How to decide whether to attend conference X (UPDATED)

Should you attend conference X? To figure out the answer, ask yourself the following questions:

Were you planning to attend the conference? Ideally, you should be at least tentatively planning your conference attendance a year or more ahead, as part of a broader professional development plan. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever decide at the last minute to attend a conference–say, because you the results of your new study just came in and they’re unexpectedly exciting. Or that you shouldn’t ever cancel at the last minute because life intervened. But in general, try to plan ahead. When do you think you’ll have some results, and what conference would be a good venue for presenting them?

What do you want to get out of the conference? There are many good reasons to go to a conference. To present your work to other experts and get their feedback. To hear about the latest work others are doing and get up to speed on the current state of the field. To get ideas that you can perhaps use in your own work. To talk about science with others who share your interests. To catch up with friends and meet new ones. To see a part of the world you’ve never seen and wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see. Different conferences are good for different purposes (see next point).

Note that in some other fields, conferences serve different purposes than they serve in ecology and evolution. For instance, in computer science getting your abstract accepted by a prestigious conference is a real feather in your cap, comparable to publishing a paper in a leading selective journal in ecology and evolution. And in some humanities and social science fields, many faculty job interviews are conducted at the big conferences.

What sort of conference is it? Two key variables are size and focus. A big, broad conference like the ESA annual meeting (2500-5000 people) is great for some purposes. There are so many parallel sessions that you will always be spoilt for choice for talks to go see. Big broad conferences are great for getting up to speed on the current state of a broad field, or on a range of different topics within a broad field. Old farts like me can count on seeing all of their friends at the ESA meeting every year. And there are surely at least a few people at the ESA meeting who are interested in whatever it is you do and who would be happy to talk to you about it. But on the other hand, a big broad conference can feel overwhelming. And if your interests and goals are narrower, then you might be better off with a smaller, more focused conference like a Gordon conference. Small, focused conferences also might make it easier to meet people. Especially because small conferences often encourage social interaction by having everyone eat meals together.

Speaking personally, I find that small broad conferences kind of fall between two stools. They tend to lack critical mass in any subject area. The Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution meetings, for instance, might be just 200-300 people spread across all of ecology and evolution.

A third key variable is mix of attendees. Is the conference mostly going to be attended by students? Faculty? Government scientists? NGO scientists? Policy makers? Some mix? From the local area, across the country, around the world? People working on a particular taxon or system (as with, say, a herpetology conference), or not? People doing fundamental work, applied work, or a mix? Etc. Obviously, you should only go if you want to meet and and hear from the sorts of people who are likely to attend. Less obviously, I don’t think there’s much value to students in attending student-only or student-friendly conferences, unless it’s not going to take much of your time to prepare for or attend (as with the annual Rutgers-Princeton one-day grad student EEB symposium I used to attend when I was a grad student at Rutgers). And insofar as there is value, well, attending a proper conference will almost certainly be even more valuable.

A fourth key variable is topic coverage. Conferences don’t always cover the range of topics you might think they do. For instance, it’s my impression that the Evolution meetings are a bit light on genomic work compared to what you might expect, because some of the people doing that sort of work tend to go to genomics meetings instead. I think they’re also light on paleontology, because paleontologists tend to go to paleo meetings. (someone who knows better please correct me if I’m wrong on this!) Have a look at the session titles from recent years, or a chat with your supervisor, if you’re unsure if conference X actually covers the topics you’re looking for.

Are you ready to attend the conference and get something out of it? It can be difficult to judge this if you’re a student who’s never attended a conference before, especially if you’d be presenting. It’s normal to feel nervous, and to wonder if you’re ready. You might also feel nervous because you may not know anyone at your first conference. Spending several days far from home surrounded by strangers isn’t everyone’s idea of a great time. But feeling nervous is very different from not being ready. I was terrified before my first ESA meeting talk, even though it was my third conference and second ESA. I dealt with my nervousness by memorizing my talk not just word for word but tone for tone, like an actor memorizing lines. I’m sure I sounded like I was lip-syncing to a recording. But you know what? The talk went fine, and so did the rest of the meeting. To that end, here are some tips for why and how to network at conferences, how to ask and answer tough questions about your science, three posts on elevator pitches (here, here, and here), and Meg’s excellent advice not to be self-conscious about wandering around alone at conferences. And here’s Stephen Heard’s advice for conferencing as an introvert.

How convenient and cheap is it to attend? The cheaper and more convenient, the lower the barrier to attending, obviously.

Do you have anything to present? There are many conferences you can attend without presenting anything. But you often get more out of a conference if you present your work, in part because talks and posters are great conversations starters. Also, to tap into some forms of funding, you have to present. For instance, if your grant budget includes funds for “dissemination of results” or something similar, you may not be able to spend those funds to attend a conference at which you’re not presenting. Same for the travel awards many universities offer to their staff and students: you often have to present something to be eligible to apply for a travel award. Finally, you don’t have to have your results before registering for the conference. It’s quite common to use conference registration as a commitment device to force yourself to properly analyze data that you haven’t yet done much with–or maybe even collected yet!

