Should I attend this scientific conference?
September 23, 2014 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering attending the Geological Society of America conference this October in Vancouver, BC. I'm an undergrad geology student, and a student member of GSA. I'm not making a presentation, receiving an award, or bringing a poster. Do people ever attend conferences like this for fun? Or would I end up feeling like it was a waste of time and money, attending a conference that really wasn't intended for people like me?

I wouldn't mind a chance to network- participate in their meet a mentor student program and maybe find some possibilities for summer internships or a future job. And I live in Portland, OR- so this year's meeting is conveniently located. I have a tiny amount of experience with poster presentations, but I've never been to a conference like this (unless you count SXSW?), but there are plenty of presentations on technical topics listed that sound interesting to me. However, this would mean missing 4 days of classes, which, depending on the workload might lead to a sort of stressful few days or week of trying to catch up- something I wouldn't really want to do without a good reason. (And I'm excited about the topics of my classes, too- so it's not like I'd be trading something boring for something interesting for a few days.) Would this conference be a valuable experience for me? Or maybe I should wait until I have a better reason to go?
posted by Secretariat to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to your professors about it and see if they think it'd be valuable.
posted by telophase at 10:25 AM on September 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

I suspect that most of the information will be way over your head. That was my experience at my first conference when I was starting graduate school. Anyway, that probably doesn't matter, if your goal is the networking aspect of it (which is a totally legitimate reason to attend a conference like this). If you can afford the time and the cost, you should go for it. Might be a great experience for you.
posted by alex1965 at 10:28 AM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to this specific conference, but I attended (three, maybe four? It was a long time ago!) conferences "for fun" as in my last two years as an undergrad, and found them very interesting. If you can afford it and are willing to put yourself out there and take advantage of the opportunity to make contacts and find mentors and internship opportunities, do it.

Also, the university I attended had a travel allowance that undergrads could apply for to do exactly this, so you might want to find out if that's available to you.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 10:29 AM on September 23, 2014

Best answer: Knowledge is intended for people like you. Go, watch, listen. Nothing to lose.
posted by Namlit at 10:34 AM on September 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I went to a Soils conference back when I was a grad student, but I had no poster or presentation (fellow students from my department did). It was a great experience overall, I knew what to expect when/if I did give a poster presentation in the future (which I did end up doing, but not at that conference), and I got to see a bunch of talks in my field. I didn't feel lost or overwhelmed, and even talks that were outside of my immediate specialty were informative and accessible. I'd vote go, if it's not too expensive for you to go.
posted by mathowie at 10:41 AM on September 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: If you work one of the days, you can get free registration. Does your department/university have travel grants? If GSA were that close to me, I would make it a point to go.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:42 AM on September 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

I liked going to professional conferences when I was in undergrad and grad school. They were not directed at me, but I learned a lot and got to see a glimpse into my professional future. Many of them will have special student rates and your department may be able to help with travel costs or point you toward programs that give out grants. I'd say do it! They can be quite educational and motivational.
posted by quince at 10:46 AM on September 23, 2014

Look at the schedule. There may even be a student track, but you can at least decide if there are enough .presentations you would benefit from. Most professional organizations have will have enough of interest for people at different levels. There may be scholarships. Unless a faculty member tells you the conference is a bad idea, go.
posted by theora55 at 10:48 AM on September 23, 2014

Best answer: Volunteer, or at the very least make sure you get everything in the student rate, and go. Conferences are great if you are considering going into any sort of grad work. I found it a great experience in getting an idea of the breadth of geology - networking with poster presenters, asking grad students what their experience is with a certain school or faculty member is, drinking the free beer...all key parts of the geology conference experience. Companies often go as well and present on any new science-y things they're developing. Be willing to earnestly talk to people, and you never know who will open the right door for you. Maybe you have a passion for acid mine drainage you never knew you had.

Your profs in your geology classes will probably understand and potentially give extensions, and might even be going so potentially will cancel their classes. (In our department, most classes get cancelled during PDAC since almost everyone goes. GSA may not have quite the same turnout, but it's a big deal.)

Holler if you want any specifics - I'm a tech in a Canadian geology department, and have both volunteered and presented at a few geology conferences. Volunteering is great, btw.
posted by aggyface at 10:57 AM on September 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a geologist. GSA conferences as an undergrad are awesome - some of my best memories are of going to AAPG or GSA with fellow students, crashing 6-8 in a 4 person room, and going to various presentations. It's a great way to feel like part of your profession. Here are reasons why you should go:

* The exhibition hall. SWAG! Seriously - you can get free copies of software, get books, see exhibits for various universities and talk to grad students for their grad programs, talk to companies about what they need/want from future employees, and get free stuff.

