Huge conferences and the potential for alienation and isolation of junior scientists

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This weekend, I had an Experience. For the second half of Saturday, I went down to San Diego to crash the Society for Neuroscience conference. I visited with and learned from the #MeTooSTEM folks, and I got to meet so many wonderful people in person who I’ve only known from twitterbloglandia. I’d heard about SfN before, of course, but never had the occasion to go because, well, the stuff at this meeting is way out of my wheelhouse.

Anyhoo, let me tell you about SfN. As soon as I walked into the poster hall, I was like ZOMG. HOLY MOLY. WHAT THE WHAT.

Ginormous cannnot do justice to explain the scale of this endeavor. Here’s an attempt: Imagine that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but instead of wooden crates, it’s an endless morass of posters upon posters, in which one of those slots is where you have the honor to have your work visible for a few hours. The posters are given locations with a letter/number combination, for example, A7 or M19. (For each letter, the number will max out at 30, or 12, or something else, I didn’t sort this out.) There are so many posters, that they run out at Z, so they go to AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, and so on. Then, they ran out at ZZ, so they had to go to AAA, BBB, CCC, DDD, and so on. (Apparently, this is the first year they’ve actually had the wisdom to avoid the tripleK.) They do peter out before hitting ZZZ.

Here’s another way to put the size of this poster hall in context: When I got home, I noticed that my fitbit recorded an exercise activity for the day: a “walking” session. The timestamp shows this was when I crossed the poster hall to find the poster of a colleague of mine from CSUDH. Yes, fitbit says that crossing the poster hall is, itself, exercise.

So, that’s a lot of posters, am I right? Check this out: You know how long the posters go up? About 4 hours. Half of a day. I downloaded the poster abstracts file for the Saturday afternoon poster session. The pdf was 1422 pages. Of poster abstracts, from one half-day of the meeting. There are seven poster sessions in this conference, each a half-day long, using all those poster slots.

I’m an experienced academic conference-goer at national and international meetings. (I’m a semi regular at ESA, the other ESA, and IUSSI, and have been to multiple ATBC, ICE, SACNAS, I once crashed the NABT, and once I presented at the Geochemistry meeting.) Apparently, all of the meetings I’ve gone to are not that large. The biggest they would get is several thousand. It turns out, I’ve never been to a legitimately huge scientific conference. I’ve known that the meetings for ecologists and entomologists are just cherry tomatoes, but there’s a difference between imagining what a bigger meeting is like, and actually being present at one of those huge beefsteak meetings.

I have not been to AGU. Which is well over 20,000. The SfN meeting is well over 30,000.

I didn’t feel out of sorts when I was at this meeting, but that was because I wasn’t expecting to be in sorts. I wasn’t expecting to find any home for my research there, and wasn’t expecting to bump into anybody who I would typically see at a conference. I have research communities where I feel at home, and this just isn’t one of them, and I was in the role of a visitor.

As soon as I entered this hall, I imagined what it would be like to arrive at one of these conferences if I was a graduate student, and this was my research community. This would be the conference where I would be expected to present on a regular basis. I could imagine it would readily feel alienating, terrifying, or empty. With so many people going about their business in their own ways.

How do people cope with a meeting like this, when they first come as a student. When I was a student, my advisor made a point of introducing me to lots of people during my first meeting. Nowadays, I work to do this for my students (and any other new-ish students in my vicinity) when I have the chance. Not all students have attentive mentors showing them the ropes, but even if they do, isn’t the whole experience just entirely overwhelming?

I’ve read and heard a lot from and about grad students, about how the grad school experience is often miserable, which is often a comic trope. Even though I’d like to think I’m open-eyed to the challenges, I still have trouble connecting with the concept that grad school is inherently miserable. I know plenty of folks feel that way, though I’ve had trouble seeing it through that lens. Having hung out at SfN for a few hours, I think I’m getting a little closer to being able to see grad school from that perspective.  Because if your goal in grad school is to toil on a research project for years, and one of the culminating experiences is to share this work to the world as a tiny cog in such a huge conference, that has to feel rather deflating.

In the past, I’ve had a distaste at some of the Ecology meetings because of its size, which can feel large, especially when there is someone at the meeting for days but you never bump into one another. In this high-density environment, some folks feel like they need to glom onto a Famous Scientist who they know, or limit their networking to people to people who belong in a particular echelon to which they’ve been assigned, or might not create time for junior scientists because they’re still working their own way up the ladder. I think the bigger the scale of the meeting, the less cognizant people tend to be of the needs of other people, and what it takes to build a community. And when it doesn’t feel like a community, then people might not follow community norms. Which is how toxic behavior emerges and doesn’t get policed.

When you ask people about their favorite meetings, they’re usually the intimate ones, like a Gordon conference (or for me, it’s the every-four-years meeting of North American Social Insect crowd, which gets about a hundred people). So is the converse true, that the biggest meetings are the least favorite? Clearly, there are some advantages to having such a large gathering. You can see everybody in the field who might want to. The vendors and exhibits are off the hook. Big-name celebrities and policymakers will be at the meeting. And of course, the electricity and dynamism of such a huge event can be thrilling for some. But, anyway, now I see a little bit better how people might feel like they have a hard time fitting in. If they don’t have a supportive lab, then finding your supportive community at one of these conferences wouldn’t be an easy thing to do.

