Saturday, April 8, 2017

Conference travel

Conference travel is really important for getting your name and your work out there, for networking, and for keeping up with what is really going on in the field that either is unpublishable or not published yet. As a lifelong introvert, I've really had to work at effective networking. It took me a while to figure out how to make the most of conferences. As I've gotten older, I find that I like the big society meetings less and less. A big meeting is huge, which means it is hard to just run into people, so key meetings have to be planned. Everyone is always running somewhere. The talk quality is highly uneven, especially since giving a quality 15-20 minute talk is really hard for an inexperienced person. Conferences always exhaust me, since I find spending so much time with people tiring, and the always on nature of a meeting is very draining. The endless busy-ness of a big meeting makes this worse for me.

As a student, I loved the wide range of topics, the exhibitions (with their swag) and the opportunity to put faces to the names on papers. Now that I am more established, I find that I am much happier to send my students to the big meetings, and attend smaller, more focused meetings myself. I still get energized from a good topical conference, and I love the opportunity to get up to speed quickly in a new direction by listening to expert talks rather than reading a lot of papers. That said, I find when I get back from a big society meeting, I am more likely to just be tired than to be excited by science. I do attend one big one per year, since it is a good idea to be seen, but I don't really miss it when I don't go for some reason. I guess there is no avoiding turning into a curmudgeon with age!


xykademiqz said...

I hear ya. I have grown to viscerally hate conference travel. Usually, the reason we are there (to give a short talk and hear others) doesn't end up being worth the cost (can't get by with less than $2000, and that's before overhead) or the bother. I just came back after a 3.5-day trip that I undertook to give a 25-min talk; the hassle of the return trip alone (with all the cancellations, rerouting and rebooking, sitting in a middle seat for 5 hours at 6-ft tall and the two days of knee and hip pain following, all culminating in a one-way car rental so I'd get back home at 3 am to teach the next day) made me regret is several times over.

Several of my students went to the big March meeting, they seemed to have fun. I haven't been to it in years; the talks are usually not worth it.

For me, every trip also comes with a punishing backlog of work. Maybe it's not the trips' fault. I seem to be losing the war with my workload and do not know how to turn it around. It's nuts, and I cannot seem to dig down to actual technical work through all the crap on top.

pyrope said...

I remember loving the big conference in my field as a grad student - but I think it was mainly because it was a fun week of learning stuff, collecting pens, and exploring an awesome city with friends.
These days I think I am definitely in the curmudgeon stage, because I generally just feel exhausted by them and I find the talks tend to be hopelessly narrow (when given by grad students) or ridiculously broad and lacking any new content when given by senior folks. I've been considering switching to a different big conference (my work straddles two fields), but I've never been to this other conference before and I'm honestly scared that it will be like high school again where I'll be the new girl with no friends and eating lunch by myself. That seems like a dumb reason when I actually write it, but there it is :)

prodigal academic said...

Xyk, I am with you on the work pile up. So worth it for vacations, but it makes conference exhaustion so much worse to come back to an enormous pile of crap work that destroys any extra inspiration I may have taken away from the meeting.

Pyrope, I find that all of the big meetings I can go to are more or less the same in terms of talk quality and exhaustion (I do stuff that is relevant at several different large society meetings). It is sometimes nice to see a different collection of people, and senior talks are more likely to be new (to me anyway) when I switch my meetings up. In my experience, the big meetings are a lot less clique-y than smaller ones. I was at a GRC that was like high school revisited. That said, I think I am not alone in mostly sending students to the big meetings now. With student travel awards, it costs me a lot less to send them than to send me.

plam said...

How big is big? In my subfield, premier conferences are several hundred I think. But CS is still relatively small.

xykademiqz said...

plam, some big meetings are several thousands. Like the APS March meeting:

pyrope said...

@plam I go to the Ecological Society of America and I think it has hit 10k in recent years, American Geophysical Union was at 10k already 15 years ago when I was in grad school. Big annual meeting to me means overwhelming seas of people.

@prodigal - that's a good point about plenaries potentially being more interesting at different meetings. The topics that interest me in ecology tend to be a little fringe, so plenary talks that would interest me topically are often presented as introductions.

prodigal academic said...

plam, for me big is 5k or more. All of the society meetings I attend are in that range. At this sort of meeting, there are many topical sessions going on at once, so it can be very hard to find people, even those who work in your own specialty, because they may be attending sessions on different things. Any meeting with a handful of concurrent sessions feels really different than that. A few hundred is a small meeting for me.

This year, I have to go to one big meeting over the summer, but I am sending my students to two others instead of going myself. Strangely enough, as grant money has tightened up, ProdigalU has done a really good job of finding travel money for students, so it is actually cheaper for me to send students now than it was when I started.