Your First AAS Meeting

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Since I can't attend myself, I've been compiling some advice for my undergraduate students for attending their first AAS meeting.  I got a lot of good input from my graduate student Jason Curtis (who wrote a majority of the text about posters below) and Ming Zhao.  I thought I'd share what we have here for any others attending:
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Undergraduate reception:  

If you're an undergraduate thinking about graduate school, you should go.  If you're a graduate student, go find your school's booth and help recruit.  

It's busy, but it's your opportunity to find a school you like.  Ask lots of questions.  Talk about your research.  These are your future peers and collaborators.

Opening reception:

This is the warmup to the main event.  There will be lots of old friends finding each other and sharing drinks and snacks.  Go find people from your department and make sure they know you're at the meeting.  Say hi again to the people you met at the undergrad reception.  Make dinner plans.

Talking to people:  

It's why we have these meetings.  Walk up and say 'hi'.  Introduce yourself.  Say who you work with and what you are doing. First names are OK; there are no titles on badges for a reason.  

Who should you talk to?  Seek out your co-authors and collaborators.  If you see a talk or a poster you're interested in, or just a name you recognize, say 'hi'.  

Astronomy is small;  we all know each other, so you won't be more than 2 degrees removed from anyone at the conference.  Figure out who those degrees are.

If you are thinking about grad school and you see a student from an institution you're interested in, talk with them about it.  Ask them about applying to grad school.

Attending Oral Presentations:

On Sunday, go over all of the oral sessions and decide which ones you want to attend for the whole meeting.  It's OK to jump around, but some talks run long so you won't be able to reliably jump between sessions for particular talks, so it's usually best to stick to one session.  

Definitely attend the talks of people you know personally, and let them know later that you did and compliment them on something you liked about it.

You can ask questions.

Giving Oral Presentations:

Whole bookshelves have been written on this subject, so I'll skip the general advice, except to say that you should minimize text on your slide.  They're visual aids, not scripts.  [Update: Caryl Gronwall points to Julianne Delcanton's guide to 5 minute talks].

Particular to AAS meetings:  

You have to pre-load your presentation.  Go to the ready-room and make sure it works.  Check every slide, especially animations, weird fonts, etc.  I always bring a PDF backup;  PDF viewers are very reliable.

You hardly have any time.  Skip the introductory material and focus on one, big, punchy result in just a few slides.  Your practice talk in your hotel room the night before should run about a minute too long because you'll be speaking much faster once you're up there.  Don't run long on your actual talk; it's very rude to the subsequent speakers and the audience.

The best use of your time is to advertise your research, let them know if there's a related poster, and put your name and face out there so people can find you and talk to you later.

Plenary Sessions:

These are the sessions where everyone attends at once (no concurrent events) in the main hall.  They include official AAS business and prize lectures.  They're often early in the morning.  You can learn a lot about the field at these.

The Poster Sessions:

If you have a poster, get to the poster hall early, as soon as they open.  There should be a bunch of push-pins.  Find your spot and put up your poster.  Remember to retrieve your poster sometime after 5.

The poster session is an essential networking and outreach activity, for at least 4 reasons:

  1. Find the people that are experts in whatever you need to do. 
  2. Form new collaborations
  3. Advertise your results
  4. See and be seen - get to know the astronomy community. 
Plan ahead:  Look through the meeting registration list early, and invite people over email to come check out your poster. This includes collaborators and their students; past colloquium speakers, professors, and classmates (for grads and postdocs, you might know dozens of people at the meeting from past classes in undergrad and grad school); names in the field; and directors and personnel from observatories you've used or hope to use in your research. The email invitation can be simple:  introduce yourself, you're so-and-so's student, you've been working on some project together and are presenting results at Poster #### on Tuesday, if you have time come by and check it out. If you only plan to be at your poster during official poster times, state that. 

Also look over titles and abstracts of the posters and make a note of those you really need to see.  Definitely visit the posters of anyone you know, and other students in your department. If the presenter isn't by their poster when you visit, go back later.

It's ok to skip oral sessions on the day of your poster:   Unless there's something they really want or need to see, many people stay with their poster the entire day, only leaving for lunch and plenary sessions. Some people like going to the posters during the breakout oral sessions because the poster hall is less crowded and you can have longer conversations without interruption. You might have fewer visitors, but if you have one good one it can make the meeting. 

