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AGU Conference: Know Before You Go

January 29th, 2019

If this is your first American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference, be ready! Below are a few pointers for future first-timers.

The conference I attended was hosted in Washington, D.C. at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center during the week of December 10th, 2018. It brought together over 25,000 people. Until this conference, I had not experienced the pleasure and the power of so many like-minds in one space. The experience, while exhausting, was exhilarating!

One of the top universal concerns at the AGU Conference is scheduling. You should know that I was not naïve to the opportunities and scheduling difficulties prior to 2018, my first year of attendance. I had spent the last several months organizing an application development team that successfully created a faceted browsing app with calendaring for this particular conference using live data. Believe me when I say, “Schedule before you go”. Engage domain scientists and past participants about sessions, presentations, events, and posters that are a must-see. There is so much to learn at the conference. Do not miss the important stuff. The possibilities are endless, and you will need the expertise of those prior attendees. Plan breaks for yourself. Use those breaks to wander the poster hall, exhibit hall, or the vendor displays.

Key Elements in Scheduling Your Week

  • Do not front load your week. You need time to explore.
    • Be prepared to alter your existing schedule, as a result.
  • Plan on being exhausted.
  • Eat to fuel your body and your mind.
    • Relax, but not too much.
  • Plan on networking. To do that, you need to be sharp!
    • The opportunities to network will exceed your wildest expectations.
  • Take business cards – your own, and from people you meet.

Finally, take some time to see the city that holds the conference. There are many experiences to be had that will add to your education.

The Sessions

So. Many. Sessions!

There are e-lightning talks. There are oral sessions.  There are poster sessions. There are town hall sessions. There are scientific workshops. There are tutorial talks. There are keynotes. Wow!

The e-lightning talks are exciting. There are lots of opportunity to interact in this presentation mode. The e-lightning talks are held in the Poster Hall. A small section provides chairs for about 15 – 20 attendees, with plenty of standing room only space. This informal session leads to great discussion amongst attendees. Be sure to put one of these in your schedule!

Oral sessions are what you would expect; people working in the topic, sitting in chairs at the front of the room, each giving a brief talk, then, time permitting, a Q&A session at the end. Remember these panels are filled with knowledge. For the oral sessions that you schedule to attend, read the papers prior to attending. More importantly, have some questions prepared.

//Steps onto soapbox//

  1. If you are female, know the facts! (Nature International Journal of Science, 2018)
  2. Females are less likely to ask a question if a male asked a prior question.
  3. Get up there!
  4. Grab the mic!
  5. Ask the question anyway.
  6. Do NOT wait to speak with the presenters until afterwards. They are feeling just as overwhelmed as you are by all of the opportunities available to them at this conference.
  7. Please read the referenced article in bullet #1. The link is provided at the end of this post.

//Steps down from soapbox//

The poster sessions are a great way to unwind by getting in some walking. There are e-posters which are presented on screens provided by AGU or the venue. There are the usual posters as well. The highlights of attending a poster session, besides the opportunity to stretch your legs, include the opportunity to practice meeting new people, asking in-depth questions on topics of interest, talking to people doing the research, and checking out the data being used for the research. You will want to have a notepad with you for the poster sessions. Don’t just take notes; take business cards! Remember, what makes poster sessions special is that they are an example of the latest research that has not, yet, become a published paper. The person doing the research is quite likely the presenter of the poster.

All those special sessions – the town halls, the scientific workshops, the tutorial talks, and keynotes – these are the ones that you ask prior attendees, past participants, and experts on which ones are the must-see. Get them in your schedule. Pay attention. Take notes. Read the papers behind the sessions; if not the papers, the abstracts as a minimum. Have your questions ready before you go!


This is really important. Do NOT arrive without your time at this conference well planned. To do that you are going to need to spend several weeks preparing; reading papers, studying schedules, writing questions, and more. In order to have a really successful, time-well-spent type of experience, you are going to need to begin preparing for this immense conference by November 1st.

Oh, how I wish I had listened to all the people that told me this!

Put an hour per day in your calendar, from November 1st until AGU Conference Week, to study and prepare for this conference. I promise you will not regret the time you spent preparing.

The biggest thing to remember and the one thing that all attendees must do is:

Have a great time!



Works Cited

Nature International Journal of Science. (2018, October 17). Why fewer women than men ask questions at conferences. Retrieved from Nature International Journal of Science Career Brief: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07049-x


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