I'm getting ready for this spring's round of conferences (only two, I still need time for research of course) and I was thinking about the time a conference "really" takes. So, while I was in the gym today, I listed all the steps through which you need to go when attending a conference.
Step 1: Preparation - 33 hours
1.1. Finding a suitable conference - 1 hour
For a new PhD student, it's important to identify which conferences are important in your field, and have an idea how often these conferences take place as well as how long before the conference abstracts are due. I've submitted in late 2010 an abstract for a conference in 2012 to which I would love to go.
Your advisor might point you towards interesting conferences, or you might (as in my case) mainly feel like looking for them yourself and then propose going there to your supervisors. Keep an eye on the websites of technical committees in your field - they might organize a workshop on your topic during a certain conference.
1.2. Writing and submitting an abstract - 2 hours
Bring your abstract down to these four (six)pillars: (background), problem statement, (scope), methods, results and conclusions. I like to copy the questions from this website in a word document and simply answer the questions:
Why do we care about the problem and the results?
What problem are you trying to solve?
How did you go about solving or making progress on the problem?
What's the answer?
What are the implications of your answer?
Then I merge them into an abstract and call it a day. Submitting the abstract itself can be a separate task too - typically you'll be working your way through some online system and if you're a perfectionist like me, you'll feel the need to check, double-check and triple-check every step and waste a lot of time on the entire process.
1.3. Writing a paper - 20 hours
I've been tracking my time for the past 9 months now, and I've discovered that a conference paper takes me about 20 hours to write, while a journal paper or a paper for a special publication takes me 40 hours. I don't work in a straight 20 hours (that would mean I could finish a paper in half a week), instead of this I typically work in different stages: making the outline, making additional calculations and figures, throwing words to the screen, edit, re-edit, discuss with supervisor 1, edit, discuss with supervisor 2, edit, re-edit. The bulk of my time does go to the steps after making the outline and before showing it to someone else, in which I preferable work in isolation, but typically get disturbed by whatever is going on in the lab, educational tasks and other activities which at that moment distract me from my writing - which I don't like then. I should consider trying out this bulk phase in the library or at home.
1.4. Preparing a presentation - 6 hours
I tend to spend a fair amount of time on making carefully designed slides and then try out my presentation enough times to be sure I'm meeting the time restrictions. Over time, I might become more confident with this step and spend less time on it, but currently I prefer to have carefully prepared material and a well-rehearsed talk to kill my nerves.
1.5. Dreadful administration - 4 hours
I spent my entire morning and some part of my afternoon today on this work, and even though the forms are now digital and the workflow process is much better organized, I still dread this part. It's not science, it's administration and I tend to put it off because I don't consider it important. Requesting permission, registering, arranging the payment, booking the flight and booking the hotel all take some time.
Step 2: The conference - 3 days
2.1. Searching for interesting talks - 1 day before the start
Take some time to skim through the abstracts and set your itinerary for the conferences so you get the most of it. Allow some time to discover presentations on topics which at first you would not attend, and allow some time to simply rest during the day as well.
2.2. Networking - 3 days
Before even writing the abstract, you have probably looked at the organizing and scientific committees of the conference. Identify who you would like to talk to, but also allow plenty of time to meet new people: fellow PhD candidates, professors with years of experience, engineers from the industry - try to get a good sample of the population of the conference and resist the temptation to stick around with your peers.
2.3. The exhibition
The ideal chance to have a look at what is happening outside the walls of academia! I've not been paying enough attention to the exhibition on my conferences last year, but this time I'm planning to pay more attention to the input from the industry.
Step 3: The aftermath
3.1. Getting in touch - 2 hours
Classify the business cars you've collected, connect on LinkedIn or send an e-mail to your new acquaintances and write a message. I didn't get much further last year than just thanking a few people for the interesting discussion we had. I probably should do a little more effort to keep in touch, but I still am in doubt how to exactly do this.
3.2. Reconnect to the lab - 1 day
So what has happened while you were away? Talk briefly to all people involved in your project to feel "the temperature of the water". If the lab is boiling, solve a few problems, and get ready to dive back into your research work of every day. Don't forget to show your colleagues your trophies: announcements for conferences/workshops, the proceedings, and any interesting story you heard.
3.3. Tired? - 1 week
I noticed last year (when I went to 2 conferences in a row) how tiring conferences can be. I had been continuously in sponge-mode (trying to soak all information around me from presentations, the exhibition, talking to people) that I had an overly full head when I came back home. Just allow yourself some rest, and time to let all the new information and impressions sink to the bottom.
How much time do you devote to the preparation of a conference?