Over at NeuroDojo, Zen Faulkes gets it exactly right, as usual. There’s little reason for students to bother presenting at “student friendly” conferences, if by “student friendly” you mean “small, local, and probably with a high percentage of student presenters and attendees relative to faculty and other established professionals”.
If you’re a student and you want some practice giving a talk or poster in front of a small, friendly audience that will give you lots of feedback, the best place to get such practice is at your home institution. There is no reason to attend a conference to get that kind of practice. You attend conferences to hear about lots of the very latest and best science in a short amount of time, interact with lots of really good scientists, etc. You don’t get that at a small, local, “student friendly” conference.
My first public talk was to a room full of strangers, including a couple of frighteningly famous profs I recognized, at the massive ESA annual meeting. I was so scared I had to write my whole talk down and memorize it not just word for word but tone for tone, like an actor memorizing his lines. It was great experience. You’ll never learn to handle that kind of setting until you actually try it. And the feeling of accomplishment you get from presenting at a big national or international conference is far greater than you get from presenting at a small, local, putatively “student friendly” meeting. Plus, as Zen points out, nobody is ever unfriendly to students at big conferences.
This advice holds even if you’re not presenting, just attending, and even if you’re an undergrad. There’s nothing that builds confidence like going to a proper professional conference and discovering (which, as an ecology undergrad, you probably will) that you can actually follow the talks, understand the questions that are being asked, ask good questions yourself, etc. That was certainly my experience when, as an undergrad, I attended the Benthological Society Annual Meeting.
As I’ve noted in a previous post, as a student it is essential that you get over the feeling that anyone is your “superior”. If you choose to go to a conference on the basis that it is “student friendly” in the sense defined above, you’re basically giving in to that feeling rather than trying to overcome it. You’re admitting that you need a special, different sort of conference than the ones that professionals attend.
Note that this does not mean that students should only bother with big conferences. There are excellent reasons for students to attend small, focused conferences (e.g., Gordon Conferences)–but they’re the same reasons that faculty attend such conferences. You don’t go to small, focused conferences because they’re “student friendly”. You go to them because they allow in-depth exploration and discussion of a specific topic, and because they often allow for lengthy conversations with the leading experts on that topic, conversations that no one has time for at big conferences.
UPDATE: Tim Poisot offers some nice pushback here. Basically, he argues that there’s a place for “student friendly” conferences as training, a way for students to work their way up to being ready to present at, and take full advantage of, other conferences. Which is fair enough, as long as that stepping stone really is necessary for you. Yes, I was scared before my first ESA talk–which is not the same thing as not being ready. I was ready, not just to give my talk, but to conduct myself like a professional at the ESA and get the most out of it. This is one of those times when advice from your supervisor and more senior labmates can really help. They can help you distinguish between nervousness and any lack of readiness on your part.
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I agree in theory but in practice a student conference has been the most useful conference I have attended. I had just enrolled as a postgrad and went to the Student Conference on Conservation Science Brisbane (I guess this may not count as small and local but it had only students talking) I met contacts all over the world and one of the prominent ecologists in this country who I am still in contact with. At that stage I doubt I was ready for any of the real conferences that I have since attended.