Recently I attended the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada, which this year was held jointly with the Société d’entomologie du Québec, in Montréal. While chatting with a (professor) friend at the conference it came up that we both don’t really like attending conferences for a lot of reasons, but attend anyway because we think it is important to do so. At the time I remarked that I thought there were few tangible benefits of attending conferences as a student. Since then I’ve been thinking a bit about the costs and benefits of attending academic conferences as a student, and here I will summarize my thoughts.
The obvious costs of attending conferences are time, money, and energy.
Time is needed to prepare a talk (this can be done relatively last minute by some, but for me takes a fair bit of time in advance) or poster (in my experience this takes more time than preparing a talk, but at least once it’s printed there is no time spent on last minute tweaks and much less time needed in practicing for the presentation).
Money is needed for conference registration fees, travel, accommodations, and meals. In my experience as a grad student all or almost all of these costs have been covered for one conference per year by a combination of my supervisor’s grant and departmental, university, or society travel awards. This year I attended two conferences and paid for a more local one out of pocket – a not insignificant cost on a student budget, but a worthwhile one for me because I got to make connections with a lot of great people in my new home province.
[Update: a reader pointed out on twitter that it would be useful to detail the actual costs of attending conferences, which can be unaffordable for many students. I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to attend some very inexpensive conferences – for example, I attended a meeting of the Entomological Society of BC that was held at my home institution, for which the total cost was the $30 registration fee. The one international conference I’ve attended was also held at my university, so again, the only cost was the registration fee – I don’t remember the exact amount, but it was probably about $500. The most expensive conferences I’ve been to were the meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada when they were in Guelph and Saskatoon when I was living in Vancouver. Student registration fees for these conferences were around $200-300, flights about $500, hotel rooms around $200 for 4 nights when shared with 3 other students, and food for the duration of the conference up to $200. So that’s well over $1000 even when sharing accommodations.]
Energy is needed for giving and attending talks and poster sessions, socializing, and attending all the various activities associated with the conference. The energetic costs of conferences are huge for me as a card-carrying introvert who nonetheless makes an effort to engage in all the social aspects of conferences as much as possible. Like Amy, I suffer from the “conference hangover,” which leads to a fairly high productivity cost after the conference ends.
The benefits of attending conferences are less obvious.
Giving a talk or poster is automatically a line on your CV, and a potentially important one, especially early in your grad school career before you have any/many publications. If your talk is memorable, folks who heard it might recognize your name when you later apply to work with them. If you give a great talk or poster and win a prize, that’s another line on your CV (and often money too) that again can help make you more competitive for awards and funding as a grad student. Prizes can also be used as evidence of strong communication skills. I’m told organizing a symposium also looks good on a CV and gives you great opportunities to interact with the folks you invite to give talks, but this obviously comes with its own additional time and energy costs, and I haven’t done it myself.*
Less tangible benefits of attending conferences include the personal and professional connections you make. Like Terry, I don’t “network” at conferences, in that I am not actively attempting to get something out of people I interact with or approaching interactions with a specific agenda. I do make an effort to seek out and chat with people who gave a cool talk or poster, or to follow up with people who asked me questions after my talk, and I try to be open to meeting new people at social events (despite the fact that I find these events terrifying). At this most recent conference, my favourite interactions were two lunches away from the conference, one with a good friend and mentor (who I rarely get a chance to interact with in real life) and another with a new friend I met for the first time at this conference (but I had previously interacted with on twitter). Neither of these lunches are likely to directly contribute to me getting a job or accumulating some other form of academic currency, but they were valuable to me as rewarding personal interactions. As for professional benefits, I will give a few specific examples of incidental but very real benefits of conference interactions:
- A couple of times after presenting my MSc work at conferences I’ve had professors approach me and ask me to apply to do a PhD in their labs.
- I have also heard of people meeting their future postdoc supervisors at conferences, but haven’t witnessed it myself.
- However, at a conference last year I started chatting with a professor who had just posted an ad for a postdoc in their lab, which I had forwarded to a friend and colleague who I thought would be a great fit for the job. I mentioned this to the professor, including, of course, how great my colleague is. The professor asked me to encourage my friend to apply, I did so, and they got the postdoc position.
- My partner met someone at a social event at this recent conference and ended up chatting about a phenomenon they had both observed and are interested in, and their chance conversation will likely lead to a co-authored publication based on combining small datasets each of them have accumulated.
Finally, of course, conferences provide great opportunities to learn about the latest research in your field. Some conferences include workshops that teach valuable field-specific or more general skills (like science communication, applying for academic and non-academic jobs, getting papers published, etc.). Even at talks that I think are far outside my field of interest, or just chatting with people whose interests differ dramatically from mine, I might learn some really cool new thing, or be inspired to look at my own study system in a new way. And even if I’m not learning much that excites me scientifically from attending a talk or poster session, I often pick up on highly effective techniques (in terms of poster or slide design, presentation style, etc.) or stuff that really doesn’t work. Paying attention to the talks and posters that win prizes can help with making prize-winning presentations in the future.
Do these potential benefits outweigh the costs? I think the answer is usually yes. Of course, the specific costs and benefits of attending a particular conference will depend on the location and type of conference. In my opinion, smaller, more local conferences are often more fun, intimate, and student-focused than larger national or international meetings. I’ve made a lot more meaningful personal connections at smaller meetings. They are also cheaper, and a more friendly and low-stakes environment for undergrads or new grad students who haven’t been to conferences before. On the other hand, the chances of meeting your next supervisor at a conference probably increases with conference size, but will also depend on whether the conference is one that lots of people in the field you want to work in attend. Depending on your field, and your goals, that may mean larger or smaller, more or less subject-focused meetings are better. I’ve only had people asking me to join their labs at national meetings, and larger meetings often have more talks that I’m really interested in attending. Presentations and prizes at national or international meetings might look more impressive on your CV. The odds of winning a student presentation prize, and the actual dollar amounts of those prizes, however, may differ substantially with meeting type. In my experience, the number of prizes relative to the number of students and the dollar amount per prize both decrease as meetings increase in size from provincial to national to international**. I recommend talking to people who’ve been to the conferences you’re interested in attending and finding out what they are like before deciding on whether it’s one that is going to be worthwhile for you.
For me, the people and the atmosphere really make the conference. I’ve been going to meetings of the Entomological Society of Canada for the last 5 years because it’s usually a great group of really friendly and interesting people, and pretty student-focused. It’s a national meeting so there are always new people to meet and a variety of symposia full of excellent talks to choose from, but it’s still a relatively small conference (maybe 200-300 attendees?) and I’ve gotten to know a fair number of people in the society over the years. I’ve never attended a really huge conference like ESA and find the idea pretty scary. Ideally you’ve got a supervisor who will introduce you to people they know at meetings, but I haven’t usually been in this position except at my one international meeting, so it’s nice to know in advance that there will be friendly faces at the conference. The relationships I’ve made have been rewarding personally, and if they end up benefiting me professionally, that’s a bonus.
Are there other costs or benefits I haven’t thought of? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
*I am currently on a conference organizing committee for a smallish local conference that will be held at my university and I am pretty sure the costs of this activity will far outweigh the benefits to me personally. It is a lot of work.
**I’ve only personally been to meetings of the Entomological Societies of British Columbia and Ontario, the Entomological Society of Canada, and the International Society of Chemical Ecology, so this and everything else I’ve experienced may not be generalizable to all scientific meetings. Please let me know if your experiences differ!