05 // A practical guide to your first engineering conference

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 11th National Conference on Earthquake Engineering, one of the most well-regarded conferences in the field -- not only that, I got to present! 

The theme of 11NCEE was integrating science, engineering, and policy. It must have, I think, been chosen to bring together the diverse groups of people who make up this community -- the earth scientists, geotechnical and structural engineers, material scientists, social scientists, emergency responders, communications specialists, policymakers, construction engineers, project managers, risk analysts, app developers, and lawyers whose work contributes to the broader vision of earthquake engineering.

What I most valued about the conference, besides the opportunity to share my work, was having the opportunity to begin understanding the contours of this community, and where I might fit in. As a PhD student, I spend a lot of time working on my own -- reading papers, writing code, puzzling over results. One of my ongoing frustrations with the scientific literature in my field has been the lack of human presence in the papers I read. Civil engineering has a long and venerable history of being intimately concerned with people and our circumstances, but you wouldn’t guess that from a lot of the papers we write and use. But that’s a topic for another essay.

Attending NCEE afforded me a glimpse of -- and sometimes conversations with -- the people whose work I’m using as the foundation for my own, whose papers I’ve read multiple times, whose careers I look to for guidance in shaping my own. In fact, getting to talk informally with alumni of my program who are now faculty members at institutions all over the world was perhaps my favorite experience of the whole conference. And getting to listen in to the conversations between more senior members of the earthquake engineering community was edifying in a broader sense, showcasing the ways in which engineers can make significant contributions to building more resilient communities, and when we need to partner with experts in other domains to do the same.

Since this was the first time I’d attended an engineering conference of this scale, and my first time presenting at one, I didn’t know what to expect. More senior doctoral students had told me about their experiences at other conferences, but it became apparent that each has its own character, its own charms and idiosyncrasies.

Nevertheless, I thought I’d share some general reflections on and learnings from my experience, both for my own future reference and in the hopes that other graduate students might benefit, too. I’ve scaffolded this mix of commentary around short pieces of advice, listed here in rough chronological order from pre-conference preparations to post-conference follow-ups.

  1. Give yourself ample time to prepare for your first few talks.
  2. Make radicals and fail fast.
  3. Get lots of feedback as early as possible from people who reflect your potential audience.
  4. Plan ahead -- for sessions and one-on-one meetings, and also for breaks.
  5. Think about and make note of your objectives in attending the meeting.
  6. Attend as many interactive events as you can.
  7. Take note of what sparks your interest.
  8. Be a respectful audience member.
  9. Be a respectful presenter.
  10. Don’t bother networking -- engage and converse instead.
  11. Don’t default to taking things personally.
  12. Learn to be comfortable on your own in a crowd.
  13. Take note of the people you meet and how you met.

I can’t take credit for all of this advice. Different sources -- among them my advisor, fellow students, former professors, friends, and one of my favorite advice columnists -- have contributed various pieces, though not always in the particular context of attending engineering (or STEM) conferences.

1. Give yourself ample time to prepare for your first few talks. Two months before the conference, I asked my advisor how much time he thought I should allot to preparing and practicing my talk. He said two working days should suffice. Spoiler alert -- it didn’t. In fact, I don’t even want to contemplate how much time I spent going through the 10 versions of my full talk. And those were just the digital versions -- I had done a lot of brainstorming on paper first. Once I give a couple more talks to a predominantly engineering audience, I expect it will take me much less finessing to feel prepared.

2. Make radicals and fail fast. These are two core conceits of the design thinking approach for which Stanford has become famous, though the first part I learned during my undergraduate architectural engineering design studio with Gregory Brooks at UT Austin.

Per Professor Brooks, “Sketching design radicals means exploring multiple solutions to any design problem.” Radicals are simply quickly conceived sketches of whatever product you’re working to design -- the goal of making them is to produce as many radically different ones as possible in a low-cost way, in terms of time and money. That’s where failing fast comes in: once you’ve gone through a couple rounds of making radicals, choose a few to explore further -- again, in a short period. If an idea isn’t working -- that is, if it’s not serving your purpose -- drop it and move on.

Make radicals and fail fast.

Here's a beautiful example from Thomas Bucci of exploring roof geometries for a simple volume.

How does this translate to the particular problem of a conference presentation? I designed a few hooks for my presentation -- ways to motivate my work and quickly get the audience interested. I also iterated over how to present the results of my work, so there was quite a bit of graphic design involved.

The initial iterations were broad in scope -- changing whole slides, or the narrative flow of the presentation itself. The final changes had to do with legibility, like changing fonts and font sizes.

