I often hear colleagues extolling the virtues of taking undergraduates and beginning grad students to “student friendly” conferences.
What does that even mean?
I have never seen any conference that was unfriendly to students, except for the price of admission and the cost of travelling to the conference. At every conference I have seen or been to, students have been treated well. The younger the student, the more likely they are to be encouraged and congratulated for showing up and presenting (if they are). Has anyone been to a conference where students are treated badly?
The first conference I went to was a national meeting; Animal Behavior Society meeting in Montana, as I remember. It was a confidence booster, because as I listened to presentations, I heard other people in the room asking questions that I was thinking in my head. My questions were not out of the ballpark. Some conversations I had over meals were also good for similar reasons. These helped me realize that I was on the same playing field as the other attendees.
As far as I can tell, “student friendly” seems to be code for “small, local, and cheap.” And that usually means it has a limited scope in terms of the presenters, the research shown, and the opportunities for students to network.
Students should be taken to “the big show,” early and often. They need to see the full range of current science. They need to field questions from all sides, from people with different intellectual backgrounds and different kinds of institutions.
Additional, 4 August 2012: The Singular Scientist has a post looking at student experiences at a conference.