6 thoughts on “Huge conferences and the potential for alienation and isolation of junior scientists

  1. Absolutely agree. I don’t think they are friendly as information gathering events or making connections. A lot of big people fly in and out anyway. But they can be good for other reasons for students/postdocs. Since they are large, your poster might get chosen for an oral presentation in front of a small section audience. It’s a chance to have that experience without the pressure of a huge audience, which can be especially nerve wracking for a student having to speak in a different language. They can find out they can do it. I still avoid large conferences though. It’s just easier to meet people at the smaller meetings and gather information.

  2. Too true – to me the ideal conference size is less than 300, peferably round about 120 to 150, which is why I find the Royal Entomological Society conferences so much nicer than the British Ecological Society annual meeting, which has been over a thousand now for many years. I make an effort to got RES ones, BES ones, which I used to attend without fail, now much lower on my priority list.

  3. There is another, positive effect of very large meetings. With so many people, you are much more likely to find another person whose work is very similar to your own.

    During my M.Sc. my advisor took me to the annual Evolution conferences, which at the time had attendance around 2000 (so not in the same league at all as SfN). At the first one I went to, I felt like the least interesting person in the field where the BBQ happened. But in the third, I was blown away by the questions I was asked at my talk – three separate people asked me questions that could only have come from people who really understood what I was doing. Prior to that, I had always felt like the one person in the world (i.e. the department) doing work of my type. I was the guy with the fish project, who doesn’t study ichthyology, and spends a lot of time running gels, but doesn’t talk about biochemistry, and says things about genetics, but there are no flies or worms in the lab. I made a genetic linkage map during my M.Sc., I thing nobody I knew was doing. Then I went to that conference and spoke with the people building linkage maps in model systems that also were not crops or livestock or cancer model systems.

    The biggest conference I’ve been to is the European Geosciences Union, in Vienna. I’ve been twice, first as a PhD student and a couple of years later as a post-doc. Both times, attendance was around 14 0000. I like the huge conferences I’ve been to (partly that may be because Vienna is a great city), and part of the attraction is the chance to see posters and presentations well outside my normal interests in between the times when I’m speaking with researchers whose papers I have read and cited. And watching people fill up the room where I had my talk to standing-room-only was a thrill, even if it came down to a small-ish room at a big conference and a difficult decision by the organisers about how much room each session should get.

  4. It really cuts both ways. Some of the times I’ve felt the most excluded and isolated in my entire life were at small conferences- where the vast majority of the attendees were the “usual suspects,” the cliques of people who all knew each other or at least were there with their PI who knew all the other PIs and had for many years. If you’re one of Those People, it’s great, and you’re surrounded by your friends and people you’re comfortable with (though you are losing out at a chance to perhaps to stretch yourself scientifically and broaden your horizons). But more often than not when I’ve attended a small conference as somewhat of an outsider to the field or at least not as well known, I felt like a party-crasher at an exclusive club, like the guy who wasn’t allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table at lunch in junior high. I felt actively shunned, as if everyone who seemed to know everyone else but me was staring at me thinking “who’s this interloper?,” and I had no place to hide. I think in at least one such case I left early.
    At a huge conference if you feel like you don’t fit in to your planned sessions, well, at least you can go browse the giant trade show for swag, find a session about some completely different topic that interests you even if you don’t work in it professionally, perhaps find another lonely-looking person and make friends with them (have made some long-lasting friendships this way), or at least get lost in the crowd where you don’t stick out like such a sore thumb.

    • Agreed. I have been to many SfN conferences as a grad student and never really felt alienated since we would travel there as a group of students from the same lab. Then last year I attended for a first time a small meeting of around 100-150 people and even though I traveled with a few other people from my institution, it felt really alienating, don’t think I’ll go back there again. That said, I wouldn’t have a problem attending an SfN conference completely alone now.

  5. Coming to this a week late, but with AGU coming up this has been on my mind! I enjoy AGU – it’s “my” meeting, the first one I ever attended and one of the first I presented at. Most of the folks I know from different parts of my academic career will be there, and it gives me a chance to reconnect with them. It can be a good chance to meet new people, especially if you have someone more senior in your corner introducing you. And the sheer breadth of science on display always blows me away. I often take a few hours to wander into a session on, say, Mars exploration or volcanology just to take advantage of it.

    BUT. It is overwhelming. I usually end up only attending the equivalent of about 3.5 days, taking an afternoon off here and there as a break, or attending a longer workshop instead of sessions. I just can’t be “on” for that long. I’m also at the point where I only go every other year.

    Hm, I started to type up a bunch of strategies I use to cope as an introverted junior scientist, but it got pretty long! Stephen Heard has a good post on conferencing as an introvert, but I might need to write my own post on it.

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