New collaborations:  An example from Jason Curtis:  I met one astronomer last winter at AAS Austin during a poster session, and he had an idea for a project. We bumped into each other again at an Austin astronomy happy hour on Friday after the meeting. We wrote a few proposals together, one wasn't accepted and another got time on Magellan. We went down to Chile and observed together, and are now working on a few papers. His former advisor (Martin Asplund) became interested in the star cluster and brought together a group to submit a VLT proposal to conduct a detailed abundance study of the F dwarfs in the cluster - we got 16 hours.

Meet the Neighbors:  The oral session is also a good time to meet your poster neighbors. You are all grouped together by theme, so not only are these colleagues, these are potential collaborators and employers, or students/postdocs if you're hiring. Talk to the older neighbors -- they are probably experts. Learn about their work, talk about yours, and if you have been experiencing some difficulty or road block in your work, talk about that! Talk to the young neighbors too -- I often see young astronomers standing around quietly by their poster, sometimes facing it reviewing their work. Go introduce yourself. Invite them to lunch. If you are applying for jobs, remember -- their advisor will come find them eventually, so talk to them too.

Follow up: If you've had a good conversation and want to get back to someone later on,  take a picture of their badge (ask first), and then immediately email it to yourself with bullet points from your conversation. Some of the followup emails can be extensive and take time to write, but instead of waiting until your ready to follow up, you can send a short email telling them it was good to meet them and that you'll write again soon about what you discussed. This is also a good strategy if you toyed with the idea at the meeting about collaborating on a future proposal. Email them immediately after the conference (or during, maybe they'd like to go to lunch or dinner and discuss it further) and say you'll give some more thought to the project and let's talk again when the call for proposals is released. 

Cash bar:  If you're 21+ years old and enjoy beer or wine, bring cash to the evening poster session. They set up cash bars from 5-6pm, and you'll see a lot of people with a drink. I make sure to have enough to at least buy myself and a friend a drink. It's something like $6-7 plus tip, so bring a $20. This is also a good time to make dinner and evening plans. If you have one or a few friends at the conference, don't just go on your own - someone you met earlier is probably standing around with a group of other students somewhere. Go find out what they are doing.

Dinner and lunch: 
Find people to eat with.  Co-authors, members of your institution, and people you know personally are good places to start.  Lots of students at the meeting don't know many people; introduce yourself and form your own lunch group.

Closing reception:  
There will be lots of snacks not-to-be-construed-as-dinner, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve.  Mingle and hunt down those last few astronomers you haven't found yet but have been meaning to talk to.

AAS party: 
If you are over 21, the AAS party is THE place to be on Wednesday night.  Business cards will get passed around with the location sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday.  This has evolved from a how-many-people-can-we-fit-into-a-hotel-room party to a semi-official-but-with-plausible-deniability regular event at a nearby club.  Be sure to thank Gina and the other organizers for their efforts when you see them.  Buy someone a drink. 

This post is being regularly updated with good advice.

4 Comments

One suggestion I have often given to first time attendees, is to make sure to attend at least one of the Town Hall meetings. This is a unique opportunity at the AAS to see some of how the business of the field works: the budgets, the long term planning, the community aspirations and feedback, the give and take. For students and others getting started in the field, going to one of these meetings can provide a valuable perspective on the complexity and effort needed to keep the field running, and the broader context in which our research must take place. And it's something you can't really see anywhere else. There are many of these, for both the funding agencies and major observatories (NASA, NSF, NOAO, Gemini, JWST, more), so you can easily find one that's relevant to your interests.

Excellent info for the first time attendee - thanks for the write up!

At this meeting, make sure to go to the event with the two members of Congress that will be at the meeting (Chu and Rohrbacher).

And, don't miss the party, it's always a good time and you never know what you'll see astronomers doing when they let their hair down. :)

Hopefully not too late for the party!

About lunch or dinner:
Never go to a lunch/dinner alone! (unless you're caught up with 15min in between sessions for lunch.)
Try to have at least one person that you didn't know in your lunch/dinner group.

Also another good opportunity to meet new people and discuss science: right after oral sessions. The speakers will still be around, so it's a nice chance to walk up to them and compliment them and introduce yourself and ask them questions and tell them about your research etc etc. This is especially good if you want to meet some intimidating names of your field - it might feel a bit awkward to just say hi to them in the poster hall or hall way (takes some courage), then it's never awkward to talk to them right after their talks. ;)

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