*Yes, some presentations will be over your head, but this is how you learn. Go through the program and pick out a few you want to see. Sit through an entire session. Not only will you be introduced to new work and exciting research, this is how you start honing in on where YOU want to go and study.

*Poster presentations. You get to pick the author's brains. You get to learn. You get to see how a poster is done. You know what you want? You may not know it yet, but you want a poster of your own there in your senior year. That's how you get attention, win prizes - there's undergrad student competitions - and gain some employer attention/padding for the resume.

*This is a tremendous learning experience, and it's different from AAPG, which is very technical and not as multi-disciplinary.

*There's a lot of student events - free breakfasts, social hours, etc. Go! There may even be student field trips.

*You will feel so excited and invigorated after the conference. You may have met a future adviser for grad school or seen a field that really caught your attention. As a student, you also get to dip a toe into a lot of waters. Once you've started down a path, it will be harder to do that - you'll feel obligated to go to presentations in your field.

*At previous GSAs people have seen the first results of Mars research and amazing presentations on the tsunamis and earthquakes of Indonesia/Japan - these are geared toward the entire audience and are often the first results prior before publication. These are AWESOME.

GSA is not just about presenting knowledge and research. It's about being part of a group of professionals engaged in a common purpose. Your level of knowledge is not important. As a student, you will be treated as a very special part of the profession: the future. You're important. GSA wants students there, and does a lot to encourage their participation. Go.

*Also did I mention the swag? And free swag, for a student, often includes free membership and digital subscriptions to societies and journals.
posted by barchan at 11:01 AM on September 23, 2014 [23 favorites]

Absolutely! I'm a professional, and frequently go to conferences outside my field "for fun." I always learn something I can take back and use in my job, and the exposure to new ideas, new people, new research, etc., is really stimulating and beneficial.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:14 AM on September 23, 2014

I'd vote for going if you are thinking about graduate school and can afford it (nth-ing student rates, volunteering, etc.) People are recommending this above but I wanted to make it explicit - if at all possible, make contact with people from your home institution before you go.

In addition to the possibility of funds (and hotel room floors) materializing, it's also nice to know at least a few people at a big conference. Not so much because you'll troop around with them the whole time (neither possible nor really advisable for you to have your own best experience - go to student tracks and/or whatever is most interesting to YOU!) - but they may be giving talks or posters of their own, which is both cool to see and good for you to know about if you are thinking about doing a senior thesis or anything like that. They can also help put things into context - academia has a whole social side that's largely invisible to undergrads (Dr. X is Dr. Y's student, but Dr. Z has been making this same point to both of them for the past 20 years, et....)
posted by heyforfour at 11:24 AM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

You will feel so excited and invigorated after the conference. You may have met a future adviser for grad school or seen a field that really caught your attention. As a student, you also get to dip a toe into a lot of waters. Once you've started down a path, it will be harder to do that - you'll feel obligated to go to presentations in your field.

Yeah, QFT! Conferences are one of the main things that get me more excited about my field. If you can afford it, I would go.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:31 AM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding heyforfour - find out which profs you know are going. They'll have their own agendas, of course, but if you're lucky and you've got good profs, they should offer some assistance, which could range from giving you a heads up on some good sessions and speakers to taking you completely under their wing. Know some grad students going? Get to know them, too.

In my experience, telling professors you're interested and are going is the kind of thing that, academically, separates you from your fellow students in a good way.

(I'd love to offer you some help - memail me your field if you'd like and if I know anyone in it I can send them your way. Unfortunately I'm going to be sitting in a mudhole somewhere and can't go.)
posted by barchan at 11:36 AM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you have the interest and the means to attend, so I'd encourage you to go. Since you're concerned about missing class, keep in mind that you don't have to be at the conference for the entire week. You can get a lot out of spending just 2 or 3 days there.

I've been to a lot of big conference like this (but not in your field), and usually try to stay no more than 72 hours. Any more than that, and I start to get burned out.
posted by partylarry at 11:51 AM on September 23, 2014

I'm a physicist, and I went to the equivalent conferences in your position.

Yes! Go! Sit in on talks that look interesting--especially if you don't know what subfield you'd like to head to (double especially if you're headed for grad school and don't know what subfield you'd like.) See some famous names. Wander the exhibit hall and poster session--likewise a good way to pique your interest.