For the big changes, I presented to an audience of my peers to get feedback on the structure of the talk. I found the smaller changes straightforward to judge myself. All of my iterations paid off -- I got lots of positive feedback on my talk.

3. Get lots of feedback as early as possible from people who reflect your potential audience. If you’re not comfortable with public speaking -- and few of us truly are -- it may help to practice delivering your presentation to any audience. In addition to giving you time to get comfortable with your presentation, audiences with no expertise in your field may be able to give you valuable insights into the narrative structure and flow of your presentation.

However, if you’re going to be presenting to an audience of experts in your field, you’ll do yourself a favor by practicing in front of a similar audience. People in your field will be equipped to offer feedback on the details of your presentation and pose domain-specific questions that you’ll then know to expect after the real thing.

4. Plan ahead -- for sessions and one-on-one meetings, and also for breaks. Most conferences will publish a detailed program in advance of the event itself. It’s especially important for big conferences to look through that program and start planning. Otherwise, it’s easy to get frazzle and overwhelmed by the pace of proceedings. For example, 11NCEE featured approximately 1200 presentations in four days. The daily schedule looked like this:

6:30 am     Coffee and pastries available
7:00 am     Open committee meeting
8:00 am     Plenary session featuring a distinguished speaker
10:00 am    Coffee break
10:30 am    Concurrent oral presentation sessions
12:00 pm    Plenary session, lunch
1:30 pm      Concurrent oral presentation sessions
3:00 pm     Coffee break
3:30 pm     Concurrent oral presentation sessions
5:00 pm     Poster session begins
7:00 pm     Poster session concludes; networking events begin

Now, it’s absolutely true that you should take advantage of a conference to meet and connect with people in and around your field, find out about interesting work, and make a name for yourself within the broader community of your field.

But keep in mind that active listening and taking notes require effort. If you’re an introvert like me, constantly being around people may deplete your energy. You’re not obliged to attend every event on offer, and breaks may well be essential to maintaining your energy and sanity during such a jam-packed conference.

So how do you plan breaks? By strategically planning your conference as a whole, deciding which sessions and events are must-dos and which are less of a priority, and knowing yourself and your energy levels. You definitely don’t want to burn out just before a session that’s really relevant to your work, or before a meet-and-greet you were looking forward to attending. Scheduling breaks can save you regret in the longer term.

One day of the conference, I was feeling worn out and didn’t feel up to sitting through a session. I’m sure different people will have differing opinions on whether it’s rude to sit in a session and not pay attention -- personally, I don’t see the point since the presenter probably wants an engaged audience and since I would rather be elsewhere. So I gave myself permission to skip the session -- though it was only an hour and a half, and I sat in the lobby answering emails and reading the news for most of it, I felt much restored afterward.

5. Think about and make note of your objectives in attending the meeting. In addition to being strategic about the details of your conference experience, you may find it helpful to step back and look at the bigger picture. Why are you attending the conference, and what do you want to take away from the experience? A conference often proves to be a significant investment of both time and money, so it’s worth ensuring you get your time and money’s worth.

6. Attend as many interactive events as you can. I benefited a lot from attending the various presentation sessions, but I found the interactive events -- poster sessions, the Women in Structural Engineering happy hour, a dinner for Stanford alumni and current students, the conference party -- just as important to my personal and professional growth.

The primary difference between these categories of events is that in the former, you’re getting to put names to faces and learn what other people are working on, while in the latter, there’s a two-way flow of information. It’s important to get to know the other people in your field, but it’s also important that they get to know you.

Current Stanford students, alumni, and professors took over a restaurant in downtown LA.

Current Stanford students, alumni, and professors took over a restaurant in downtown LA.

7. Take note of what sparks your interest. Perhaps more importantly, make notes of the ideas, however fragmented, that those talks or conversations prompt in your own mind. Those notes may range from references to a paper you want to read to factors you’d never considered including in your model of a system that seem influential to the results. In any case, those ideas may prove valuable to your current or future research.

In practical terms, I like to have a single notebook (like this one) that I use for everything -- to-do lists, collages, notes on presentations, ideas for prints. For this particular conference, I took notes on the presentations I saw, the people I met, the ideas I had, the events I attended, and my reflections on the experience. I find it easier to have all my notes and ideas in a single place, rather than scribbled on conference programs or loose sheets of paper.

Another nice idea I saw during the conference was using a steno pad to take notes. You could use the left-hand side for notes about the presentation itself and the right-hand side for notes on your own ideas sparked by the talk. Whichever method you prefer, I highly recommend taking notes.

