Why Going to JSM?

(by Julien Cornebise)

For my final post about JSM, based on three year’s attendance in a row (DC, Vancouver, Miami), a recap for next year potential attendants: Why Going to JSM? When is it worth it, when is it not?

First, the obvious wrong reasons for going: such a massive monster, with its 15-20 minutes talks barely allowing for anything but an extended abstract, and with 50 sessions in parallel, you rarely go to JSM for its scientific presentations. JSM is not the place:

  • to learn on recent developments in your field: not enough precise content in 20 minutes.
  • to get to know better someone’s work: same problem.
  • to get advertisement and visibility for your work: same problem, plus, empty sessions do happen way too much — you can’t compete with a panel of world famous speakers, especially when all you offer is a skewer of 20 minutes talks.
  • to see a wide overview of your optic: conflicting sessions on a same topic make it a frustrating experience.

For all those, specific small conferences (such as MCMCSki in the MCMC field) are way better: more focused interaction, more time for work sessions, more time for exposure of ideas, for constructive feedback. So why the heck coming? What makes 5,000 people fly here and spend a whole week? Why am I so glad I attended?

Of course, JSM offers some important community events, most noticeably its awards sessions and lectures (COPPS, Neyman, Wolf, and Medallion Lectures, …) where great contributors to our fields are honored by all their peers. Even though we’re all in there for the science, I won’t hide that I, for one, appreciate such public displays of recognition: it is not because we are scientists that we should never tell those who completely wow us that, indeed, we do think they do amazingly and that we want to thank them for that! Still, this would not be a sufficient reason by itself to hold such a gigantic and costly meeting.

But JSM incredible strength is truly its social side:

  • Nowhere else can you meet all of your US-based colleagues face to face at the same time in the same place, exchanging scientific ideas or just spending some great time in an informal context, getting to know each other better in a relaxed setting.
  • Nowhere else can you see former and new people from all the institutions you’ve worked at, keeping up with what they’re up to, keeping them up with what you’re up to!
  • Never else can you go for dinner with people from all those, getting them to meet, meeting their new colleagues, learning about their recent interests, what’s hot in the field, who’s moving where, why this or that department suddenly busted, how this or that other one is about to double its size and go on a hiring spree, what interesting specialized workshop is in preparation, etc. JSM is the largest grapevine concentrated over three days.

JSM is like iterating the adjacency matrix of your graph by several steps: not only do you strengthen your links with colleagues/friends you already know and appreciate, but you also get to know those they know, and find great matches! With the obvious caveat: if you don’t know anyone, then it will be quite difficult to meet new people. I’d recommend going there with a few colleagues from your institution for the first time. The less easy profile: the isolated statistician from a foreign country; his geographical attaches (Alma mater, former employer) won’t even compensate for his lack of people to hang out with — with the noticeable exception of seizing the occasion to meet someone you’ve only interacted with remotely. The best profile: pretty much any other!

Of course, all of the above is by no mean as formal/opportunistic as it may sound. Most of this happens while going to the beach with friends (after sessions…), going to dinner, sampling terriblific junk food (Five Guys Burgers, 15th and Espanola… I will miss you), living crazy nights on Ocean Drive — note to funding agencies: this never happens, I am just pretending, we are an extremely serious bunch, all of us, no exception. Simple: most of this is essentially hanging out with friends. With the noticeable difference: those friends are also our colleagues, lots of colleagues are also our friends.

And that’s why, in spite of all its flaws, this massive meeting is so enjoyable: work and fun do mix, friends and colleagues do mix, and real long-term highlights come out of it. After all, we’re all in here for the different faces of a common passion! See you next year.


4 Responses to “Why Going to JSM?”

  1. 1 John Johnson August 5, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    I’ll mostly agree with this — It’s the social aspect that is the greatest reason for going. However, I do want to defend the talks as well. While it’s impossible to remember any technical info from a talk, a well-done talk from someone who is personable can be an inspiration. That’s rather random.

    Well-done talks can also give a sense of the direction a field is taking.

    Well-done posters allow for in-depth discussion of a topic with a few people. I hope more people consider this format.

    But yes for me the greatest value was the one-on-one discussions and the social aspect.

  2. 2 Julien August 6, 2011 at 3:10 am

    Indeed John, I totally missed the poster sessions — which were hidden in the Exhibit Hall while, in DC, they were in the middle of the corridor. And I slightly exagerated about the talks — some were worthy, but unfortunately conveying an idea in 15-20 minutes is really difficult, and few success to do it with clarity.
    Next year, I’ll be careufl to check the posters, too.

  3. 3 John Johnson August 6, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    That’s an interesting point. I missed DC, so I missed having the posters in the main area. However, I think they could have placed them in that main area leading to the expo and career placement and attracted more traffic. Maybe too much noise for conversation though?

  4. 4 Rick Wicklin August 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    The best reason to go to JSM is to be part of the statistical community. (1) Twenty minute talks are great for finding our what various research groups are doing (email the presenter for preprints if you want more info; they will be thrilled). But finding our what others are doing is only part of the JSM experience. (2) Be sure to go to the MIXERS to make the meeting feel smaller. At the mixers you can meet and talk with colleagues that share your interests. (3) Get involves in an ASA section by running for office or by offering to organize a session at next year’s meeting (abstracts/proposals are due SOON). There’s no better way to get to know the chairs and program chairs, as well as other leading statisticians in your field.

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