- Connections: Conferences are the main way for mathematicians to meet each other and make connections, as well as convince other mathematicians whom they don’t already know that their work is interesting and worth reading about. It is an unavoidable fact that connections are a huge part of having a successful career. Going to conferences (and actively participating) will give you a chance to start making these connections.
- Research topics: As you enter the later stages of your graduate school career, you will increasingly need to find your own research questions and more broad directions to work in. At conferences, you will hear about what kinds of problems other people are working on and may find some new topics which interest you. You may even find someone to collaborate with and/or a concrete research project to work on!
- Chances to give talks/posters: As Prof. Smith says, “every talk is a job talk.” If you give talks, more people will know who you are and what you study! Many conferences (especially grad student conferences) have chances for attendees to apply to speak or present at a poster session. Even a poster or a lightning talk can help get your name out there. It does NOT have to be something published – some conferences are okay with expository posters or talks on works in progress. Your advisor might have some suggestions as well. Once you have some progress on new research, you will have a stronger case for presenting, but it won’t hurt to apply with something smaller. Plus, if you are presenting (anything!), you are eligible for the Rackham Conference Travel Grant (more on this under funding). If someone likes your talk, they might approach you and ask about your work. These conversations can lead to enlightening exchanges of ideas, invited seminar talks, new collaborations, new friends, etc.
- Learn about something totally new: At any conference, there will be talks on topics you have (virtually) no prior knowledge about. At some very large conferences like the Joint Mathematics Meetings, there are hundreds of talks on an incredibly broad array of topics. It can be enlightening to attend talks on topics which seem completely unrelated to your own work. It is good to be (at least vaguely) aware of other parts of the mathematical community!
- Make friends: As you attend more conferences, especially in your own field, you will inevitably run into the same people repeatedly. You can make friends with people all over the world!
- Explore somewhere new: Many conferences take place in interesting cities. Even “boring” cities all have enough interesting activities for the duration of a conference! Mathematics (especially grad school) doesn’t pay well enough to travel all over the world, but going to conferences usually means most or all of your expenses will be reimbursed. You can always find a few hours here and there to explore the area and try some exciting foods.
Math can be very isolating at times! Conferences are a great way to connect with others who share your interests.
The standard approaches to finding conferences varies between fields. The first place to find conferences is to ask your advisor, as well as postdocs and graduate students in related areas. Some fields are lucky enough to have email lists or websites with information about upcoming conferences:
- Low-dimensional topology
- Geometric group theory
- Algebraic geometry
- Arithmetic geometry
- Commutative algebra
- Algebraic topology
- Number theory
- Algebraic combinatorics
- Financial math
- General list with filters
Also try perusing the information on the American Mathematical Society website, especially for conferences run by AMS such as the Joint Mathematical Meeting (JMM) and sectional meetings, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics conference calendar.
- Funding: Many conferences have funding for graduate students, so you should not have to pay (much) out-of-pocket for transportation, hotel, and registration expenses, regardless of whether you are presenting or not. Investigate how to apply by looking around the conference website, and make sure you have secured funding before purchasing tickets. More on funding below. No matter how enticing a conference seems, no one conference is likely to make such a big difference in your career that it is worth spending 5% (or more) of your entire annual salary on!
- A chance to present: If you have a chance to present, go! This should be pretty obvious.
- Timing: Most conferences are either one work week (approximately Monday – Friday) or a weekend (Friday – Sunday). Weeklong conferences are more common in the summer months. If you are not teaching on Fridays, it is much easier to attend weekend conferences during the semester!
- Speakers: Check the list of plenary/keynote/whatever speakers on the conference website. This might include someone you want to talk to or hear from. Most people are very happy to talk about their work, even if you don’t know it very well!
- Other attendees: Often there will be a list of other registrants. Note that these lists can go out of date, especially as funding is decided, but at least it is some idea of whom you might expect to see.
- Topics included: The description of the conference is often pretty vague – it is generally better to get this information by looking at some titles and abstracts from the list of speakers. If they aren’t available, just look up the speakers, and while you might not know specifically which topic they’ll speak on, you can get some idea of what area they work in. Don’t restrict yourself to conferences solely on areas in which you might consider yourself an “expert” – just try to have some mathematical interest(s) common with a couple of the speakers!
