30 July 2012

“Student friendly”

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.


Miss MSE said...

My interpretation of student friendly is that they explicitly encourage student presenters, perhaps even having some sort of prize competition for student speakers/posters. I also agree that price is a big part of "student-friendliness", since most of us have limited access to travel funding. However, the most "student-friendly" conferences in my field are the huge semi-annual professional society conglomerate conference, with one on either side of the Mississippi each year. So I don't know that I agree with while I agree with "local" and cheap, small isn't really associated with explicit student friendliness in my field.

@DrBodwin said...

The American Chemical Society national meetings are OK for students, but there are some definite negatives. Often, the undergrads get shuffled into the "Chem Ed" division (CHED), and CHED is often treated as a peripheral necessity. The CHED talks and posters are often held at a separate hotel that's not always convenient, and there's not always a lot of cross-talk between the CHED crowd and the "real" chemists. A little more integration would be nice, although that would require significant effort on both sides.
I absolutely don't want anyone to think that I see the ACS as two completely segregated camps (CHED and non-CHED), there are many individuals and groups that do a wonderful job of bridging the two sides. One specific person who I have personally seen do a spectacular job of this is Harry Gray from Cal Tech. He's just as comfortable talking about the highest level research with Nobel Prize winners as he is talking about research and teaching with young faculty, and he is very engaged and engaging with students whether they are 5th year grad students or freshman undergrads.
There are also groups such as the IONiC VIPEr crowd who organize a specific symposium within the Division of Inorganic Chemistry (DIC/INOR) for undergraduate research. I don't know how active the other divisions are, but DIC/INOR is definitely trying to make sure that students are welcome at ACS meetings.
Maybe that's because inorganic chemistry is really the best chemistry. Not that I'm biased...

j said...

I got to give a talk to a packed room as a second-year grad student at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting. It was so much more exciting and rewarding than being one of thousands of posters at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. I think "student-friendly" translates to "small" because there's a greater chance that the student will have some positive interactions with the big names in the field.

Zen Faulkes said...

J: The only way SICB counts as "small" is compared to an incredible outlier like the Neuroscience meeting. SICB is a national meeting with decent international participation. The last few SICB meetings have had well over 1,000 people attending, if I remember right.

When I think "small," I'm thinking more like meetings that are floating around triple digits. Low triple digits, if that.

Neuro Nerd said...

I can't agree more that students should be exposed to some big meeting early. When you still have to start you academic career you should be given the opportunity to get excited over any field.

Unfortunately, in our graduate school we have a 'student friendly' yearly conference organised and presented in the graduate school that translates into low quality/ impact research and sometimes abysmal talks and posters. Any active participation is killed by tight schedules that leave little time for discussion. The drinks are always good, the conference not so.

It can be different though: A few years ago I was given the opportunity to go to the "winter conference on brain research". I had just finished the experiments on my first paper and my professor realized he didn't ski while I do snowboarding. He let me go in his stead. It was the first time alone away for work (no colleagues around), the first time out of Europe and my first talk at a conference. It was a great experience I was welcomed warmly by many PIs and postdocs who ignored the fact I was a graduate student in his second year. It was a great experience!

I hope many other students can have such an experience. If I ever come in the situation that I can provide this to them, I will.

Jane Shevtsov said...

Before I went to the ESA meeting for the first time as an undegrad, my research advisor recommended that I attend a small local conference. It was good advice, as I learned the ropes of attending conferences in a much less overwhelming setting. (I love the intensity of ESA, but having that as my first-ever scientific meeting would have been a bit much.) That said, students certainly shouldn't be limited to small conferences.

Jeremy Fox said...

This post is spot-on Zen.

There's a student-run and for-students-only biology conference in western Canada. I strongly discourage my students from bothering with it.

Now, there are absolutely reasons for students to attend small, focused, specialized conferences. But they're the same as the reasons for *anyone* to attend such conferences.