Not that Kind of Attendee: Tales of Conference Attendance by Trainees
In my last post, I talked about some of the considerations I make when considering which conferences to attend. In this post, I will outline how we pick conference to attend for trainees. As always these days, n=me, and this time, my trainees.
The disclaimer: I am in my third year as a PI in the US. Start-up is still fine, but diminishing rapidly. I have limited trainee attendance to one conference per year, and I require that they have an abstract accepted in order to attend. I make exceptions for invited talks and funder-mandated conference attendance. My trainees include trainees at the postdoc and graduate student level. Some of my trainees are very new to conference attendance; others are old pros with a network at certain meetings. This is my approach for picking conferences for trainees, so your needs and goals for your trainees may be different.
The assumptions: All this advice is based on the assumption that your trainee wants to attend a conference. If your trainee does not want to attend a conference, it might be time to ask some questions about why they would prefer not to do so. In my experience, the trainee feels their data is not yet ready, and that is an acceptable reason, at least for a year. If it is something else, it is important to identify the reluctance and try to find a solution. Conferences are a critical aspect of trainee development, and it is our job as mentors to make sure trainees attend and benefit from attending.
Value: The most important aspect for me is the value of the meeting for the trainee. Trainees have many conference options, but with a limit of one per year, picking the right meeting can be daunting. Here are some of the questions that we address.
Is this meeting directly related to the trainee’s research? This should go without saying: if the meeting has nothing to do with our research it is not a great meeting for us, especially if the trainee is junior and has little data to present and/or is not yet comfortable networking in a new environment. There is some room to negotiate here for trainees with established projects who are branching into a new area of research and need to expand their horizons.
Could the scientists at this meeting be reviewing the trainee’s papers and grants? Another thing to consider is whether the attendees of the conference could be reviewing our grants and papers. If so, there is tremendous value in having the trainee present their project during a poster session, get some feedback on the data, and (hopefully) impress these researchers with their brilliance and potential.
Are the senior scientists accessible at this meeting? One of the downsides to the giant meetings is that it can be challenging to secure face time with scientists working in the field. While there is something powerful about thousands of attendees working towards a goal of curing Terrible Disease, it can be overwhelming and less useful. For trainees, I prefer smaller meetings where they can interact more with established scientists in the field rather than stand in a giant poster hall and hope they pass by.
Will attending this meeting broaden the trainee’s network? This is trainee-dependent. Some trainees are happy to network at large meetings and seek out these opportunities. Other trainees are still developing this skill, and again, smaller meetings are preferable.
PI attendance: Another point we discuss is if I have attended this meeting in the past or if I will be attending it. I tend to favor recommending meetings that I have attended, as I can better evaluate how useful they will be, how accessible the established scientists are, whether the environment is supportive of trainees and so on. I expect as my research program grows, this will change, and senior trainees will be attending new conferences. For now, some of them lean heavily on my introductions into my network and sending them into a new environment where I do not know anyone is not necessarily the best use of their time. For new trainees, by and large, we attend meetings together where I can introduce them to my colleagues and they can spend time with other trainees as well.
Opportunities for trainees: When I am debating sending a trainee to a conference, we also look for opportunities for them to present their work and an environment that supports their development, such as trainee affairs symposiums or career development talks. I am very impressed with the Gordon Research Conferences, for example, that have associated Gordon Research Seminars, which are daylong events for graduate students and postdocs to present their work and hear about career opportunities.
Travel awards: While we are always appreciative of ways to offset travel costs and bolster trainee CVs, securing a travel award is not required for meeting attendance. I expect all my trainees to apply for travel awards, if available, but I do not make meeting attendance contingent on their award.
Expect pushback: Unsurprisingly, trainees want to travel more and attend more conferences. I would like that as well, but it is not feasible financially. I have had trainees offer to pay their own way, but this is not fair to trainees that cannot afford to pay out of pocket, so this is not permitted in my research group. Having some of these policies in writing has helped me stick to my one conference per year rule, and I would encourage you to have a travel policy in your on-boarding document.
These are our attempts at deciding which conferences trainees should attend. Sometimes the answer is obvious, and other times it is less so. In my next post, I will outline how I handle trainee travel and conference expectations. Stay tuned for more tales!
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org