- International travel constraints: Some countries require a visa to enter even for a short visit; whether or not you need a visa depends on your citizenship and the agreement your home country has made with the country of your conference. Even for US citizens, visa issues can cause some headaches when attempting to go to conferences outside the US. For US citizens, you can find useful information about passport/visa requirements and precautions at the State Department’s guidelines by entering the country you are travelling to in their search field. For US citizens, getting a visa (necessary for China and Russia, for example) might involve mailing your passport, along with paperwork and a payment, to some agency which acquires the visa and sends it back with your passport. This takes a bit of advance planning and could cost around $200 for a single-use visa.
First, find the registration information on the conference website. This might be a form, or it might just ask you to email the organizers. In any case, make sure it is clear you are a graduate student from the University of Michigan. Usually they want to know who your advisor is as well – sometimes they want an email confirmation from your advisor that you would be a good fit for the conference (this is generally just a formality). This also includes a funding request (if it is just an email to the organizers you should ask what funding is available for graduate students). You should do this step as soon as you have interest in the conference. It is easy to change your mind on this later if there is some problem, but the earlier you apply, the sooner your name is on the list for funding.
As soon as you decide you want to attend a conference, you should figure out how to make it work with your teaching. Ideally, this can happen during the preceding semester and you can arrange your teaching schedule so that you will miss fewer classes – the coordinators are generally very happy to help you find a workable schedule. Once you have their approval, you have to arrange a substitute. This should be someone who is currently teaching or has recently taught the same class. You should also arrange to either sub for them or pay them to cover your class (Note: getting a sub for an illness does NOT require you to compensate them, unlike voluntary travel). Let the coordinators (and your students!) know of the arrangement.
You generally don’t need to do much else until you hear back from the organizers about funding. It is okay to email and ask for an update if you have waited several weeks, or if a deadline has passed. If the conference is unable to fund you and you cannot find any other funding source, you might want to search for a different conference.
It would, however, be helpful to start thinking about how you will get there (e.g. look up typical costs of flights and ground transit), where you will stay (i.e. whether the conference books hotels or you have to book your own, and whether you will have roommates or not), and what additional funding you can obtain, depending on how much the conference has.
Most funding for conferences is done through reimbursement. This requires you to have the money to pay up front! You may have to wait over two months (perhaps over six months, especially for international students) before you get your money back. Keep this in mind when thinking about budgeting.
Here are a few possible sources for funding. Often your funding will come from some combination of these. For example, many international conferences will have funding for hotel stays, but not enough for travel. The Rackham Conference Travel grant (maximum of $1100 for Europe, $1300 for Asia) might be enough for transportation, but not both transportation and hotel costs.
- The conference itself: Many conferences are funded by one or more NSF grants (or other agencies), much of which goes towards funding participants’ expenses. When you register, or perhaps in a separate email to the organizers, you can ask about what expenses they can cover. Often this is just a (shared) hotel room (and registration expenses), though sometimes they can also give total or partial reimbursements for travel expenses. Some kinds of conferences, including meetings of the main mathematical professional organizations (AMS, SIAM, and MAA), do not provide funding. For these, you will have to find funding elsewhere.
- Rackham Conference Travel Grant: If you are presenting anything (poster, lightning talk, full talk, dance performance…), you are eligible for the Rackham travel grant. Each graduate student can apply once per year (July 1 – June 30), where the start date of the conference is the point considered (this matters a lot if you want to go to multiple conferences during the spring/summer months). This grant is probably the best possible way to pay for conferences – they pay up front with no need to keep track of receipts or wait for reimbursements. You generally get the money (direct deposit, like your paycheck) within a week or two of applying. If you get the grant, you can mention this to the organizers, and they will take that into account when considering funding your remaining expenses. The application consists of the following:
- Basic information about yourself and the conference (easy form online)
- Title of your presentation
- Budget: give a rough (but reasonable) estimate of all your expenses for the conference. There is a limit depending on where in the world the conference is
- Recommendation from your advisor: check with your advisor first, and then you can enter their information into the system. They will receive an email and have some simple form to fill out confirming the conference (and your presentation) are good for your career
- Invitation letter from the conference: This can be as simple as the body of an email, but is usually some nice pdf letter from the organizers – they are generally happy to provide this. It needs to state your name, the name of the conference, and say that you have been invited to present (a poster or talk or something)
Pro-tip: If there are no poster sessions, it is fair game to email the organizers and ask if they have considered adding one. You can even mention that you would be able to obtain additional funding if you were invited to give a poster (as long as you haven’t already used the Rackham grant that year). If you’re lucky, you might get a poster presentation invite and subsequent Rackham money. This worked multiple times in the past!