Can you juggle the conference with other obligations? This is another reason to plan ahead. For instance, the ESA and Evolution meetings are both in the summer, which means you’ll have to plan your field work around them if you have field work. The best source of advice on how to juggle your obligations often is other people who’ve juggled similar obligations. For instance, if you’re planning to travel to a conference while breastfeeding, here’s Meg’s advice.

UPDATE: How much traveling have you been doing lately? If you need the advice in this post, you probably don’t need to worry much about this one. I doubt that many students are at risk of going to too many conferences at the expense of their other obligations. And ecologists vary widely in how often they travel, so you shouldn’t feel like there’s some “typical” amount of conference travel that you should worry about exceeding. But I thought I’d throw it out there for completeness.

Finally, if you’re curious what I do: most years the only conference I attend is the ESA meeting. I attend Evolution and CSEE very occasionally, when it is geographically convenient and in the case of Evolution when I have something evolutionary to talk about. I’d love to go to the ASN standalone meeting in Asilomar, but it’s the first week of winter term and I always have teaching obligations I can’t get out of. I’d like to go to more small focused meetings on topics I’m interested in, but those are few and far between.

Looking forward to your comments as always.

19 thoughts on “How to decide whether to attend conference X (UPDATED)

  1. Regarding paleontology at the Evolution conference: I’m a paleontologist (or more accurately, a statistician working in paleo), and I’ve never been to the Evolution conference. My impression is that Evolution focuses on genetics and thus isn’t of direct interest to my work, which tends to be global in scale. If I go to one conference a year, it’s the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, which is the main conference for invertebrate paleo. (Vertebrate paleontologists go to the Society for Vert Paleo.)

  2. Great criteria, Jeremy! I never considered many of these points, but only asked “Is it my research foci,” and “I better present.” In the future I shall incorporate your guidelines! Thanks

    • Re: “I’d better present”, that’s definitely an important criterion for me. I’m skipping the ESA this year in part because I don’t feel like I have anything worth presenting.

  3. I was just trying to decide whether to go to ESA this year!! I liked your first point – I was NOT planning to go this year, but the day after the abstract deadline passed I got sad. So many of my friends will be there and I could use a few days of sciencesciencescience. However, I also need to balance being away with the busy-ness of field season and I try to limit my time away from my kiddos. (I sometimes bring the family to meetings, but that brings with it its own stressors). Thanks for the read – appreciated it.

    • Well, if you change your mind, ESA also has a call for “latebreaking” poster abstracts later this spring. But I believe those posters get scheduled for Friday morning, which is after the large majority of attendees have left.

  4. How about another criterion – is this conference really worth the carbon footprint for the travel? Surely, if any group of scientists is going to think about this, it should be ecologists! However, clever people are really good at coming up with clever rationalizations, as I’ve found whenever I raised this with colleagues.

    Me? I realize that I’m close enough to retirement that I can be virtuous about this without any career repercussions. So the last meeting that I went to outside North America was in 2010; the last in the U.S. was in 2014. In both cases, I only went because they had good field trips. The only other ones since 2010 were just within Canada, and I only went if they happened to be in the west.

    For all the formal and informal reasons that you listed, conferences can be fun, interesting, and intellectually stimulating. But the scientific community has to step up and do some soul-searching about this. In particular, we need to develop a reward system for our younger colleagues, post-docs and students that won’t penalize them if they try to be environmentally conscientious about minimizing travel.

    • I find that a difficult issue to think about. I do think conferences are valuable in ways that aren’t easily replicated (no, Google Hangouts and Twitter do not and cannot replace most of the purposes of conferences). And as soon as you start talking about individual behaviors, I’m not sure it makes much sense to think about conference travel in isolation from other individual behaviors (e.g., have you chosen to have children, what size house do you live in…), or in isolation from things like industrial sources of CO2 (academic conference travel is a drop in the bucket in terms of global anthropogenic CO2 production).

    • p.p.s.: One reason I find it difficult to think about this issue is that I find public discussions of it too often dominated by people who think it’s a simple, black-and-white issue. To the point where they feel free to pass moral judgment on others. Jarrett Byrnes has a good post on this in the context of choosing whether to have kids:

      To be clear, not accusing you of over-simplifying or passing judgment where none should be passed. I’m fine with calls for soul searching. Just so long as they truly are calls for soul searching, for which a legitimate possible outcome is “I’ve searched my conscience, informed myself, and decided that, on balance and in the context of my whole life, it’s fine for me to fly to the conferences to which I fly”. As opposed to calls for “soul searching” that are really calls for people to stop flying to conferences because that’s *obviously* The Right Thing To Do and you’re *obviously* A Bad Person if you do it.