You can get burned out on all knowledge, all day; take an afternoon off where nothing much interests you and wander Vancouver a bit.
posted by stevis23 at 12:40 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice so far. I think the best thing I've picked up on is that yes, people attend for conferences for fun and educational purposes and this can be a totally worthwhile, not strange thing to do. I'll admit that a trip to Vancouver BC also sounds nice (and swag does too!), so part of this question is to make sure I can justify this.

I definitely will check in with professors and other students- it's just that classes don't start up until next week, and I was thinking I should try to get my thoughts straight about whether this was something I want to do or not before I get preoccupied with school stuff. I think last year there was enough student and professor interest that my school drove a van to GSA. I already know of at least one professor who is attending, so a van will probably happen this year too.

If I go- would getting a small batch of business cards/contact info cards printed up be a good idea? Or is that kind of silly for a student?
posted by Secretariat at 1:42 PM on September 23, 2014

Best answer: Totally agree that if you can afford the bus/train/drive up there, try to go. Get a reduced or free registration, and see if your school will help with any of the expenses.

One thing to consider: four days of it might be exhausting. Fun and enthralling, but exhausting. Try to look at the program and maybe ask a friendly professor if they see anything on there that will be especially relevant to your classes, research interests or just generally cool. Most profs have a sense of who gives a good presentation or poster, and where the big whiz-bang events will be. Consider going for 2 or 2.5 days of the conference instead of all four -- this would also help with missing so many days of classes.

On preview: if you go up in a van, make sure to take a bit of time off on your own. Wander around Vancouver, eat some good food, do some of your homework in your hotel room or a cafe.

Self-care at conferences is REALLY important, because it is draining meeting so many people, and trying to understand things over your head, and trying to make a decent impression, and just the sheer excitement of it all, especially at first.

Go and have lots of fun!
posted by barnone at 2:05 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

would getting a small batch of business cards/contact info cards printed up be a good idea?

Absolutely. You never know when your contact information falls into the hands of someone who is looking for someone just like you. And the odds of that are way higher at a conference of professionals whom you want to call peers.

TIP: Make sure your contact information (email, phone, whatever you use) will be valid as far into the future as possible.
posted by John Borrowman at 2:09 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience people at academic meetings may joke a little about business cards, like, oh here is my super professional business card cuz I am a super professional scientist, but are ultimately really grateful for them because they are actually really useful for following up with people later. I would totally print some. I actually didn't bring enough to my last academic meeting and regretted it.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:40 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Business cards: Yes. Many colleges have a print department that can print them up for you at cost. State what larger field of geology you're most interested in or that your department emphasizes (i.e. sed/strat, hydrology, structure, environmental geoscience, climate science, volcanology) if you can or feel comfortable doing so. Don't feel shy about saying you're an undergrad if you'd like - if you're giving them out to professors, that will help them remember who you are.

Clothing: Since you're not presenting or interviewing, business casual is a good zone to work in. (You'll see a wide range of clothing, anyway.) You can wear jeans with a nice shirt. Wear comfortable shoes - there's a lot of walking on cement floors. I always bring a small backpack or messenger bag, for a notebook and a nice folder for professional contact information, and my swag - that's up to you, but sometimes it's a long walk back to the hotel carrying your plastic bag o' goodies.

Notebook: Bring a small notebook for notes on talks and posters.

Hotel: See if there's other undergrads and grads going and if you can bum a place with them. Does your school have an AAPG or GSA student chapter? These often organize the student portion of the trip.

Alumni: As long as you're asking around with profs, ask about alumni meetings - many schools schedule an alumni get together or meeting at these big conferences, and those are great networking opportunities.

Drinking: Are you of drinking age? Be prepared, there can be a lot of drinking. Remember to be professional - geology is a smaller world than you think.

Eats: Some of the societies will host lunches and breakfast specifically for students. Really tear through the program looking for these. Look on websites - often they don't advertise directly, but if you become a member there or beforehand (often for free!) they'll be offered to members and student members. (AWG - Association for Women Geoscientists - might be a good one for you.)

Van ride: If you can help drive the van, you're going to be super awesome - many schools require some kind of driving test or license on file to do this, and if you're pre-prepared and can step in and say, yes, I can drive the van when it comes to splitting the driving you'll be an instant hero. Check with your department's admins for how it works at your school. (Also, you'll be all prepared to help drive the field camp van in the future.)

