Surviving Math Conferences

Conferences are a great opportunity to learn mathematics, mainly by meeting others in your field. In this post we’ll look at some ideas on how to make the most of attending a conference. The original version of this post was based upon my trip to Strasbourg but since then I’ve been to a few more conferences and have updated this guide significantly.

What are conferences for?

Conferences are for meeting people that are interested in the same stuff you are. Of course, you can learn mathematics from the talks, but mere passive listening isn’t likely to be very useful. You can learn much more by actually talking to people who do the results you’re interested in. Not only can they explain what they are talking about, but conversations have a wonderful way of randomly touching upon all sorts of topics you may not have ever thought of.

What happens at a conference?

There are talks, meeting others, conference dinners, and getting up too early. Sightseeing is also common, which is why staying a few extra days is always a good idea.

How do I find funding?

Your supervisor, your department, the conference hosts, and soaring stocks all are potential sources of funding. Looking early often means everything will be covered. Of course, if you still need to fork over a few hundred dollars, doing so might be worth it. I fully understand however if you find choosing between a conference and a macro lens difficult.

How do I get reimbursed?

This usually involves submitting a form with relevant receipts such as boarding passes. If you are being funded in some way by the conference hosts, print your flight or train receipts beforehand, and ask your hotel for an extra copy, so you can just give your hosts this information immediately. You may also need your bank account information for direct deposits, including the SWIFT code for international transfers if you are going to another country. Your bank should have all of this information available, most likely on its website. If your bank is Canadian, then it might not have an IBAN number. The point is, check the specific requirements, and complete them as soon as possible.

How do I find a hotel?

Read TripAdvisor to read ratings of hotels. Spend a few hours so you can avoid bedbugs, runways, drug dealers, and ebola. Hotels with kitchenette’s are also good to look for if you dislike eating oversalted food. This will also save you money if you are not being fully funded, and is nice if you need extra time to work at your hotel. Of course, you should not forget to sample some fine local restaurants with excellent reviews.

Other things to look for in a hotel are: gym, pool, complementary shuttle, and refrigerator. A refrigerator is especially important if you want cold milk first thing every morning.

How can I get enough fiber in my diet?

Go to the local grocery store and buy vegetables. You can keep them in the refrigerator, or in the ice bucket if there’s no refrigerator. It might be good to bring vitamins.

Should I give a talk?

If possible, you should always give a talk. If no such opportunity exists, a poster might also work but posters aren’t as common in math as in other disciplines.

How do I prepare my talk?

Figure out an interesting result of yours that you’d like to talk about, and explain what it means and some of its consequences. Avoid giving immense details of proofs unless you really know your audience will enjoy it. Very few people care about seeing complicated proofs in talks, and those that do can just ask at lunch. Use a minimal amount of notation. If necessary, give special cases of your theorem and plenty of examples. If you use slides, keep as little information as possible on each slide. Rehearse your talk at least once before you do it.

How can I avoid being nervous for my talk?

Knowing the material well, including some motivation helps. Using slides instead of writing might help but board talks are often more engaging than slides. In truth, I still get nervous before talks and for some people I believe there is no way to prevent it.

How can I avoid insomnia?

You should find a hotel with a gym and take long walks, preferably during daylight in dangerous cities like Newark. Sleep is often hard to get at hotels. A sleeping mask and earplugs help. I also carry a full-sized humidifier in my checked luggage and it helps with dry air during the winter.

Sitting all day is uncomfortable!

That’s not a question, but it is indeed. Seating quality varies from place to place, which is why you should always bring along a seat cushion. Sitting on your coat won’t make much of a difference. Standing up and a short walk or run between talks helps tremendously. However, there is bound to be a little discomfort.

How do I choose a good conference?

The talk abstracts should sound interesting and the talks should not start before 9AM. After a while, you’ll start to know who’s in your field and who gives good talks. Many junior talks are often good because their talks are still understandable.

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