      • Fair enough. Urging “soul-searching” doesn’t prejudge the outcome, and that’s the spirit in which I made the suggestion. But since we make our living by trying to be thoughtful about how the world works, and by trying to instil good habits of reasoning in the young, we’ve got a special responsibility to show how these thoughts connect with tangible actions. In other words, it’s something as old-fashioned as trying to set a good example. And I use “trying” a lot in this comment, because it’s hard to do and most of us don’t always pull it off very gracefully.

    • I only go to conferences that I can travel to by rail/ferry – living in Europe (actually UK, but unlike a lot of our politicians I think of myself as European) – it is pretty easy to avoid air travel – (although more expensive). I rely very much on The Man in Seat Sixty-One – a great site for those wishing to avoid air – you can even get to Japan by rail and sea relatively quickly🙂

  5. Thanks Jeremy. As you know, I really appreciate this post, as I sometimes get asked “can I / should I attend conference X”, and usually have trouble giving good advice about any single conference. I strongly agree with and emphasise answering the question only in the context of an integrated professional development plan, including activities such as courses, research, teaching, holidays, conferences etc. If one wants to retain so possibility for spontaneity, put this in the plan!

    • Now I’m curious to know how common it is for people to decide spontaneously, at the last minute, whether to attend conference X. I never do that, but does that make me unusual?

  6. I was going to be all snarky and add “Can I afford to go?” and “Who will look after my children?”, but you’ve actually captured those pretty well with convenient/cheap and juggling with other obligations. Maybe I’ll just suggest adding, “Can I physically get there?”, which captures the struggles of some people when they are in physical states that preclude travel (such as late pregnancy, hospitalization, and certain disabilities), as well as visa issue for those traveling internationally. But I’m just adding this as a devli’s advocate, since the question is pretty obvious to the people who have these issues (though perhaps invisible to those who don’t.)

  7. I’m late to the discussion here, but will add my two cents anyway. I’ve had the “Should I go to ESA or Evolution” conversation a bunch this year. One factor this year is that ESA is likely to have relatively low attendance this year, since last year’s meeting was so big and this year’s meeting isn’t in a city that will draw lots of extra attendees based on locale. Conversely, I think Evolution will be relatively big this year, since many people were unable to go to Brazil last year and Austin is an exciting city. I think a smaller ESA could be nice — it would make it less overwhelming — but it seems like the people I spoke with have decided to go to Evolution. I think there’s a feeling of, “Well, I wanted to check out Evolution some time, and this might be the year to do it.” The people in my lab are usually doing work that spans ESA and Evolution. So, there’s a choice about what they want to present, but, if there’s a good ESA talk topic and a good Evolution talk topic, then other factors come into play, too.

    I was told as a grad student that it’s good to have a set meeting that you go to every year, so you see the same people and build a reputation in that area. But I’ve always been a bit of a meeting hopper, choosing based on what I want to talk about (is it more ecological, evolutionary, or aquatic?) and location, for the most part. I’m not sure if that’s been good or bad.

    Three years ago, I traveled to several meetings in one summer — when I had an infant — because I felt like they were all important for me to attend. But, when I was pumping in the airplane bathroom after a <48 hour trip to Portugal, I realized I was being ridiculous and that, by trying to attend mulitiple meetings while not spending too much time away from my family, I was maximizing my time in airports and airplanes and minimizing my time at the actual meeting. So, since then, I've only gone to one meeting per summer and have stayed the whole week. My plan is to stick with that strategy (except this summer, when I'm not going to any meetings.)

    • Yeah, ESA is going to be small this year. Everyone who only goes occasionally either went to Baltimore last year for the 100th, and/or will go to Portland next year (popular location). And everybody knows that everybody knows this, which will further depress attendance.

      Interesting about being a meeting hopper. I’ve only ever gone to the ESA every year and other meetings only occasionally. I’ve certainly built a social network and reputation that way, but even if I hadn’t I’d still have gone to ESA every year b/c that’s the meeting that best fits the science I do. I dunno, I would think that any meeting you attend at least semi-regularly (say, every other year?) is one at which you’d build a reputation and social network over time. Has that been your experience? I mean, it certainly seems to me like you know plenty of people at ESA and have a reputation among the regular ESA attendees!🙂

      • ESA has gradually become my main meeting, and I have the biggest network there. Now, when I go to ASLO or Evolution, it feels more like I’m catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while. Though, thanks to twitter, it would also be a chance to meet people in person that I’ve only interacted with online!

  8. A minor clarification (since I am a computer science grad student): In a lot of computer science conferences, what you’re submitting, and giving a talk on if accepted, is an actual full paper (8 pages is a pretty typical length), not an abstract. The papers are then published in the proceedings book. You’re right about a prestigious conference acceptance being regarded similarly to a prestigious journal pub in the computer science world – in some subfields the top publication venue is a conference proceedings book.

    Incidentally, this can make conference paper submission deadlines rather interesting, in terms of the havoc wreaked on the entire research community in a subfield as they approach. When I’m explaining this phenomenon to people in other fields, I ask them to imagine, if one of the top two or three publication venues in their field only accepted papers once every year or every two years, how everybody would be acting as the submission deadline approached.

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