Here’s how I choose which presentations to see at the ESA meeting. How do you do it?

Occasionally in the past readers have asked me to post the list of talks and posters I’m planning to see at the ESA meeting. I appreciate where such requests come from; there are a lot of talks and posters and I’m flattered that some people would like their favorite blogger to help them choose. But I’m a little uncomfortable with such requests. I choose which talks and posters to see for my own reasons, which are probably not (and shouldn’t be) your reasons.

So rather than post the list of talks and posters I’m planning to see, here are some suggestions on how you can choose which ones you want to see. Please add your own suggestions in the comments!

My advice is oriented toward the ESA meeting, which is the only conference I attend regularly, but most of it should generalize to any conference large enough to have at least a few parallel sessions running at any given time.

  • Do some planning in advance. The ESA meeting is huge, at any one time there will be dozens of parallel sessions. A bit of advance planning can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed, and from kicking yourself later for missing something you really wanted or needed to see.
  • You don’t have to plan every minute in advance. Although I pretty much do: I pick every talk and poster I plan to see in advance. But I think I’m somewhat unusual in that (?). I think it’s fairly common for people to just schedule some talks and posters they especially want to see, and then be spontaneous about how to fill in the gaps.
  • Use the planning app. It’s free and easy to use. You can also access and update your schedule via a web browser.
  • You can pick individual presentations, entire sessions, or a mix. I’m interested in a somewhat heterogeneous mix of topics, and I don’t mind room-hopping. So I mostly pick individual presentations. But plenty of people choose entire sessions, for various good reasons. Choosing sessions is less work than sifting through individual presentations. Sitting through an entire session is a good way to get up to speed on current research on the session topic. Sitting through entire sessions is more relaxing than constantly moving between rooms. Ignite sessions lose a lot if you pop in and out of them. And if it’s a session that has time for discussion at the end, it might be hard to follow or participate in the discussion if you didn’t sit through the entire session.
  • There are many ways to choose individual presentations. Here’s how I do it, but your mileage may vary. I start by putting my own presentation in my schedule so I don’t forget it! Then my students’ presentations and any presentations on which I’m a co-author. Then my friends’ presentations, both because they’re my friends and because my friends tend to do research that interests me. In searching for my friends’ presentations, I often find presentations from their students, postdocs, and collaborators that sound interesting, so I add those. Then I search for presentations on specific topics that I work on (e.g., spatial synchrony) or want to learn more about (e.g., geographic range limits). Along the way, if I notice any interesting-sounding sessions, I’ll skim those sessions for additional presentations.
  • Read the abstract, not just the title. The title often doesn’t give you much information as to what the talk will actually be about, so I only use titles as an initial screen. This is an additional investment of time, but I find it’s worth it.
  • Ask for suggestions from friends, colleagues, and advisers, especially those a bit more experienced than you. A friend and I share our suggestions with each other every year.
  • You don’t have to go to Dr. Famous’ talk. There’s nothing wrong with going to see a talk by somebody you’ve heard of solely because you’ve heard of them. I did it occasionally when I was a student, and I’m glad I did. Some of my old school science cred is that I’ve seen talks by a few famous people who are now retired. But don’t feel like you have to see Dr. Famous’ talk. In my anecdotal-but-extensive experience, there’s no correlation one way or the other between fame of speaker and talk quality. And if you’re faced with a time conflict between a talk that sounds really interesting but is by someone you’ve never heard of, and a talk that sounds less interesting but is by Dr. Famous, I suggest going to the former talk.
  • How much of your time do you want to spend listening to talks? I usually end up picking enough talks to fill every day, but I don’t attend every talk I planned to attend because sometimes I end up chatting with someone or just checking out the book stalls instead. But that’s just me; you should totally feel free to give yourself a chunk of time off to poke around town or go on a hike or whatever. The ESA is a big meeting and it can be exhausting. Allow yourself whatever time you need to recharge your batteries.
  • It’s easier to be spontaneous about posters than talks. I used to pick posters in advance as well as talks, but lately I’ve mostly stopped bothering. Instead, I just wander the poster hall and stop at any poster that catches my eye.
  • How will you deal with time conflicts? It’s inevitable that some talks you want to see will be scheduled opposite other talks you want to see. When this happens to me, I put all of the conflicting talks in my schedule (the app allows this), and then resolve the time conflicts on the day. For instance, if I’m feeling tired, I’ll choose whichever conflicting talk requires me to do the least room-switching.
  • Feel free to deviate from your plan. If you’re having a great chat with someone and find yourself faced with the choice of cutting the chat short or missing a talk you planned to see, I recommend missing the talk. The chat is probably going to be more enjoyable and more useful to you. And if you find yourself just needing a break that you didn’t anticipate needing in advance of the meeting, that’s fine, take the break and skip some of the presentations you were planning to see.
  • How long do you want to spend on lunch? If memory serves, there’s not a whole lot of good food really close to the convention center in Portland. Many of the best neighborhoods for food are a bit of a hike, or require hopping on public transport. This is useful in that it prevents 5000 ecologists from all trying to eat lunch in the same few spots close to the convention center. But it’s unfortunate in that the 1.5 hours between the end of the morning oral sessions and the start of the afternoon oral sessions might be tight once you add in travel time. I often head out for lunch at 11:30 (skipping the last talk in the morning session if needs be) to allow a bit more time and get a jump on the crowds. Especially if there’s a talk at 1:30 that I really want to see.