- Professors in the department: Some professors have grants that can be used for funding grad students’ conference travel expenses, even if you are not their student. It won’t hurt to ask around! Once you have been told you will get funding (after deciding on a budget), this generally just involves buying your own tickets and filling out a reimbursement form. The department office can help with this.
- External sources: Some organizations have funding for graduate student travel (e.g. this AMS program).
- AMS Travel Grants: For PhD students in their final year, the AMS offers travel grants to attend JMM and sectional meetings. These grants are worth up to $500, and the department can usually match the grants, so you can get up to $1000 total. [On the form, it will ask for a department administrator to confirm your status. You can put down Karen Smith, or whomever is currently ACGS.]
- Math Department Funds: We are in the process of getting approval for a small fund to support student travel grants. Watch this space for more information soon, and ask Karen Smith for updates if you need to take advantage of this and it has not yet been updated.
- Your own money: This should only be a last resort and/or for minor expenses. Many conferences, such as AMS special sessions, are held in University towns. Do you have any friends you can stay with there? You will probably have to eat out at almost every meal during a conference, but you may not have funding for food. Occasionally you also might not get quite enough funding to cover your travel or accommodations either. In these cases you should be careful about spending your own money – there is always another conference coming up, and maybe the next one will have more funding available.
- Arrange travel and accommodations: See below.
- Prepare your talk or poster (if applicable): This one is pretty obvious. Conferences are much more high-stakes than seminars at home! Make sure your conference presentation is your best work – you never know who might see it. You might even give a practice talk in a student seminar (or even junior colloquium).
- Look at who will be present: Check the list of speakers/titles/abstracts, as well as the list of attendees (if available). People like to be asked about their work, and your conversation will be more productive if you have specific questions and are familiar with it. If there is someone to whom you want to show your own work, make sure you know it extremely well!
- Pack light: Don’t assume you’ll get a lot of your own work done – the point of the conference is to communicate with other mathematicians in person! Your days will be filled almost entirely with conference activities, so you won’t need to bring a stack of books and papers to study. You probably won’t even need (or want) to bring your computer (as long as you have a smartphone). If you are going somewhere that includes interviews, remember to pack nice clothes and several copies of your CV. If you have free time, you might want to spend it exploring the area, so remember to bring good walking shoes.
- Prepare for international travel: Remember to bring some of the local currency with you, and bring an ATM card with you in case credit cards are not accepted in some places. However, credit cards often have lower fees for international use than bank exchange rates, so be sure to check on that. Remember also to check on whether you need adapters for your electronics (and whether your device needs an adapter that changes the voltage as well as the shape of the plug, such as a hair dryer).
- Learn a little bit of the local language and customs: If the conference takes place somewhere foreign to you, it is worth the time to learn some basic phrases and cultural norms. The locals will appreciate the effort!
- Find some interesting tourist destinations nearby: Lastly, you can also see if there are any interesting places nearby to explore! It will be good to be prepared so you can take full advantage of the limited travel time you have. Don’t expect a whole day or two, but with good planning you can cover a lot of interesting ground in just a few hours.
- Search around for flights, ground transportation, and hotels. Ask around the department (and your math friends elsewhere!) to see if you can travel together or share hotel rooms. Aim for cheaper options, of course, but make sure you are staying in safe neighborhoods (it is worth the extra money…). Usually conferences will be willing to fund your hotel stay starting the night before the conference, with checkout on the final day of the conference. Everyone just brings their luggage on the final day of the conference.
