06 November 2018

Pick one conference to go to every year

Because I have science attention deficit disorder (science ADD) and am not independently wealthy, there is no conference I go to each and every year. The only one which I have made a point to go regularly for the last few years has been the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, because I’m a committee chair. (Which reminds me I have some bookings to make.)

Over the years, I’ve been to the meetings about evolution, ecology, crayfish, crustaceans, natural history, coastal research, neuroethology, animal behaviour, neuroscience, parasites, and more. Because I have been living in Texas, a reasonably popular conference venue, my strategy has been to wait for meetings to come to me so I don’t have to travel and increase my conference carbon footprint.

This is a bad thing for me.

In the last few years, I’m coming to the realization that my capricious conference selection might be not the best strategy for professional opportunities.

I got to thinking about this after reading Terry McGlynn’s post about the shock and awe of going to the Neuroscience meeting.

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.

Terry worries about the size of the conference being alienating. I have felt alienated at conferences, but it’s never been conference size made me feel that way.

Now, I started going to Neuroscience meeting when it was about 60% of what it is now, so I’m used to the scale of the bigger than big conference. And I’ve never used conference size as a factor for deciding what meeting to go to. Both large and small meetings can be great.

In the last few years, I’ve gone to new meetings I’ve never been to before. What put me off and made me feel excluded, particularly as an established mid-career scientist, were constant reminders that there you are not one of the people who come to this meeting every year. There are in jokes made during symposia, keynotes, and talks to things that happened in previous years. It’s very clear who are “conference buddies” that see each other every year.

(Part of this is probably my own damn fault, since I can be quiet, grumpy, or both. I’m working on this.)

But the point is that those conference regulars have clearly built a lot of social capital and created important professional networks that I haven’t.

And the moral of the story is:

Pick one conference that you like. Large or small, doesn’t matter. Go to that conference every year as religiously as you possibly can. Something to present or not, doesn’t matter. You will start building that group of conference buddies that will improve your conference experience (no more lunches alone!) and will become better known in your field.

External links

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

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