HCI Conferences 101

Posted 13 Jun 2016

This is the first in a series of five blog posts about attending academic conferences (HCI ones in particular). This first post outlines the role of conferences, what they are like to attend and what you should expect to get out of going to one.

What is a conference?

A conference is a gathering of researchers in academia and industry where people exchange ideas about research they have done, are in the process of doing, planning on doing, and pie-in-the-sky ideas. It is an academic’s “vacation” in the sense that it is an opportunity to see what everyone is doing and think about things without other normal obligations of work (e.g. teaching, service, etc.).

As a student, it will likely be an exciting, bewildering and overwhelming experience–all at the same time–particularly if it is your first conference. Here’s why:

Lots of People

Depending on the conference, there could be anywhere from 60 to 5,000 attendees. I tend to think of there being about four major conference sizes (in terms of number of attendees): 50-100, 100-200, 200-400, and too big. The smaller the conference, the easier it is to talk to everyone. With larger conferences, it is easier to get lost in the crowd (unfortunately). More on this later.


Conferences are made up of three major components: paper talk sessions, plenary sessions and coffee breaks. Depending on the conference, you may also see poster sessions, demo sessions, panels, workshops/doctoral consortia, and tutorials/courses. I’ll touch on each of these in turn:

  • Paper Sessions. These make up the bulk of the conference. In each of these, you will see roughly three 20-minute talks by researchers whose papers got selected for the conference. Usually, this selection is based on peer-review, and is a competitive process (e.g. 15-35% acceptance rate). The papers in the session are usually grouped by theme, and the session is run by the session chair. At the end of each talk, there is an opportunity to ask the speakers questions and to start a discussion (here is an example of a talk). Depending on the size of the conference, you may hear the terms “single-track” and “multi-track.” The first means that there is one string of sessions everyone is going to; the second means that you have a choice as an attendee as to which “track” you will attend (i.e. there are multiple sessions running concurrently). It is okay, and normal to “session hop” between talks (though avoid doing this in the middle of a talk, as it is distracting and rude).

  • Plenary Sessions. These are talks intended to be of general interest to many attendees. Usually, there are no other sessions scheduled at the same time. The speaker is usually someone notable for one reason or another, so try to attend these sessions. If nothing else, you can be reasonably sure that everyone else has attended to same session (and so you will have something to talk about).

  • Coffee Breaks. Many conferences now have ample time set aside for coffee breaks. Take advantage of these as an opportunity to refuel, and perhaps to network and talk to the speakers you have just heard from.

  • Poster Sessions. I think these sessions are usually the most fun. Presenters will stand in front of a physical poster, and you get to dive in, see what people are doing, and engage with them personally if something is interesting. These people are here to share what they’ve learned, and are excited to do it. These sessions are usually super energetic and brimming with neat ideas. You are completely free to roam during these sessions.

  • Panel Sessions. These sessions usually have a small set of experts sitting at the front. They are gathered to have a conversation (with one another, and sometimes the audience) about a topic that is considered to be of interest to the community. The panel is usually guided heavily by a session chair.

  • Workshops/Doctorial Consortia. These sessions usually run as full-day sessions prior to the start of the main conference, and are usually by-invite. Workshops are an opportunity to get to know a smaller group of researchers (~ 30), usually all of whom are interested in the same topic. Doctorial consortia (or colloquium) are intended to provide mentorship to mid- to late- PhD students/candidates. In both of these cases, people are invited based on a submission of some kind.

  • Tutorial/Courses. Depending on the conference, these are often for a small fee. They’re more or less what they sound like. The unfortunate thing is that they are a bit hit or miss: some are the same as the grad courses you’ve already been through; others are taught by the world expert on the topic.


Depending on the conference, you can expect to get extra energy and fuel several times: first, during coffee breaks (usually twice a day); second, pre-session coffee (usually in the mornings before the first session); third, at the conference reception (a dinner on the first or second night), and sometimes lunch (depending on the conference). At the very large conferences, you will often find that companies or large schools/organizations will hold receptions where there is at least finger food.

