Conference Concern

I’m happy to own up to something: I don’t like going to conferences.  Out of the handful of conferences I have been to since starting my PhD I have found them frustrating, dull, stressful, too busy, too long, too short, too overloading, too expensive, too broad, too specific…really it was easier to please Goldilocks with porridge than me with a conference.  I can, however, rank my general distain for conferences in priority order.

Firstly I dislike conferences that are too broad, and those that are too specific.  This is partly due to the nature of my research – I fit in between a couple of large areas with related interests in several others.  It is extremely difficult to cultivate a reputation/network/whatever you want to call it in multiple areas at the same time, and it is probably a bit daft to try. Large conferences offer me the opportunity to hit on many areas of interest, small conferences offer me the opportunity to hit on one aspect in particular, neither represent value for money in terms of hits per registration fee.

That brings me on to the cost issue.  Conferences are expensive, in terms of fees, accommodation and travel costs, and in terms of time.  Is it really necessary in an online world to require people to travel half way around the globe to listen to professors pontificate about work already published because they are too worried about being scooped to talk about the work in progress?  Would it not be cheaper to have an online element where participants could listen to the talks and view the powerpoints from the comfort of their own office?  Would it not also encourage greater participation?  Simple fact: as a new academic I do not have the funding available to go to conferences.  Even if I did have some spare money in the budget, it would not be going anywhere near conferences whose registration fees are over £100, and which require expensive travel/accommodation arrangements.

Of course, someone will try to argue that watching presentations online defeats the purpose of a conference – to network.  Well, can we all be honest for a moment?  Are the networking opportunities presented at conferences actually useful or are they more use for a boozy night out courtesy of the boss?  Poster sessions – too big, too crowded, coffee breaks – down time needed, not chit chat and prof impressing, lunchtime – eating.  I do more networking via Twitter from my office than I ever have at a conference.

I don’t like conferences because they are difficult to get into if you are an outsider to the field, expensive and offer limited opportunities to network in an online world, and I think I’m going to give myself a break from feeling guilty about it.

8 thoughts on “Conference Concern

  1. Is it really necessary in an online world to require people to travel half way around the globe to listen to professors pontificate about work already published because they are too worried about being scooped to talk about the work in progress? Would it not be cheaper to have an online element where participants could listen to the talks and view the powerpoints from the comfort of their own office?

    I half wrote a post on this very issue around the time of AGU. From an Earth Science perspective, there is also the hypocrisy of jetting around the world every year to say, San Francisco, to attend a session on the impacts of climate change.

    The current ‘big international conference’ format’ has only really changed cosmetically in the last 30 years or more; modern web communications mean that you no longer need to get everyone in the same room to share data and ideas. Hell, if the big societies charged a reasonable fee for access to session webcasts, they could probably even make some money out of it.

  2. Networking is a definite benefit of conferences, twitter is a pretty recent innovation and to be honest the uptake amongst academics isn’t huge.

    You can pick up some useful tidbits on how exactly experiments were done (and what the really tricky bits were).

    The best conferences I attended were those with significant discussion elements programmed in, like Faraday Discussions where the papers are distributed beforehand.

    Small, very focused workshops also work for me.

    But on the whole I think I agree with your general thesis.

    At the moment I’m getting much more from twitter/blogs than I did from conferences, *but* only in a general sense: for my specific fields there simply isn’t the uptake for it to be really useful.

  3. I agree with everything you’ve said, but I suspect that some professional societies have figured out how to have a good conference that addresses some of the complaints. I’d love to have those meetings analyzed a bit, and their strategies discussed so that other meetings can be improved. I think a lot of the problems arise because committees design meetings, and stuff always gets “added” rather than deleted. And then the money people come and say, “we need 30% more attendees” which requires 10 concurrent sessions, etc.

  4. I love conferences, and benefit more from networking with people in person at conferences than I have managed to do on line (at least so far!). But I agree that cost is an issue, and for that reason I tend to avoid large expensive meetings that cover too large a subject area/remit. There has to be a balance, and as someone who organises quite a lot of conferences (the next one being in April), I try to keep the registration fees as low as possible.

  5. I’m at a conference at the moment, on Molecular Electronics. It’s fairly small, focussed, and the talks are a mix of big profs, new appointees, postdocs and students. The organisers seem to have done well. I prefer conferences like this to the big productions (e.g. ACS meetings and the like), with 10000+ participants and dozens of parallel sessions. The whole meeting is in a budget Swiss hotel, so networking is more or less enforced!

  6. I’ve also had concerns about conferences — even on a blog devoted to poster presentations, which is all about conferences (http://betterposters.blogspot.com/2009/10/do-you-need-to-go-to-that-conference.html).

    And I am online all the time. I blog, I’m on Twitter, and more.

    And yet, I still find there are conversations and opportunities that emerge in a conference setting that just don’t emerge online. There are people who I just wouldn’t have a chance to talk to otherwise.

    The online tools to substitute for conferences just are not there yet.

    Even if the tools were there, too many academics think that anything online is meaningless, professionally speaking. ANd they may be right.

  7. Thanks for all the comments, some really great points well made.

    @ Zen I’d agree that currently the uptake of social networking tools is too limited to really replace physical presence at conferences, but at some point conference organizers are going to have to start thinking about cultivating an online attendance.

    @ Small Casserole – I was at a Dalton Discussion a couple of years back and it was great because the whole thing revolved around open discussion rather than one way transmission of information. It would be great if they were more frequent in subtopics but I understand some of the practical constraints.

    @ Colin – we need more societies to start thinking about online access for conferences, particularly in the current economic climate, and the best way to support conferences that do already offer such things is to make full use of them.

    @ Simon getting a good mixture of speakers must be difficult, particularly if it includes new appointees. Not sure if I can handle networking over breakfast though!

    @ Rob cost is only one of the barriers to participation.

    @ Chris I’d be interested to read your thoughts, perhaps once you’ve returned from that science online conference in North Carolina? (I’m really jealous actually – bah humbug!)

  8. Provided you have a paper accepted, and the conference doesn’t clash with other commitments (e.g. teaching), what are the other barriers to participation apart from the registration fee and travel costs? These are the only obstacles that prevent me from attending far more conferences than I do! I’ll enlarge on this in a blog I’m working on.

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