I have been to two big computer science research conferences so far (ACL 2019 in Florence and CHI 2022 in New Orleans), and they can be quite overwhelming! These conferences tend to be huge and last several days in a new city (or even country). Here are my tips for preparing for your first conference.
By the way, if you are reading this because you are attending your first conference, congratulations! I hope you have a great time.
Table of Contents
- Arrange Travel Logistics
- Pack Your Bags
- Prepare to Meet New People
- COVID Precautions
Arrange Travel Logistics
You’ll need to arrange travel, lodging, conference registration, and meals. Typically, since this conference is essential for your training as a PhD student (and contributes to university business if you’re publishing or presenting a paper), your advisor will cover the previously mentioned costs. Do be sure to double check!
Travel tip: You don’t necessarily need to go straight to the conference and back! Some people choose to stay a few extra days before or after the conference to explore the city or relax. You will need to pay for the few extra nights of lodging but your department will probably cover transportation before and after the conference, even if it’s not all back-to-back.
You will likely need to pay a considerable amount out of pocket and request reimbursement after the conference. Make sure your keep all itemized receipts! If this is prohibitive to you, you can try asking for an advance or looking for travel grants outside the department. Some universities offer general conference travel assistance you can apply for and some conferences offer free registration in exchange for volunteer work at the conference. Finding a roommate for the hotel or visiting a local grocery store instead of eating out can also help lighten the financial load.
Some expenses can be paid for directly by the department. In my particular case, I was able to have the department pay directly for flights and conference registration, which helped the burden on my credit card. I did, however, still need to pay out of pocket and be reimbursed for my hotel and meals. In total, I ended up being reimbursed for a couple thousand dollars.
Universities typically post their reimbursement policies somewhere online (and different schools within a university may have different rules). Look these up and pay attention to limits on meals—this is most likely the place where you might accidentally overspend and not get fully reimbursed. By the way, you probably won’t be reimbursed for alcohol if you buy a drink with your meal.
Reimbursement tip: Ask your advisor—before you pay for anything—what can or cannot be reimbursed.
Reimbursement tip: Ask your labmates or other PhD students about their personal experiences with the reimbursement process. Some key details to look out for: how quickly reimbursement requests are typically processed and paid, common issues to avoid, and how to submit a reimbursement request in the first place.
Reimbursement tip: Figure out a way to organize your receipts before you leave for the conference. I took a picture of each itemized receipt and schedule-sent it to myself so it would arrive the Monday after my conference. When I was ready to deal with reimbursements, I just went through my inbox one email receipt at a time and cross-referenced with the running list of expenses I kept track of. It was a little chaotic, but it was less chaotic than searching through my photo library and less effort than being more organized, so it worked for me. (Let me know if you can think of anything easier or better 😁)
Unless the conference happens to be very close to you, you will probably need to fly to your conference, which also means you need to transport yourself to and from the airport. When I traveled this year, I booked a flight through my department’s travel agency and didn’t pay out of pocket—but I was able to collect rewards points on my frequent flier number because the agent asked for it! It’s the little things, right? I requested reimbursement for taxis to and from the airport.
Travel tip: Keep your frequent flier numbers and rewards cards handy whenever you travel. You can collect rewards points even if you’re not paying for them. I emailed all my numbers to myself and starred the message so it’s always at the top of my inbox.
Travel tip: Taxis to and from the airport and conference center count as conference-related travel. If you need it, take it!
Booking a hotel is more or less the most straightforward part of this entire process. You can even do it online!
The hotel will probably be the most expensive reimbursement item. The conference website may display some discounts they negotiated with nearby hotels, and doubling up with a roommate may help with the out-of-pocket cost. Hotels won’t charge you until after you check out, and hopefully your reimbursement request will be processed and paid quickly after your submit it.
Lodging tip: Book your hotel as fast as possible. The hotels close to the conference venue tend to sell out fast.
Conference registration should also be pretty simple, but some conferences offer different packages, which can be confusing. Big computer science conferences tend to have the main conference, which lasts several days, and workshops, which are one- or two-day events before or after the main conference. You might hear of a workshop being “co-located” with a conference. That means that that workshop and conference are happening at the same place, so you can attend that workshop if you attend that conference. Some conferences also offer courses, tutorials, demos, or other special sessions. Workshops and these special sessions may or may not be included with registration for the main conference—consult the website or someone who has attended that conference before if you need help figuring out what to register for (which may affect when you book your hotel and schedule your flights for).
Many professional societies offer steep discounts for conference registration if you purchase a membership. Your advisor might ask you to sign up for this (and the conference itself might require it). Your department should cover this expense too.
Registration tip: Your university’s finance office might be able to pay for these fees directly. Ask around if you (like me) want to reduce the amount you put on your card. In my experience, I went to my finance office, registered on their computer, and asked an officer to pay with the university credit card.
You’ll probably eat a lot of takeout or restaurant meals. Pay out of pocket and keep an itemized receipt. Make sure you’re aware of any spending limits—in my department, the spending limit for breakfast and lunch is less than for dinner, and alcohol is not reimbursed. There’s a way to work around a lost receipt, but do try your best to keep a record.
Pack Your Bags
I recently went to a conference and kept track of everything I wish I had brought so I could tell all of you! Before you take anything out of your closet, however, you should think about putting extra food in your pantry. The last conference I went to was hit with a COVID surge. Even if you test negative when you come back, you should isolate for at least five days because some people have reported testing negative for a few days before getting sick and you are considered contagious starting two days before symtoms appear. Stocking your pantry before the trip will make your life after it a little easier.
