Life lessons learned from NCUR 2009

NCUR 2009 is over and I’m back at college. The last few posts are reports of the things I saw and found interesting. I came across quite a few good ideas, some of which I will be exploring in the future. However there are some real-life day-to-day lessons I learned from the experience of going to a conference for the first time. Most of the things I’m about to list are actually pretty common sense things, but they’re not always things that are actively on one’s minds. Without further ado, here’s the list:

  1. Make a checklist and actually use it. It’s amazing how easy it is to miss simple everyday things when you’re packing for a short trip. Keeping an actual list of things to pack and checking off on them helps a great deal. Priority should be given to things like toothbrushes, razors, medicines and other sanitary and essential items.
  2. Always pack a few more clothes than you think you’ll need. This doesn’t mean pack a full wardrobe, but there’s nothing wrong with a spare T-shirt or two, no matter how light you want to travel.
  3. Figure out your look before you leave. If you’re going on stage or meeting a lot of people, then you probably have some image of yourself that you want to present (consciously or not). Please think through this image (if you care about it) and prepare accordingly. It’s fine to dress casual, but wearing a shirt and tie with running shoes is probably not something you want to do. On the same note, make sure everything you want to wear actually fits properly.
  4. Prepare yourself. Whether you’re giving an oral presentation, showing a poster or just mingling with the crowd, make sure  you know about whatever it is you plan to talk about. In particular, rehearse an oral presentation, know the details behind everything you put on a poster and be prepared for questions. Also I’ve learned that it’s better to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question than to try and fudge your way out of it.
  5. Have your equipment ready. This is related to the last point, but not quite the same. For example, you can have a great rehearsed presentation but that doesn’t mean your immune from technical difficulties and the like . In the case of computer science, if you want to show some program you wrote, make sure it’s up and running before you begin your presentation.
  6. Take your time and take a break. If there’s a lot going on at a conference, then it’s very tempting to just keep on moving from one thing to another as fast as possible. Depending on the specific circumstances, that could be a good idea. But sometimes it’s worth slowing down. I made a conscious choice to pick a few sessions and presenters that I thought would be interesting and spent most of time there. I also left enough time to just walk around and relax. I think I had a better experience than if I had just moved around at full speed.
  7. When it’s time to go, make an early start. I’ve never really been late for a departure, but I have been pretty close on a few times. It’s much less stressful to be early even it requires sacrificing a few hours of sleep. Additionally, there’s time left to deal with any last minute things that might pop up.
  8. Have fun and learn what you can. There’s not much in going to a conference if you’re not going to enjoy yourself and come away from it with something interesting. I don’t think there’s any simple rule of thumb on how to do this, but I think that following the above might help to some extent.

If you have any ideas on how to make the most of a conference or just travel in general, please drop me a comment.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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