Good, bad, and worst dates for academic conferences


Looking at social media today, I have developed an unambiguous case of FOMO because I’m not at the SICB conference in Austin.

But did I even give any thought to attending this meeting? Heck no. A meeting during the January break? Count me out. Have I ever been to one of these meetings? Nope. This time is just too valuable for personal time and/or research for me*.

Granted, there is never a good time to hold an academic conference. We are busy people (which is not inherently a bad thing), and taking time away from family, work, and basically all other commitments to go to some distant place, all for the pleasure involved in listening, learning, and connecting with with science friends and colleagues, is quite a luxury. Finding that window of time when everybody is most available is impossible. Once an organization picks an annual time frame for that meeting, then people who are regulars at this meeting plan their calendars around them.

And there are a few windows on the calendar that won’t work for me for conferences. One of those is right now- the first couple weeks of January. For the same reason I’ve never gone to SICB, I’ve never gone to an ASN meeting. In a few days, the American Society of Naturalists (of which I’m a life member, so I clearly was fond of the society in paying my dues) is having its annual meeting in Asilomar. (That is, if people can get there this year because of the atmospheric river pouring into Northern California. Yikes, good luck, folks.) I’ve often heard how wonderful these meetings are. It’s just bad timing. It’s just not thinkable for me to allocate several days in early January to go to a conference. But for lots of people, apparently this time works. Huh.

I think the US-based entomologists have picked a pretty good window, for me. It’s in the late fall, after most insects in the temperate zone are done for the season, and it’s not right at the end or the beginning of the semester. The US-based ecologists have picked early August, which seems to work for folks who are ready to wind up their field season then (or for those who need a break from their field sites). Though I have been at the Ecological Society meetings too many times talking with PIs and grad students who have remarked that their fieldwork is getting finished up by undergrads who remain at the field site, so clearly it’s not good for everybody all the time.

Whatever window a meeting lands in, it’ll be great for some and horrible for others. Woe be unto any academic society that picks its conference dates for the the beginning or ending of the academic semester. Or the major religiosecular holiday of Christmas. But otherwise, it seems other dates are up for grabs. I think I was once in a point in my life and career when I’d be willing plan my life around any particular week every year, but those days are long gone. Each of us has a finite number of weeks, which I find to be a shockingly small number, and some of those weeks are more prime than others for not-conferencing.

What slots in the annual calendar are dealbreakers for you?

*If you’re curious why this moment is so bad for me: Like most North American academics, I’m taking 1-2 weeks of solid vacation in the latter half of December and into the new year. Today (January 4th) is my first day getting back to full-time work, after not working for a couple weeks. Adding on a conference directly after this vacation is rough considering that the nonacademic world still revolves between 15 December and 15 January, after all. After taking about 10 days on vacation with people close to me, it’s really hard to just take an additional several days to spend with fellow scientists and away from other work. Moreover, this is a really valuable time slot when a lot of institutions are in January term or Winter term of whatever you want to call it. Classes usually don’t start until late January. You might think this would make it a good time for a conference but it’s also prime time to be able to focus on other things without distraction. I have done this in several years, but I have often gone to do field work in the tropics in January after the new year and before classes started. The only time I could create that kind of window is during summer or in January. Summer is long enough that you can schedule fieldwork around a conference, with some planning, But not in January. Also, early January is rough for parents because kids are often still out of school, so either you bring them to the meeting (which is suboptimal) or you find some other way to care for them. Or in my case, this is when my adult kid is home from college and I want to spend my time hanging out with them. I love you all fellow scientists, early January is also prime time for this brand new empty nester and missing SICB and ASN for this quality time is a no-brainer. If I was going to be traveling right now, I’d be doing it with them!

Come to think of it, there has been one occasion when I attended a conference that straddled the new year, that was when the International Union for the Study of Social Insects had its quadrennial meeting in Adelaide, Australia in 1998. I went to that one simply because I wasn’t going to miss this meeting which is absolutely epic for social insect people. I spent Christmas with family before going to the meeting, and as my spouse showed up as the meeting ended, and we traveled around for a couple weeks in Australia. I was kid-free at that point, and was also putting the final touches on my dissertation before driving off to a postdoc. But if the IUSSI meeting was in that time slot where I am in life now? I just dunno, I don’t think I’d make it. But since it happens once every 4 years it’s not

3 thoughts on “Good, bad, and worst dates for academic conferences

  1. The American Chemical Society always has its national fall meeting such that it’s during the first week of the semester at my (and I’m guessing most) SLACs. No way I can go to a meeting during the first week of class in the fall! The spring meeting is a little better, but still a stretch. Fortunately the regional meetings are a bit better timed.

  2. Minor error in writing thought you’d want to edit:
    ‘in listening, learning, and connecting with with science friends and colleagues, is quite a’.

    Good piece. It’s certainly a problem that conferences are planned with the assumption everyone can plan their schedules around them whatever the time of year, especially since the academic calendar is fairly similar across the board and a little consideration to this would go a long way.

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