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.