Friday, December 20, 2013

An undergrad's first academic conference

PLDI 2013 was my first major academic conference in which I participated. As a lowly undergrad, I had attended lab retreats and industry conferences previously, but PLDI was to be my first academic conference. More exciting still, I was presenting in the student research competition (undergrad division.)

Having gone through it all (including winning second place in the SRC,) I can safely say that it was an experience like no other, and one that I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to attend.

It's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you're sequestered in your lab, working long hours, for months stretching into years. You start to focus on the minutia of your research, both good and bad. Worse, you lose the larger context; you lose the ability to see how your little research project really advances the state of the art, and fits into the world around you.

For me, PLDI was a great way to ground myself and put both what I am doing, and what others are doing, into a larger context. In one place, at once time, you have some of the worlds best research and researchers all coming together, to talk about the same sort of stuff you work on every day. And better still, these world-class researchers come and talk to you, about your research, allowing you to see it with fresh eyes.

One of the hardest problems to combat as a student researcher, in my experience, is burnout. You start out with a great idea, infinite energy and drive, and you want to change the world. But if you stay shut away in your little corner of the lab, plugging away at your project without any feedback, you start to wonder if this really is the right path to be going on. You start to wonder if anybody cares about what you're doing. You start to wonder why you do it at all.

PLDI cured me of any lingering feelings of burnout. First, I had people whom I greatly respect come up and say nice things about my work, which is always gratifying. But more importantly, I saw a number of ways that I could use my research to solve pressing problems people are struggling to solve. And more than that, I got ideas for another dozen paths of inquiry for projects both related and unrelated to my current one.

I left PLDI completely energized and ready to go. I now was able to see the wider picture of how my research mattered, what the state of the industry was, and how my research could contribute to it. I also saw another dozen projects I couldn't way to look at once this project drew to a close.

This is on top of meeting all the great people, seeing all the great tutorials, and just generally having a great experience.

PLDI definitely changed how I view academic research, and I can't wait to go back again.

Matt Torok
UC Berkeley
Bachelors in Computer Science, Fall 2013

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