Some items in my list of clothes are listed as “2 __ for every 3 days”—this is mostly because I felt kinda gross wearing the same pair of shoes and whatnot for more than two days in a row and would have liked to alternate more, but you do you. You can also totally repeat outfits. I just like having a fresh shirt or dress every day.
Onwards to my personal list of conference must-haves!
- 2 pairs of shoes for every 3 days
- 2 pairs of pants for every 3 days
- 1 blouse per day
- 2 dressy jackets/cardigans for every 3 days
- 2 hoodies
- One for sleeping and one for outside, because I get cold at night and I don’t like getting in bed with my “outside clothes” on. This might be an unpopular opinion, haha!
- Maybe a couple dresses or skirts if the weather is supposed to be hot
- Socks, undergarments, accessories, whatever
- 1 set of pajamas for every week
- “A bunch” of casual clothes to wear during off hours
- A variety of short- and long-sleeved pants and shirts! Weather, air conditioning, and central heat can be unpredictable.
- 1 set of “airplane clothes”
- Toiletries, medication, other personal items
- You may want to buy travel-sized soap at a local convenience store if you don’t like the amenities the hotel provides.
- I always buy travel-sized contact lens solution at the airport or destination just in case it gets confiscated at security (plus I’m just busy).
- Get yourself a hanging toiletry bag!! It’s the best thing ever. I have two—I generally prefer the medium, but I use the small when I’m only packing a carry-on.
- 1 pair of hotel slippers, because hotel floors are kinda icky
- DON’T FORGET YOUR (SUN)GLASSES! (and extra contact lenses, if applicable)
What to bring to the conference
- Laptop, charger (optional)
- Phone charger/extra battery
- Mints or gum
- Pen and notebook
- Try using skin tape instead of bandaids to prevent blisters.
- I’ll update this post with a specific recommendation once I find a brand I really like!
- Snacks, water
- If you’re presenting
- Presentation remote
- Backup PDF of presentation on a flash drive
- USB-C adapter (because I have one of those computers with four USB-C ports and nothing else…)
- Tissues/baby wipes/face wipes—a lifesaver when you’re out-and-about and feeling a bit grimy!
Prepare to Meet New People
Are you still with me? Almost done, promise!
Conferences, especially the big ones, are great places to meet new people. If this is your first conference, and not many people from your program are going, you might not know anyone. That’s okay! Try asking your advisor to introduce you to some people they know—maybe you can grab some group meals together. There’s nothing wrong with hanging out on your own either. At my first couple of conferences, I peacefully went in and out of session rooms and ate a few meals by myself. When you’re surrounded by so much activity, some time to yourself can be a relief!
Some conferences ask for volunteers or offer a buddy program that pairs junior attendees with senior attendees. These are great opportunities to meet people, if you’re interested. Don’t be afraid of the snowball method: when you meet one person, you may meet several more, and so on! Soon enough, you’ll have plenty of conference friends.
Before attending the conference, have a look at the agenda for presentations you might want to attend. Challenge yourself to ask at least one question! If you don’t want to ask in front of everyone, you can also wait until the end of the session and ask the speaker one-on-one. You can also look for authors of previous papers you might want to talk with and ask if they are attending the conference. Conferences usually have coffee breaks, poster sessions, and other down time you can meet up during. A friendly cold email is perfectly okay!
Since you’ll be meeting a bunch of new people, you’ll also be introducing yourself a lot. Prepare your elevator pitch! It doesn’t have to be long or fancy. Mine was something along the lines of Hi, I’m Alyssa, and I’m interested in voice assistants! One funny thing about conferences that I didn’t expect: introducing myself so many times helped refine my elevator pitch—and my own interests! Being forced to describe myself in a sentence over and over again was like fast-forwarding my soul search.
Networking tip: Some large companies have networking parties in the evenings. Try to get yourself on the guest list! You may need to have an employee invite you, but I think you can sometimes find registration online or in special email lists. Last resort, you can stop by their booth at the conference and ask if they have any openings. Keep your eyes open!
Unfortunately, COVID still affects us and it looks like it’s here to stay. I got COVID at my last conference— the illness itself was not as bad as other colds I’ve had, but I really struggled (and sometimes still do) brain fog and a lingering cough afterwards. The risks of COVID also disproportionately affect those of us who are immunocompromised. We need to protect ourselves and our community! A few things you can do…
- Mask up at the airport, on the plane, and at the conference.
- Do a rapid test every day and isolate if you test positive.
- Err on the side of caution and isolate if you feel at all sick—my symptoms started with a mild scratchy throat and I thought I was just losing my voice from a week of nonstop talking!
- Avoid crowded venues (this may, unfortunately, include the previously mentioned networking parties).
- Prepare to isolate and test for at least five days when you come home.
- Some people test negative for a few days before getting sick, even on PCR tests!
- You may want to stock up on food before you leave for the conference, just in case you get sick right after.
- Create a backup plan if you get “stuck” at the conference, especially if you are traveling out of the country.
- Will you continue staying at the hotel? How will you eat or get medicine? Who will pay for it?
- If you can, avoid scheduling any important work or events within two to three weeks of coming back. You may need time to recover from COVID or any lingering symptoms (long COVID). Hopefully, this will end up not being necessary and you can just have a relaxing few weeks. :)
Have fun, be safe, and learn a lot!