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Riding a Conference Coaster

At the 2011 Efficiency, Cost, Optimisation, Simulation
and Environmental Impact of Energy Systems
Conference attendance is something like a trip to a
theme park.  Long periods spent waiting interspersed
with moments of fun. The truth be told, conferences are really what you make
them of yourself. There are many different ways to visit a theme park or
indeed to attend a conference, although some ways are better than others. No
matter the quality of the theme park or the conference, the quality of your
experience is primarily determined by your own approach. Whether a novice or an
expert, whether a conference is your first or your last, I firmly believe that
with considerable thought and preparation, you are in control when it comes to
guaranteeing a worthwhile experience.

With apologies for the clichéd alliteration, there
are three words I keep in mind when it comes to conference attendance: purpose,
preparation and proactivity. If I know why I’m attending and I’m both prepared
and proactive in achieving my goals, it makes the time, travel and money all
the better spent.
For me, in the early stages of my graduate studies, the purpose of
conference attendance is to discover emerging fields of research. My primary
focus is upon the identification of opportunities to conduct meaningful
research. Very often, I find that presentations will focus upon solutions, upon
a given technology such as plastics that withstand high temperatures, without
necessarily presenting details on the problem this might solve. From a
scientific point of view, discoveries are often made and only later are suitable
problems found for those solutions to be of practical use. That’s not to say
that to solve problems is either more or less virtuous, but it certainly is a
question worth asking when it comes to the purpose of conference attendance, “Am
I seeking problems or solutions, am I a problem solver or a curious researcher?”
Possibly the most effective, but also most
neglected, preparation you can do prior to a conference is to prepare a
memorable line you can use to introduce yourself to others. In my case I will
often say “I’m Ronan, from Ireland. I work on energy and water treatment
systems at MIT”. Rather than conveying your specific research topic, it is more
important to convey your general area of interest, making it easier to identify
common areas of interest. Secondly, business cards, with a photograph if
possible, are a necessity if you’re to be in any way memorable to and
contactable by those you meet. Of the 18 business cards I collected at the
recent ECOS conference, only 2 had photographs: This, despite the fact that a photograph
is possibly the most memorable of souvenirs one could give away.
Remembering what other people work on is just as
important as having them remember you. One means of being proactive in this
regard is to immediately write on their card why they are important to you as a
contact. This works well. Firstly, you are actively reflecting upon the
conversation and secondly, you have a written record of why this person was
memorable. Being proactive when it comes to promoting and communicating the
time and location of your own talk is also important. This is particularly true
if you are young, unknown and wish to garner substantial attendance. Asking
people in advance of your talk for feedback on your work is another excellent
way of having an engaged and interested audience at your presentation.
With careful preparation
and a proactive mindset, a conference experience can be a more creative, interactive
and rewarding experience. As a side note, the conventional structure associated
with conferences could most certainly be analysed and developed. Indeed, this
would make for another interesting discussion. However, as I have here tried to
elucidate, each attendee can, independently, significantly improve upon
what is to be gained from a conference by clearly defining their purpose, and
then preparing and participating in a proactive manner. Also, for those who are
particularly prepared and proactive, some judicious conference planning may just allow for a conference and roller-coaster combo.

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