- If you find a much cheaper flight that isn’t directly to/from DTW (e.g. to/from Chicago or Toronto or something), you need to provide some evidence to the funders that your choice of airport saves money. This is usually just a screenshot showing a comparison of ticket prices.
- Plan your travel route carefully (this bus to this airport, this flight to this airport, then this train to this town, then this bus to this street, then walk to this hotel…) especially if you will have difficulty reading signs and asking locals for directions (e.g. in a foreign country)
- If you want to do some additional travel, you can get funding to cover costs equivalent to only attending the conference, and you need to show some evidence of what that would be, similar to the previous point. This is fine to do, just ask the funders!
- It is more common for the organizers to book hotels, and grad students almost always have to share rooms. If you have special needs/requests, just be sure to ask. If you want a solo room, you will have to ask, and you may have to pay up to half of the hotel expense yourself.
- Conference organizers are usually pretty quick to answer email and answer questions!
Driving to the conference: Often, driving will be the best way to get to a conference, especially if several people from UM are going (including faculty). This is almost definitely true for conferences within 300 miles or so if at least two people can go together. Gas reimbursements are usually generous (and it is more environmentally friendly!). If your car is less reliable, or there are more people than spots, renting a car is usually pretty cost-effective if it is shared by 3-5 people. There is a rental fee and insurance discount available for University of Michigan renters (on university business) available here: https://partners.rentalcar.com/universityofmichigan/. If the drive is over 6 hours, it may be worth just flying (if you can get the funding).
Registering international travel: You are required to register your international travel with the university at MCompass. On the same website you can (and should!) buy travel insurance – it is usually very cheap (just a few dollars per day) and may be mandatory in some cases. It would also be a good idea to check with the on-campus travel health clinic to see if you need any additional vaccinations or health precautions. The math department office can provide letters stating you are on official travel, which is helpful especially for non-US-citizens upon return. You can also fill out the math department’s Google form so they know your itinerary.
- Arrive early on the first morning: On the conference website, you should be able to find some information about when and where the conference begins (often a common room in the local math department). On the first morning of the conference, there should be a registration area where you can pick up a nametag (wear it the whole time!) and a packet including the conference schedule.
- Attend the talks: You don’t have to attend every talk, but you should make your best efforts to attend most of them, and to actively listen (take notes, ask questions, or whatever works for you). If there are parallel sessions, take a look at the abstracts and speakers and choose talks that sound interesting and useful! However, a wise mathematician once said “Never let the talks ruin a good conference.” It is fine to miss some talks, for example, because you are having a great conversation with a potential collaborator.
- Ask questions: Before, during, and after the talks, it is great to ask questions. Most mathematicians are happy to answer questions, even naive ones. This doesn’t at all have to be immediately after the talks during the Q+A; in fact, it may be better to ask afterwards so you can have a longer conversation and more personalized answer. This is also a great way to start making a new connection!
- Make sure you know how to submit reimbursement paperwork: Each conference will be a little different. Sometimes, you will have to submit some paperwork before you leave the conference. Usually you are given information when you sign in on the first day. Ask an organizer if you have questions!
- Meet new people: This may be both the hardest and most important part. Don’t just spend time with people from your own university! You are at the conference in large part to make new connections. If you liked someone’s talk, or recognize from a nametag an author of a paper you like, go ask them about it during the coffee breaks! If you see a group forming to get food, go see if there is room for more people! Once you have attended a few conferences, it gets easier, as you can just find people you know and take unions of sets of friends. It is more important to make these connections than it is to necessarily talk about a specific math topic.
- Talk to people: Beyond the common opinion that meeting new people can be fun or interesting, talking to people can have significant positive impacts on your career. If you tell someone about a research project you are working on, they may be able to get you a seminar talk invitation, for example, or maybe they know of a relevant paper which could be of some use. Or perhaps best of all, maybe they know of the best bar in town just around the corner!
- Go out at night: This is a continuation of the last two points! People usually form groups after the final talks each day to go out for dinner and/or exploring. Try approaching people you’ve never met!