Beyond this, you are usually left to your own devices to find breakfasts, dinners (and often lunches). These are good opportunities to meet other researchers. I generally recommend groups no larger than about eight, otherwise it is harder to get food from a restaurant in a timely way, and you’ll probably only be able to speak to your closest five or so table neighbors anyway.

What are your responsibilities?

As a student attendee, you have two sets of responsibilities: to yourself as a professional, and to the lab that you belong to (and the one whose supervisor presumably funded your trip). I’ll discuss each of these responsibilities in turn:

You have been supported to attend the conference as a professional (-in-training). This means that you conduct yourself responsibly in a way that is befitting of a professional:

  • you behave properly and within the customs of the country/setting;
  • you attend sessions in order to learn the state of the art;
  • you are prepared and present yourself appropriately and effectively,
  • and you meet new researchers to build your own professional network (for finding new collaborations or job opportunities immediately or down the road).

The first one of those is important: it is generally inappropriate to get roaringly drunk and to cause a scene. If you do happen to get in trouble, you also better be independently wealthy, because I probably won’t have enough money to bail you out. Avoid getting too tipsy.

As a member of the lab, you also have several duties and committments to your lab mates, because you represent the lab, your supervisor, and to some extent, the lab mates that could not attend:

  • when you return, you should be prepared to give a lab talk about the conference;
  • while at the conference, you should be keeping an eye out for (and attending if possible) paper talks that align with the lab or labmates’ interests, and
  • to whatever extent possible/appropriate, you ought to also be introducing your labmates’ work to other researchers so that they are aware of collaboration opportunities – again, remember that you represent the lab.

This seems like a lot, but the punchline is this: it costs me money to send you to a conference, and generally I cannot send everyone – ensure the money is not wasted, as your getting to attend may be at the expense of someone else not getting to attend.

What might surprise you?

For me, the biggest surprise was how tired I was from every day at a conference. It is exciting to see all these people, and to see all these people that are interested in the same kinds of things. It is also fun to “talk shop” all day long.

One thing that will surprise you is how quickly things move, and how few opportunities you may have to meet someone. If you see someone that you want to meet, and they are free – pounce on that opportunity. You may not get another one at the conference.

All the opportunities to meet people and to do things rely on you to have the initiative to do it.

It might surprise you to see your supervisor and other researchers you respect cutting loose (drinking and dancing). In general, don’t worry–remember they are normal people, too. But, if you see me doing that, then call my wife: someone probably spiked my drink.

Conference Day -1

  • Register the day before. The registration desk is usually a complete mess on the first day of the conference. This is because all hell is breaking loose–lots of people registering and picking up their bags, certain flyers not being available, they’ve run out of certain items, some people thought they registered but didn’t pay the conference fee, etc., etc. Avoid all this insanity by registering the day before if you have the chance. I also find doing this gives me a chance to look through all the materials at my hotel the night before the conference (you don’t need to carry a full bag with you throughout the entire conference!).
  • Plan your schedule for the first day. Prior to the conference, take the time to plan out at least the first day of your conference. Which sessions will you attend? Who might you have lunch with? Is the conference reception this evening? How much time is there between the last session and the conference reception?
  • Set your alarm. This sounds ridiculous, but usually, conferences are not in your home time zone. This kind of stuff really gets messy when it is overseas, too. Make sure to set you alarm before you go to sleep!


  • Accommodations. My strong suggestion is to stay in accommodations with other students. My favourite experiences as a student were ones where we’d managed to rent out an entire house to be shared amongst a group of students. This will also (generally) save your supervisor money, as the conference hotels generally tend to be more expensive options. Check out AirBnB and VRBO for options that are close by the conference venue. You ideally want to be within walking distance. You’ll find that a 20 minute walk in the morning is good to get you revved up for the day. Many AirBnB and VRBO places will also have basic kitchen and laundry facilities that you might find useful (e.g. for simple breakfasts or to do laundry), and others will give you access to a pool or hot tub.
  • Vacation. It is common to take vacation on the front or back end of a conference (i.e. stay a few extra days). I recommend doing vacation on the back end of a conference. Note: you are going to pay for those extra days out of your own pocket (accommodations, food, etc.).

This post is one in a series of five about attending academic conferences.

My thanks to my colleague Carman Neustaedter who provided comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.