A few weeks ago Terry wrote about going to conferences, networking and social capital. The post struck home for me for a couple of reasons. First, I agree wholeheartedly with the diffuse benefits that come from interacting with people at conferences. I’ve made friends, started collaborations, been invited to give departmental seminars and gotten paper invitations, all of which I am sure wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given a talk and talked to people at conferences. Of course, there are challenges to these intense social and scientific interactions too (e.g. the conference hangover) but conferences are a really important part of developing your scientific career.
The second reason Terry’s post hit hard was reflecting on the number of conferences I haven’t been able to attend recently. Moving to Europe has made the North American conferences I used to go to difficult so I haven’t been maintaining that social network in the same way. However, attending European conferences has helped me establish here so it isn’t all negative. I’ve opted out of attending conferences for a number of reasons ranging from financial expense, familial expense,* scheduling conflict, and more. Therefore cheaper, closer conferences are easier to say yes to then far away, expensive ones. But as Terry’s post suggests, there isn’t just a cost to attending conferences but there can also be costs to not attending them. Catherine Scott sums up the student perspective of attending conferences really nicely as well.
The idea of weighting the pluses and minuses of going to a conference implies that you have a choice. For some (and me at times) there simply isn’t the possibility of attending even if they want to. Although some conferences are getting better at being more accommodating of nursing mothers and parents in general, clearly many have a long way to go. I can also imagine even with elevators and handicap spots in lecture halls, getting from session to session in a wheelchair at some of the conferences I’ve been at would be a nightmare. Some limitations for conference attendance might be temporary over your career while others not but if you find yourself unable to attend conferences, can you build your social capital in other ways?
Specifically I’ve been wondering if you can gain social capital through social media in place of conferences. I’ve talked about the benefits of social media and twitter before and by virtue of writing this blog it should be clear that I see benefits of engaging on-line. But can it replace the conference experience?**
On-line engagement can develop a network of scientists who you know and I’m certain in the same way that by getting to know people by attending conferences these connections can be important. An important distinction is that there is a different crowd using social media than going to conferences. It is also good to know that not everyone is everywhere either (two prominent examples from my world include Jeff Ollerton and Jeremy Fox who both blog but aren’t on twitter). From my experience, my on-line network has a different structure than my conference one with some overlap. The group of scientists I engage with on-line tend to be much broader in scientific scope than those from conferences. That isn’t surprising because a lot of the conferences tend towards specific topics or taxa unlike twitter. I like broad perspective I get from twitter and blogs but many of the people in my field are absent suggesting that the only way I would ever connect with them is by going to the conferences they do. Although on-line connections can help, I think it is difficult to entirely replace attending conferences. And let’s face it meeting face-to-face often forms a different and often deeper connection.
So what can you do to improve your social network through on-line connections when you can’t make the face-to-face ones? Well, just like at conferences you have the choice to hang back and observe or engage. Writing comments on blogs (if there are any in your field) or chatting with people on twitter are much more likely to lead to a community of scientists you know, and who know you, rather than just following. But just like at conferences, you’ll probably be a better networker if you genuinely want to discuss things with people rather than try to get noticed by the big names or ‘right people’.
Back in the off-line world, you might be able to bring a hint of the conference to you by inviting speakers for your department’s seminar series and taking advantage of meetings with speakers who come.
All in all, I think my conclusion for myself is that making efforts to engage in the science community is worth it and that I’ll do that in the ways that I can at the moment.***
*Every time I go away it increases the burden of childcare on my husband. He’s always supportive but since he travels less for his work than I do, this is part of my mental calculation on whether I will travel or not.
**Ian Hunt provides some really good discussion about live tweeting at conferences. I haven’t followed many conference hashtags but I see how it could get overwhelming quickly. These kinds of tweets are also directed toward the attending talks portion of conferences, which is certainly an important aspect but doesn’t do anything for your networking.
***I’m going to try to not be too sad about missing out on conferences this year due to my unemployment…it might be hard though.