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Picking Conferences

January 7, 2018

As a PhD student starting out, you do have some career options.  Likewise, as a typical junior academic, with limited budget and research time, you have similar career options.  A main one which I’ll discuss here is:  Which conference(s) should I got to?  This is peculiar to computer scientists whose conferences are competitive publications (say 20-25% acceptance rate) and count as publications.

So you only get time to attend a few conferences.  Likewise, you only get time to write papers for a few.  So you want them to count.  Conferences each have their own style.  Best way to think of it is that a conference is a tribe where membership is part-time.  You have to take time to learn about the habits and preferences of the tribe, i.e., in terms of paper content.  If the tribe always starts off with 20% of detailed theoretical definitions then you have to as well.  If they do certain kinds of experiments, then so should you.  Think of these sorts of things as tribal markings.  To be innovative, you generally need to do so from inside the system.  I know this sounds conformist, and belief me, I am completely non-conformist myself, but generally its how conferences work, largely as a result of the reviewing system. If a trusted member of the tribe starts quoting classical, venerated philosophers, so will the others.  If a complete unknown person submits a paper quoting venerated philosophers, then it’ll be viewed as weird unless they have enough other tribal markings on their work to accepted.

I have a number of conferences I really like where I understand the general tribal markings and am happy to live with them.  So SIGKDD has solid experimental work, ICML has innovative new methods, ACL has applications of machine learning to real linguistic problems.  They sometimes have additional tribal markings that can be more or less problematic.

Anyway, as a junior academic, you have to target a few conferences and learn to become a reliable tribal member.  You might want to pick a few authors and build on their work.  Or you might want to pick a specialised problem.  Regardless, to publish in particular venues you’ll have to get to know the tribal preferences and adhere to them.  Doing good research is one thing, and really good research will usually speak for itself, but if your contribution is not outstanding, say “merely” at the top 25 percentile of work, then you have to follow the tribe to be accepted into the tribe.  That takes time.

Moreover, the vibe at the conference is always much, much more than the printed proceedings.  You need to be there:  hear the questions, watch the audience, chat to others in the breaks, see the quality of the presenters.  What is important and influential?  What is losing out, perhaps because it was trendy rather than productive?  All this happens at the conference.  You need to be there to see it.  Otherwise, you’ll be a year behind the others … new ideas for next year’s conference are often the germ of an idea at this year’s conference.  Moreover, it always helps to see the movers and shakers in action.  What sort of people are they?  How do they present their work?

So what does this mean to the junior academic?  You need early on to target a particular conference, subject or influential author’s/group’s body of work, and learn what it is they do.  That’ll take time.  So if you don’t see yourself as being involved in that community 5 years down the track, you probably shouldn’t be making that effort.  If you think their research doesn’t have a good future, then again, you probably shouldn’t be making that effort.  Pick some conferences with this in mind, and try and go along semi-regularly to keep track of things and pick up the vibe.

One comment

  1. […] Picking Conferences […]



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