8. Be a respectful audience member. I was disappointed to see some people leaving sessions in the middle of a presentation. I can’t speak to their motives, but in general I would recommend not leaving a session in the middle of someone’s talk.Your time is valuable, but with oral presentations limited to 12 minutes, it’s not the biggest concern -- you can always leave during the Q&A, or while the next speaker is setting up.

Remember also that many people -- even seasoned professionals -- may get nervous about giving a presentation. I went to the speaker ready room the morning of my talk and was surprised to find a number of experienced professionals going through their slides, muttering sotto voce to themselves. Leaving in the middle of a presentation may distract a presenter, and you won’t be gaining much by doing so.

9. Be a respectful presenter. You’re probably not the only person scheduled to present during your session. And sessions aren’t designed to have much downtime. A typical 11NCEE session had six presenters scheduled to talk for 12 minutes each in 90 minutes, leaving 18 minutes for questions, dealing with technical difficulties, and whatever else might arise.

A number of people reported sessions in which one or two scheduled speakers didn’t get to present because the earlier speakers had not been mindful of the time. To some extent, this also reflects poorly on the moderator of the session. However, I’m loth to blame moderators -- I can’t imagine cutting a presenter off while they were talking.

So rather than denying others the chance to present or putting the moderators in an awkward situation, time your practice presentations and cut material if necessary.

10. Don’t bother networking -- engage and converse instead. (If you’re a fan of networking, feel free to skip this pitch.) I find it easier to think of networking not as an activity unto itself but rather as a series of conversations with people whose professional interests align with your own. That’s because, for myriad reasons, I’ve got a very particular idea of what networking is supposed to look like.

But the networking I’ve experienced hasn’t looked at all like that image in my head, or what’s been discussed at the workshops that promised to teach me how to network. It’s looked instead like being genuinely interested in people and expressing that interest in conversation with them.

Engaging with the people and the world around you requires effort rather than any special skills, save perhaps asking thoughtful questions. To my mind, remaining engaged and asking thoughtful questions sounds much clearer than “networking”, which sounds altogether too much like corporate jargon. Strunk and White warned long ago against such obfuscation. So rather than focusing on “networking”, try focusing on “having a conversation” or “talking”.

“Networking” also encourages a certain focus on the outcomes of a conversation, rather than on the conversation itself. I’m a process- rather than results-oriented person by nature, but I think it’s especially true in conversation that to be engaged you must be present -- and being present generally precludes trying to predict what people will be able to do for you in the future.

Plus, people can sense inauthenticity a mile off, and no one enjoys talking to someone who wants to get something from them. Maybe my reconception of networking is all artificial, like putting lipstick on the proverbial networking pig -- but I’ve found you don’t have to engage with people in a networking way to have good outcomes, even if that is your primary focus. People generally enjoy helping other people, if they can.

So what constitutes a thoughtful question when meeting someone new? At 11NCEE, I often began by trying to understand what the other person was doing in terms of work or research, why they thought it important in the bigger picture, what about it they found exciting, and how they got started doing it. The hypothesis underlying this line of inquiry was that if people have taken the time and made the effort to attend and/or present at a conference, they’re probably quite excited about their work. Their responses to those questions would in turn spark more organic exchanges, and soon we’d have a real conversation going. Rarely will all the onus be on you to sustain a conversation -- a polite conversational partner will also ask questions of you.

I’ve also found that people, in general, find answering questions about themselves and their work quite flattering, and enjoy talking about themselves. However, some people may be difficult to engage in meaningful conversation. That’s not necessarily a sign of failure on your part, and I’d recommend not taking a sputtering conversation too personally.

11. Don’t default to taking things personally. A few years ago, I found myself confused and distressed by how a good friend was behaving toward me. I shared my worries with another good friend, and she gave me advice that still gives me pause -- namely, that I ought not take things personally. In hindsight, I think this is a polite way of saying that not everything is about you -- and you should let yourself feel liberated by that!

This advice applies generally to being a person in the world, but I found it helpful to remember at the conference, too. After my talk, the moderator opened the floor for questions -- and not a single person had one. I felt increasingly mortified as the silence stretched, and dashed back to my seat when the moderator finally called up the next presenter.

Why did I feel mortified? Because I assumed the silence meant I had bombed. In other words, I took the lack of questions personally. But there are a number of other ways I could have chosen to interpret the lack of questions: (1) perhaps the audience was still digesting my talk, which had included a lot of social science research rather than traditional engineering research (2) perhaps I had presented the work clearly enough that there was no need for clarifying questions, which are often the sorts of questions that people ask after such short talks (3) perhaps the audience was worn out, given that we were nearing the end of the third day of the conference.

