Not that Kind of Choice: Tales of Conference Selection
Conference season is here! My inbox is flooded with invites to the big annual meetings for my Terrible Disease of Interest and Clinical Meeting Dealing with Terrible Disease (and Other Terrible Diseases), along with dues notices. Meanwhile, colleagues are already asking about the smaller meetings, like Gordon Research Conferences and Society Meetings, happening later in the year. How is a new Principal Investigator (PI) supposed to pick which meetings to attend? These are the things that I consider when deciding on attending a meeting. As always these days, n=me.
The disclaimer: I am in my third year as a PI in the US. Start-up is still fine, but diminishing rapidly. My main occupations right now are writing papers, waiting on data to complete said papers, supervising my team, and furiously applying for more money to run my research program. My teaching load is small, my lab largely self-sufficient, and I am comfortable supervising via Slack. My personal life can accommodate travel without much hassle. This is my approach for picking conferences; yours may be different.
The benefits of conference attendance: Attending conferences is critical for building your national reputation, being part of the scientific community, and getting your science in front of paper and grant reviewers. I attend at least two conferences per year and encourage you to do the same.
Invitation: At this point in my career, if I have been invited to speak, I will attend the conference, regardless of whether the conference will cover my attendance costs. I do not get many invitations, so any opportunity to present my work as an invited speaker is worth it (with the assumption that this is not a predatory conference).
Cost: One of the first things I consider is the cost, both financial and time. In general, I try to avoid conferences that will cost more than $2,000 total and keep me out of the office for more than four days. This rules out most international travel and hard-to-reach locations in the US, but it saves money for other trips and keeps me looped into lab life.
Location: I do not really explore outside of the conference venue (unless there is free time), so conference location is not very important to me. I can see location being important if you want to visit the area after the conference, but I have yet to attend a conference where that has been desirable and/or feasible. My only concern is how long it will take to reach the conference venue and whether dining options will require excessive ride sharing.
Topic: Another thing I assess is how relevant the conference topic is to my own research or to an area of research into which I am branching. One of the big research conferences in my field is a phenomenal networking opportunity for researchers but lacks a critical mass of talks and posters on my main disease of interest. As much as I enjoy seeing my other Terrible Disease colleagues, this is not a great conference for me to attend most years. The opposite can also be true, and there can be too many presentations and posters on my Terrible Disease of Interest. Although these provide critical networking opportunities, it can be tiresome to hear very similar studies performed with different genes over and over again.
Who will be there: The biggest driver of my decision to attend a conference is who will be there. I am of course interested to hear the newest science from leaders in the field, but I am also eager to have said leaders see my science, either in presentation or poster form. Any opportunity to get your science in front of potential reviewers is a great time investment. Meeting new collaborators or solidifying current collaborations is also good. Of course, it is always nice to see old friends and mentors.
Am I expected to be there: I am in a clinical department. All of us basic science types in these departments are expected to attend the big clinical meeting. This is not the most useful meeting for me to attend in terms of science, but it is priceless in terms of networking, connections, and being part of my research community. Plus, it makes my chair happy.
A note for parents: I know some, perhaps many, of you have childcare concerns. Some of the larger conferences are including childcare services. Other attendees I know have brought their significant others, parents, friends, and nannies to events. Conference attendance with kids is still challenging, but there appear to be more resources now. Check them out before you exclude yourself from attending these important events.
Share the conference experience: What if you decide you cannot make the big conference? Many conferences have embraced social media and use hashtags, allowing attendees to live-tweet conferences. If you cannot make the conference, simply follow along on Twitter. If you are at the conference, share the (published) science (if you are permitted by the conference) with your colleagues through Twitter. I really enjoying following conferences this way from the comfort of my own office, and it provides some of the interaction benefits of a conference without spending the time and money.
These are my attempts at whittling down my conference attendance to a selected few each year. In my next post, I will cover how we pick conferences for my trainees. 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