Guest column: Lessons learned from TRB

Brian Davis, left, poses with Students in Transportation Engineering and Planning members at last month's TRB annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Brian Davis, a transportation engineering student at Portland State University, was one of 47 students from OTREC campuses to attend the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. He shares the following thoughts, tips and cautions for future attendees, students and professionals:

I’m finally back in Portland from my first go-round at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. Aside from some kerkuffles flying in and out, due in small part to snow and in much larger part to the incompetence of American Airlines (maybe all their good operations people were, you know, at the conference!), it was a terrific, invaluable experience.

By the end of the second day of the conference, it became clear to me that the biggest takeaway from this meeting would be what to do differently next time. In talking to some of the TRB veterans meandering about the meeting, it seems like that’s a pretty common experience from one’s first TRB conference. Here, then, are a few thoughts about what I’m going to do differently next time, and a pat or two on the back for the few instances that I guessed right.

The devil fools with the best laid plans

In the days and weeks leading up to the meeting, I agonized for hours and hours trying to plan the perfect assortment of sessions and presentations to attend.  By the time the meeting started, I thought I had a wonderful experience planned where I’d get to see plenty of great talks and posters pertaining to my areas of interest, and some other good stuff to expand my horizons. It turns out that I went to very, very few of the sessions I so meticulously highlighted in my TRB “big book.”

There was a lot I didn’t realize. For starters, the logistics of bouncing back and forth between sessions at three different hotels can be tricky in the D.C. winter.  Also, some sessions were fascinating and the discussions were great, others … not so much. This was particularly true of the poster sessions. Sometimes, the posters were less pertinent to my research and interests than I thought they’d be and I was in and out in ten minutes. Other times, there was more that I wanted to see than time permitted, and I had some wonderful conversations with the authors.

The lesson here, I think, is to pick a few “must-see” events for each day of the conference, and sort-of improvise the rest of the way. The conference is so big, with so much good stuff to do for us transportation geeks, that careful planning probably doesn’t yield a better conference experience than an open mind and a little luck.

Committees, committees, committees

Speaking of “must-see” events at TRB, I was shocked to discover that committee meetings are actually at the top of this list. Admittedly, I’d been told going in that I should try to attend at least one of these, but the term “committee meeting” suggests such a dry, boring, bureaucratic event that I avoided it until the last possible minute. It was only on the last day that I finally forced myself into a meeting room, and once I did, I wished I’d done it sooner. Not only was this a great way to learn about current and future research topics, but it was also extremely valuable as a way to network. 

One other big takeaway from the meeting is that old hands universally advised us young up-and-comers to “get involved.” Joining committees is one of the best ways to do that, and something I’ll actively pursue at the next TRB meeting and in the coming year.

Stay close, stay comfy

As a grad student, I was travelling to TRB on a very limited budget and cut pretty much every corner possible to pay as little out-of-pocket as I could.  One of the things that this meant was staying at a hotel a good distance from the conference, and in a pretty small room with four (4!) other fellas. Needless to say, this presented some, uh, logistical difficulties and large sacrifices of comfort in the name of frugality.

Next year, I’m going to make that extra investment in comfort, even if it’s out of my own pocket. There’s a law of diminishing returns when it comes to cramming grad students into a single hotel room, along with a corollary of increasing discomfort.  Certainly, planning far enough ahead to stay in one of the conference hotels and getting the humans to beds ratio a little closer to one is the way to go.

Come early, stay late

Having lived in the DC area for five years prior to moving to Portland, I have plenty of good friends there that I was planning to try to connect with in the evenings during the meeting. What I wasn’t counting on was the fact that some of the best networking opportunities of the conference (and ones with the most delicious free food, at that) take place in the evening. Often, I wasn’t through with conference events until 10 or 11 p.m., and with something I wanted to attend almost certainly starting at 8 or so the next morning, socialization was out the window.

I wound up missing out on a small chunk of the conference experience for the sake of visiting old friends, and wound up missing a lot of old friends for the sake of the conference experience. Next year, I’ll stay a few days above and beyond the conference duration to be able to take full advantage of both opportunities.

And some things I did right…

Here in ultra-casual Portland, there was some debate as to how formally one should dress for the TRB conference. I played it safe and brought along my best suits, shirts, ties, etc. I’m glad I did. Not only would I have felt under-dressed otherwise, but I met enough important people in the field that I was glad to have put my best shoe forward. On a related note, I’m also glad I went into the meeting with a networking mindset. There were many, many great opportunities to meet these aforementioned important people, and I come away from the meeting thinking I took full advantage of them.

All in all, TRB was an invaluable experience in a lot of ways, not the least of which was learning some dos and don’ts for future TRB meetings. I went hoping to learn about current research in transportation. I succeeded there, but also got a much deeper insight into who’s who in the profession, how the big decisions are made, and I took away a lot of motivation and ideas about how to advance myself professionally moving forward.

-- Brian Davis, courtesy of his blog

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