Preparing for NeurIPS

Keren Gu
Keren Gu
Dec 3, 2019 · 5 min read

If you are about to attend NeurIPS, this piece is for you.

NeurIPS is the longest conference I’m aware of, with 7 full days of activities. expo, tutorials, three days of “main conference”, two days of workshops. And you can expect activities from 8AM to 8PM every. single. day. If this is your first conference, all of this could be hella overwhelming!

On top of that, attending a conference is a lot more than just the days of the conference. But proper preparation can help you reduce FOMO and get the most out of your conference experience. Here are some of my own learnings and advice from those before me, on how to prepare for the intense week.

Before the Conference

Set Your Goals

Take a few minutes to reflect on what you personally are hoping to get out of the conference. While some suggest that meeting people / making connections is the single most valuable outcome from attending a conference, that might not necessarily be the right goal for you. Instead, you might wish to get inspired and find your area of passion by exposing yourself to a wide area of work.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten on attending conferences?

That being said, for many of us, the goal should really include meeting people. As someone once said, you can always read all the papers and watch the talks online. Though I personally like my goals to be more specific than just to “meet people”. Since I work in the remote office of my company 5000 miles away from the HQ, one of my personal goals this year is to meet at least 10 people from my own company outside of my office and ask about their research.

Do Your homework

If there are people in particular you would like to meet, before the conference is the time to reach out and setup time to meet. You likely already have their email. But if they don’t get back to you (because they are too busy), you can always find them in person at their poster (if they have one) (this is stalking put to the best use).

Know Your Pitch

You will be asked over and over again what you work on. Often you will be asked in social settings where you barely have another person’s attention. I find it worthwhile to craft a clear and concise pitch of your research / applied work / business, including what you are hoping to get out of the conference.

An example would be: I work on applying ML techniques to industry problems. Relevant research areas for me are learning under evolving distribution (domain adaptation and continual learning are related techniques) and learning with noisy labels.

For industry folks: know your boundaries + talking points.

For folks coming from industry, know your talking points and review your NDA. This is not to be overlooked.

During the Conference

Poster Session: “Can you explain from the beginning?”

At my first NeurIPS, I found poster session to be the most intimidating. Large groups of people huddled together in front of a poster. You can barely hear the presenter. Everyone around you is looking pensive and nodding in response the presenter pointing at the equations. It seems like everyone knows what’s going on except you.

But later, when I got to present my own poster, I learned that, no, many people don’t know what’s going on! People with completely no context came up to my poster asking me “could you explain from the beginning?”. And I liked those questions as the presenter because it meant I can help more people understand my research. This role reversal completely changed my poster session experience.

Don’t be afraid to ask the presenter to explain the context and assumptions of their work. It is their role to help you understand. People around you would appreciate you asking too.

Shadow someone

If this is your first NeurIPS, you likely don’t know a ton of people in the field. As you walk the grand halls of the conference center, it will seem like everyone else appears to know each other. This could feel a bit FOMO.

Shadowing someone who’s been in the field for longer has many benefits. As they meet other researchers in the hallway, they’ll introduce you, making this a perfect venue to expand your own network. When they aren’t running into old colleagues, you’ll have the opportunity to discuss research together.

In terms of finding someone to shadow, Google’s AI Residency ran an internal program last year at NeurIPS with great success. I think it would be a great idea for the various affinity groups to setup similar programs, especially the new New in ML group.

Workshops

My favorite part of NeurIPS is the Workshops. I love how the ideas presented during workshops feel more in-motion, more creative. I like how the environment is closer to a discussion rather than a lecture. The work and ideas aren’t as polished as the main conference, and that’s exactly where the fun is.

This year, I’m looking forward to splitting my time between the AI for Social Good, Safety and Robustness in Decision-Making, and Learning Transferable Skills workshops.

Be open

Last but not least, just be open to meeting people. Attendees travel from all over the world with a wide set of perspectives on research and culture.

After the Conference

Relax, reflect, and follow up with the people you met.

I’d love to hear what’s the greatest advice for attending conference you’ve gotten.

Next week, you can find me at WiML Workshop on Monday, mingling the hallways of the conference center and at poster sessions Tue-Thur. I’ll also be at the DeepMind booth on Tuesday 3–4pm if you want to stop and say hi!

Keren Gu

Written by

Keren Gu

Research Engineer at DeepMind | MIT 6 and 18 | Views Mine | Twitter: @KerenGu

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