- Attend the conference dinner: Many conferences have a special dinner or cocktail hour, often on the night before the last day of the conference. Sometimes this costs extra, but it is generally worth it. This is a great chance to sit down with new people and get to know them over some great food.
- Keep an open mind: We all get used to the kind of math done at our own university, but each school has different people focusing on different areas with different perspectives. If some research topic sounds bizarre to you, go learn about it! Some huge conferences like JMM have talks on all areas, even beyond pure and applied math, such as math history and mathematical art.
- Explore the area: This is one of the perks of academic careers! You can probably find a few hours to wander around and try some new foods or go to a special museum. Many conferences take place in less touristy areas, so you can better learn about the local culture. If you made friends with locals (e.g. conference attendees from the local university), they might know of some interesting spots to check out!
- Spend much time on solo work: If you can do just as good of a job on something at home, do it there! You have very limited time at the conference – take advantage of opportunities unique to that locale.
- Get plenty of rest: Unless you are giving a talk or driving a car, you don’t need to be perfectly well-rested. Stay up and explore and learn! This applies more to short conferences, of course.
- Skip most of the talks: It is fine to skip a few, but unless you have a good reason (e.g. on the verge of a breakthrough with a collaborator whom you have no other opportunity to see…), try to attend most of the talks, even if they are not exactly within your specialty areas.
- Hang out exclusively with your friends from your home university: You are there to meet new people! You can hang out with your home friends at home.
- Attend only the talks in your specific sub-discipline: Your focus in graduate school is only the start of your career! Conferences are a great place to learn about related but different areas of math. If there are only one or two people in your home university studying in your area, then you will get a very biased view on what constitutes that discipline. There might be dozens of experts vaguely in your area, no two studying the same kinds of questions, and all of whom have interesting insights you can learn about.
To renter the US, an international student will have to make sure that the signature on their I-20 form is not more than a year old (For safety, the signature should be valid for at least week after your expected day to return). The International Center takes about a week to process the applications, so make sure that you get the signature well in advance. Click here to get the I-20 Travel Signature Request Form. Additionally, your F-1 visa should be valid on the day of return. If yout F-1 visa has expired, you will not be able to re-enter the US. You should get it renewed as soon as possible from your home country.
An international student planning to travel to Europe for a short stay (summer school, conferences etc) should investigate what kind of visa they need as soon as possible, and have the following timeline in mind:
- If you need a Schengen visa, remember that you should make an appointment with an embassy or a visa processing agency as appropriate. You will have to make apply to the main destination country (In most cases, the country where the conference is being held). Your appointment cannot be earlier than 90 days before your travel and the appointment portal allows you to book appointments about 10 weeks in advance. These appointments close very quickly as the embassies/agencies work very limited hours. Consequently, you should start looking into booking an appointment roughly 4 months in advance of your travel.
- The earlier you can obtain your visa, the higher the likelihood of finding cheaper flights.
- You need extensive documentation. It is important to carry your I-20 with updated travel signature to the visa interview even if your checklist does not explicitly call for it.
- You will also need a travel insurance and the GeoBlue health insurance available through MCompass covers the requirements for a Schengen visa.
- You should also get a letter from the math office stating that you are on official travel for the conference. You should carry this letter with you to the interview, as well as while traveling.
- Fill out and submit your reimbursement paperwork: Save receipts! Take care of this right away when you return. It is easy for this to fall off your to-do list. It doesn’t take that long: just get it done and turn it in! The department office can be helpful as well (usually you can just do it all over email, including sending images of receipts).
- Look over your notes: See if there were some interesting topics you want to learn more about. Most of the main lectures will be based on papers available on the arXiv, or at least available upon request.
- Follow-up on any important conversations: If you made a great connection, stay in touch! If someone was interested in your work, send them a draft.
- Get some sleep: You probably didn’t get enough sleep at the conference.
- Return to your main work: Conferences are great, but it can sometimes be too easy to sign up for several conferences, and between traveling and packing and unpacking and lectures, you can accidentally go weeks without much work getting done.
And finally, Look for the next conference to attend!