I’ll grant that some of these explanations are more plausible than others, but the point is that I had no reason to conclude the problem (if indeed it was a problem) lay with me before investigating alternative hypotheses.

As it turns out, I heard only good things about my talk from my research group and from audience members who approached me after the session. In fact, people I’d never met approached me during the conference party that night just to say how much they enjoyed it. I can’t think of many things more gratifying, especially given the open bar, dance floor, and bottomless buffet that were competing for their attention.

12. Learn to be comfortable on your own in a crowd. There are two popular ways to approach crowded events in general. The first is to go with a group of people you know, and the second is to go on your own.

In terms of networking events at conferences, these strategies have their pros and cons. The group you’re with might help introduce you to their acquaintances, but other people might be reluctant to approach you if you only stick with the people you know. If you’re on your own, you’ll have more flexibility to come and go from conversations as you please, but you might find it more awkward to introduce yourself to strangers.

Learn to be comfortable on your own in a crowd.

Illustration: Stevie Remsberg/Getty.

In general, I see the group approach used a lot more, and not just at conferences. But I think being comfortable flying solo in crowds is a valuable skill in any context, one that few people have because it’s not necessarily comfortable to learn.

Heather Havrilesky wrote about just that -- and how that comfort stems from acting compassionately toward yourself -- in a recent installment of her Ask Polly advice column. Though her advice was in response to a letter from an undergraduate struggling to find community amongst her fellow college students, I think it’s generally applicable, certainly to situations you may encounter at conferences:

“One of the best skills you can have, as a young person and as an adult, is the ability to be comfortable in a public space, in a crowd, at a party, without speaking to anyone. Holding your own space and observing the world without maniacally chatting doesn’t make you a weirdo, it makes you stronger and more able to go anywhere and do anything. Once you find a way to do that, you’ll have a skill to draw on for decades to come. (Yes, trying it will probably make you anxious. Expect that and tolerate it. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and eventually you’ll take a lot of pride in how calm you remain when you enter a room and know no one there.)
Compassion is the key to developing this strength (and many others). Compassion is also the key to making real connections with all kinds of different people. Instead of impressing people, your focus shifts toward letting people show you who they are, slowly. You observe and you’re polite and you speak occasionally when spoken to, but you try to coax your mind away from how you seem to others or whether or not you’re failing. As long as you’re working on your compassion for yourself, this is possible. But if you’re mad at yourself and you’re also indulging your obsessive fantasies about how college COULD be if you were “better at it,” you’ll struggle.”

A conference is a great place to practice this skill, because you’ll probably encounter lots of crowded events with lots of people you haven’t met before. If you’re at a happy hour or networking event and don’t know anyone, or happen to not be talking with anyone, don’t panic. It’s perfectly fine to stand, sip your drink, have a snack, and simply observe the world around you for a bit. Presumably that world is interesting, if you’ve gone to the trouble of attending the event.

And keep in mind that not talking with people for every moment of a meet-and-greet does not make you bad at meeting and/or greeting, nor does it mean that no one wants to talk with you -- don’t fall into the trap of taking lulls in conversation or attention personally.

13. Take note of the people you meet and how you met. Another thing I learned from Prof. Brooks is the value in keeping track of people you’ve met. I had noticed early on Prof. Brooks’s talent for connecting with people and also for connecting the people he knows.

I also saw firsthand the practical implications of that talent -- as his students, we got to tour the offices and meet with the principals of top architecture and engineering firms in London, and we had internship and full-time job opportunities with top firms all over the US.

He taught us that a major part of building and maintaining those connections was keeping track of the details -- not only a person’s name and contact information, but also the context in which you met and what that person is like.


Take note of the people you meet.

A Google Form is a convenient way to keep track of your network.

Prof. Brooks kept track of his contacts in a long spreadsheet, and so I decided to do the same through a Google Form, pictured above.

Generally, I’ll make note of a person’s name, how we met, and anything interesting we talked about in my notebook -- it’s never more than five or six words, and it’s enough to jog my memory of them later on.

Then, at the end of a conference or after a few weeks of smaller events, I’ll sit down for twenty minutes and digitize that information through my form. I think of this as the actual building of my network, and knowing I have this protocol in place allows me to focus on engaging and talking with people in the moment rather than trying to “network”.

Research has shown again and again that weak ties -- that is, people we’ve met but don’t know well, per Dr. Meg Jay -- can be more transformative for our personal and professional lives than the people with whom we are already close. Here’s a primer on weak ties at Lifehacker.