7 thoughts on “Here’s how I choose which presentations to see at the ESA meeting. How do you do it?

  1. I used to schedule obsessively and room-hop a lot to get to individual talks I’ve discovered, though, that my ability to predict how good/useful a talk will be, based on title or even abstract, is not that impressive. I now tend to pick a session, or at least a 1/2 session or block of talks, and sit still and let serendipity work magic. But that’s because I’m rarely focused in my interest on a single question or study system – I use conferences to expose myself to a broader set of things. Otherwise, though, my strategy is quite a bit like yours!

  2. My strategy has evolved over time. Perhaps appropriately for a macroecologist, my grain has coarsened significantly over time. As a graduate student, I picked individual talks. Now, like Steve, I tend to be happier to pick a session and sit through most or all of it – e.g. Wednesday morning sit through symposium X. The other big change has been the number of talks I went to. As a graduate student I went to talks 80%+ of the opportunities. Now it is probably <20%. I have a boat load of meetings with collaborators and spend a good chunk of time doing that.

    • That’s reassuring on some level.

      My changes are partly due to failure (like Steve I realized I would walk clear across the convention to get to a talk that looked “really great” and be unimpressed, then pop into a random talk enroute and love it) and laziness (if I can’t predict talk quality, why bother walking).

      So it probably speaks highly of you that you still select like in grad school.

      • I find that every year I end up with a subset of talks that I expect to be good, and that almost invariably are good. They’re the talks by the people whom I know from previous experience to give good talks. The others are more hit and miss. And the misses often are because I’m bored–the subject matter is too familiar to me, and the results reported seem to me to be not very interesting or not much of an advance on previous work. Quite possibly, I’m too confident in my ability to pick talks, and I’d be happier if I trusted more to serendipity.

        What I really want is almost a contradiction in terms: serendipity I can be confident in. I’d like to see some talks on topics that I know little or nothing about, by people I don’t know (and maybe haven’t even heard of), that I have some independent reason to believe will be good. I think that means recommendations from people with whom I have something in common, scientifically, but who work on quite different topics than me.

        In typing that, I just realized a solution I should’ve thought of years ago: I should ask you and Meghan what talks you’re going to see! So, what talks are you going to see? 🙂

  3. I’m a session-sitter, too. (Say that ten times fast.) I prefer single-topic symposia, ‘student showcase’ sessions, and in general, anywhere where the talks are longer than usual or the presenters are more likely to be well prepared and talk about finished work. I rarely figure out what people are talking about in a 12-minute talk.

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