the ~1000 attendees are graduate students. The main purposes of attending a conference are

  • To share the work you’ve done and get feedback from your peers,
  • To see what others are working on and learn the latest advances, and
  • To meet people and make connections for future work, future employment, or simply to make friends with the same interests as you.

What happens at a conference

The main order of business is the presentation of talks and posters. Each conference does this in a slightly different way, but a typical day at DAMOP consists of oral sessions, snack breaks, and the poster session.

The oral sessions happen in the morning (starting at 8 a.m.) and first part of the afternoon. At any instant there are 8 rooms were talks are happening, grouped by subject matter. DAMOP is broad enough that usually most of the 8 sessions don’t have much topical overlap, so you can pick a room and stay there for the ~2 hours until the break. However, sometimes you have to switch rooms to see all of the talks that are interesting to you.

Deciding what talks to see

A good conference goer will pore over the program ahead of time and plan their schedule for the day. (Unfortunately, that’s not me.) Talks at DAMOP come in two flavors.

Invited talks are, as the name suggests, given by people nominated by the organizing committee of the conference. These are longer talks (30 minutes) that can give good background information on a field as well as, often, the most interesting new results. The presenters are usually professors or senior researchers, but sometimes advanced graduate students or post-docs will be invited to give talks.

Contributed talks are volunteer talks, if you will. Researchers submit abstracts a few months before the conference on work they would like to present. The organizing committee reads through these, approves them, and sorts them into categories. These are short talks (12 minutes), typically given by students and post-docs. (I’ll talk about preparing for the conference in a later post.)

My personal priorities for choosing talks are these:

1. Work similar to my own (obviously, this means my own students get top billing!)

This is the main reason to be at the conference. By seeing work similar to my own, I learn about things I should be doing (new experimental techniques, new analysis methods, theory predictions of interesting things I can measure), things I shouldn’t be doing (techniques that don’t work or are too difficult for me, dead ends unveiled by the theorists that may not be otherwise obvious), and things I may want to do in the future. In science, it is fair game to copy what other people are doing, so long as you give them credit. A conference is a great place to absorb a lot of these ideas in a short amount of time. I’ll say a little about how I listen to individual talks below.

2. Presentations by leaders in the field

After you’ve done work in a field long enough, you learn the BIG NAMES. At the conference, these are usually invited talks, so they are easy to identify in the program even if you’re not yet familiar with the people in your research field. Going to these talks gives me a good idea of the future of the field, and often contain the “oh, wow” moments of the conference. In short, this is where I go for inspiration.

3. Presentations by friends and co-workers

I also use conferences to get updates on what my old friends are doing professionally. Along the way I’ve met a lot of people that I consider friends, but don’t get to see them regularly. Former classmates, labmates, bosses, students, drinking buddies, etc. fall into this category. I try to go to their talks even if they’re totally unrelated to the work I’m going.

It’s also just a nice thing to do. Giving talks is intimidating, even if you’ve done it a million times, so seeing a few friendly faces in the crowd is encouraging. And it gives me an easy topic of conversation if I’ve been out-of-touch for a while.

4. Random talks

So this one is a little peculiar to myself, but if I have a gap in my schedule I like to drop into some random room (especially if there are a lot of people watching) to see what’s going on, even if it’s way out of my realm. Yesterday, for example, I sat through a couple of talks about using cold atoms to search for dark matter and other astro-physicky things. A lot of it was over my head, but it’s stimulating to think of all the possible things that one can do.

How to watch talks

There’s an art to watching conference talks. There is way too much information to absorb at once, and if you try your brain will turn into mush by the end of the first day. I mostly write down things I want to look up later. I think of talks as a way to see the broad outlines and get references to follow up on later. Most presenters will put bibliographic references in their talks. I write these down to look up later. Or, in the very least, I’ll write down the presenter’s name (or advisor’s name) and look them up on the internet later. I notably don’t try to transcribe the entire talk, or even do detailed notes unless it is something I really, really need to get now.

One recent trend that personally annoys me are folks in the audience who photograph every slide of every talk. This is distracting to me, and I think it is also a bit sketchy in terms of intellectual property. Most presenters will gladly send you a copy of their powerpoint slides if you ask, or at least they can give you copies of relevant papers. Taking photographs also means you’re paying more attention to your phone than you are the talk itself, and its unlikely that staring at blurry pictures of graphs and equations will teach you anything later.

Unless the presenter has gone over the time limit, there is an opportunity for the audience to ask questions at the end of the talk. Questions should be specific and relevant so as to not waste time. More detailed inquiries or discussion should happen outside of the session. Don’t be afraid to approach someone with questions! If there’s something you don’t understand, most presenters are happy to discuss their work later during the breaks, especially if the questioner is a student.

How to navigate the poster sessions

Typically the poster sessions are held in large exhibit halls or ballrooms. At DAMOP there are about 150 posters in each session. The main purpose of the poster sessions is to stimulate discussion. I like to wind my way through the hall and at least lay eyes on every poster. I rarely read an entire poster. Instead, if I see something interesting, I’ll ask the poster’s author to tell me about their work. That way I can get a condensed version and respond with questions if there are things I don’t understand. I can also ask for more detail than the poster itself contains.

I also tend to put on my professor hat when looking at posters. If I see a student standing by a poster looking nervous and lonely, I’ll stop and talk to them. Getting that little bit of attention from a stranger can be a big boost in confidence. I know from my own experience how bad it feels to stand in front of your poster for a couple of hours waiting for someone to come by. So, I try to throw some encouragement when I can.

The other function of the poster session is social. This is a time to meet up with friends and colleagues and talk about science or just decompress after a long day of brainwork. It’s also a good time to track down presenters you saw earlier in the day and ask more detailed questions about their talks. A lot of research collaborations happen from their spontaneous discussions in the isles of the poster hall.


That’s all I’ll say for now. I think the next post will discuss the session I attended yesterday on the graduate school admissions process. And then I’ll conclude (out of sequence, I know), with a post about how to prepare for conference.