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Getting the Most Out of AAS Meetings

AAS meetings are semiannual gatherings of the entire American astronomical community.  The winter meetings are the largest gathering of American astronomers anywhere, and the AAS refers to it as the "superbowl of astronomy".  At these meetings official AAS business happens, workshops and splinter meetings are held, prizes are awarded, job interviews are held, textbooks and telescope equipment are purchased, collaborations are forged, and some of the biggest announcements in astronomy are made.

Here are tips for how to make the most of your AAS meeting, roughly following the order of events at the meetings:

Before the Meeting:

Look through the meeting registration list early, and invite people over email to come check out your poster/talk. 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.  Mark them clearly on your block schedule so that you remember to go find them on the correct day.

Undergraduate reception:  

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

It's busy, but it's an undergraduate's opportunity to find a school they like.  Whoever you are, ask/answer 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.

Networking dinners:

There are several networking dinners during the meeting.  The AAS Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA) has hosted an LGBTIQ dinner for over twenty years!  The date/time/location is listed in the meeting program.  Check the program and social media for other networking dinners sponsored by groups including the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy.

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 the author of 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.  Break the ice by figuring out who those degrees are.

If you are an undergraduate 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:

Attend the presentations you marked in your schedule on Sunday.  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.

After presentations are an excellent time to speak with presenters in that session.  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 — if it feels a bit awkward to just say hi to them in the poster hall or hallway it's never awkward to talk to them right after their talks.

Giving Oral Presentations:

First, see the AstroBetter Wiki page on presentations.

In short, you have too much text on your slide.  No, I don't need to see it to know that.  They're visual aids, not scripts. Julianne Delcanton's guide to 5 minute talks is invaluable here.  

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.  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 about the details, 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, and they will be topics of conversation for the rest of the meeting.  Go to them.

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.

Follow the advice on good posters on the AstroBetter poster presentation page.

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

  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. 

Find important posters and presenters during the poster sessions:

Definitely visit the posters of anyone you know, and other students in your department.  Find the posters you marked in your program and introduce yourself to the authors.  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 became interested in our object and brought together a group to submit a VLT proposal — 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.

Town Hall Sessions:

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.

Also see: Newbies Guide to Town Halls

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.  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.

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.

The party: 

If you are over 21, and if you like nightlife and parties, then the party is the place see and be seen on Wednesday night (or, Thursday night during the occasional Monday–Friday meetings).  Business cards will get passed around with the location sometime the day or two before.  This has evolved from a how-many-people-can-we-fit-into-a-hotel-room party to an enormous, much-anticipated regular event at a nearby club or bar.  Be sure to thank Gina and the other organizers for their efforts when you see them.  It's expensive to rent out the venue for the night, so when the hat gets passed around, consider contributing some money.
 
When inviting people to the party, keep in mind that some people have good reasons they can't or shouldn't or don't want to spend the evening in a nightclub. Don't make them feel like they have to go; it's supposed to be fun, not an obligation.

If boozy nightclubs aren't your thing, or if you are under 21, then you should not feel that you are missing out on anything important by skipping the party. Lots of astronomers find alternative ways to spend the evening (and are able to pay attention to the 8am Thursday talks as a result). Find them and join them.

Harassment:

The AAS meeting is a professional venue and should be treated as such. Whatever interactions between people may be appropriate in general or in the abstract, at a professional meeting the degree of professionalism expected starts high, and increases strongly with the degree of power and/or seniority imbalance in an interaction.

Not all members of our community treat the AAS meeting as the professional venue it is. At every meeting there are people who treat it as a singles bar or worse, so it is important that all members of our community understand what harassment is and how to deal with it.

For that reason, you should read the AAS anti-harassment policy.  The bottom line: Do not treat AAS meetings as a nightclub.

Junior scientists should be able to expect to be treated professionally, most especially by senior scientists, and should know the serial harasser’s playbook so they can try to terminate toxic interactions before they escalate.

If you see a situation in which a person is being treated in an unprofessional manner, there are several ways you can help. You can give the person receiving the unwanted attention a safe "out,” for instance by inserting yourself into the conversation and giving the recipient someone else to talk with. If the harasser is a peer, and you feel comfortable doing so, pull them aside and explain to them why their behavior is not appropriate.

Inviting someone to lunch or dinner for two, especially if there is a large power imbalance, can plausibly be (mis)construed as an unwanted romantic or sexual advance. Good practice is to organize meals in groups of three or larger. If you find yourself on either side of such an invitation, round up at least one more person to prevent misunderstandings or awkwardness. This has the bonus effect of increasing opportunities for networking.

Do not assume that harassment only occurs with an older man harassing a younger women.

Now, having written that AAS meetings are not nightclubs, the party complicates matters because it is typically in a nightclub.  Non-astronomers at the club have no obligation or reason to behave professionally, and I'm sure hookups among astronomer peers aren't uncommon, nor are they problematic per se. But the power and seniority imbalances in our profession don't disappear at the bouncer's station, so the dangers of harassment still exist. Harassment is still absolutely unacceptable at the party, and in particular, professors should not be making passes at students at the party, period.

Finally it's important to know what to do if you are harassed or someone tells you they have been harassed.

Astronomy Allies:

The Astronomy Allies program was developed to address the issue of harassment at AAS meetings. Look for the Allies' badges at the meeting and at the party. They are a safe zone, a resource, a safe walk home, and a presence. If you see someone behaving unprofessionally, let the Allies know, even if you were not comfortable intervening, so that they know who to keep an eye on in the future.

This page is adapted from the post "Your First AAS Meeting" on the AstroWright blog.  It was compiled from advice by Jason Wright, Jason Curtis, Ming Zhao, Marshall Perrin, Sharon Wang, and others.
Page last modified on Friday 06 of November, 2015 12:29:47 EST