Prep: You've got a little bit of time - find a few posters, talks, or even entire sessions you want to see and do a little research beforehand on the authors - reading a paper or two beforehand never hurts. You don't have to go overboard, just a couple. Even better if you can tie them into classwork!

Swag: Don't be the student that just runs rampant from table to table picking up free posters and pens. Talk to the people. That's how connections are made.
posted by barchan at 3:27 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yep, if you're considering grad school and a career in research you should go. You might feel a bit out of place as an undergrad (I sure did as an unpublished M.Sc student), but people will appreciate your initiative. Maybe they have a student volunteer program? It will help you feel like you belong, you will meet other younger students.

This is a great opportunity to see what problems people are currently working on, get some off-the-record information on grad programs and advisors reputations'. You can also learn a lot about how research is presented. You will gain an advantage over many people just beginning grad school, who have never been to a conference. Having this on your academic CV (and it should be there, esp. if you volunteer) will improve your chances of getting into grad school.

If you're applying to grad school this year, try to talk with people (hopefully, professors) from schools you're interested in. Making the initiative to come to a conference and talk with potential advisors will really help your chances of getting into grad school or getting a summer internship.
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 3:30 PM on September 23, 2014

Also, my university had a fund to support promising undergrads who wanted to attend scientific conferences. Maybe your school can help too? Maybe you can cut a deal with a professor who needs a research assistant? Try to get creative finding the money for this, ideally you should not pay out of pocket (this is good training for a research career, practice applying for funds).
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 3:34 PM on September 23, 2014

Best answer: I wouldn't sweat business cards as an undergrad. They might come in handy if you, say, connect with someone you might want to work for over a summer, but there isn't a general expectation that students (even grad students) will have them. That's based on my direct experience of chemistry and materials science meetings and indirect experinece of having grad school friends who were in geology (mostly atmospheric) specializations and socialized to both the chemistry and geology cultures.

No one will know you are not a grad student unless or until you tell them. If you ask naive questions at a poster session, people will probably assume you are a first year student or a student in another specialty; naive questions are not rare.

It seems likely to me that you will not have a problem missing class if you are going along with some research groups or other students going to the meeting. Take your homework -- there's no reason to feel like you need to be in the meeting rooms all day every day.

That said, if you are arranging your own transportation, consider just going for a couple of days rather than the entire meeting. It can be overwhelming to go to many talks in a short time, and that overstimulation is worse (at least for me) if I don't have people around to help me contextualize the content.
posted by janell at 5:13 PM on September 23, 2014

Best answer: I'm not a geologist (although my dad is, and goes to the GSA a lot), but I've found that in my field (history) it always helps to go to conferences at least once before you present a paper or poster at them. Every conference seems to have its own culture, and, if nothing else, you can find things out for later reference -- how amenable is it to students, whether grad or undergrad? What sorts of networking/socializing opportunities are available? Who else goes? Who doesn't go? You can even learn things that might seem to be obvious, like what the unspoken dress code is -- I go to three or four different conferences in my field regularly, and they all seem to have different acceptable levels of "professional" attire.
posted by heurtebise at 6:49 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am also a geologist, though having put academia mostly behind me I no longer regularly attend GSA (though I was considering it this year). There's nothing I can say that Barchan hasn't already said better than I could. If the time away from school isn't going to cost you too much, then go. GSA from memory was always a pretty great conference, you are likely to really enjoy it and it will undoubtedly be a good experience if you are considering grad school.
posted by bumpkin at 12:42 AM on September 24, 2014

re:dress code. Over the years I attended academic geologist and geophysicist conferences I noticed that dress got more and more casual over time. It is not uncommon for folks to be doing sandals, t-shirt and shorts or jeans. That said, I wouldn't recommend it.

Particularly as an undergrad, dress can be a useful way of signalling seriousness of intent; that you aren't just there to drink and harvest swag. Being better dressed than average is easy for a sloppy crowd like GSA, that's what I'd shoot for (average office dress in your city is probably upper quartile at GSA, and is probably a good approximate guide).
posted by bumpkin at 12:50 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Business cards: yes. That is how you get internships.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:14 AM on September 24, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks again, I've decided to sign up for the conference. I think I'll try to attend part time and tourist/work on homework the rest of the time. I've picked out a few good airbnb possibilities near the conference with internet and parking. If you're attending or you live in Vancouver BC, keep an eye on IRL because I'll probably post to see if anyone's available for a meetup!
posted by Secretariat at 9:40 AM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

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