I’ve been going to conferences for >17 years and many things have become much easier compared to my terrifying first conference experience, but some things will always stay the same. Below I talk about some of the positives and negatives of attending conferences.
This can be both a positive and a negative. Getting to your destination is usually not a particularly pleasant experience. The first few times on an airplane, bus, train, etc. can be exciting, but after a while it gets pretty boring. I am constantly amazed by the bad behaviour of other people while travelling. Recent changes by air carriers in Canada has made this even worse by charging for checked luggage. This has led to a massive uptick in the number of passengers bringing carry-on luggage that has to be stowed in the overhead bins. If you can fit a small adult in your carry-on bag you need to check yourself…and your bags.
Once you get to your destination the fun can begin! Many locales that you travel to as a scientist are international and interesting; I consider this one of the perks of the job! I’ve been to Australia, England, Portugal, Spain, Austria, and various North American cities. After you’ve been doing science for a while, you may end up visiting the same locations which is not as stimulating. When the Icelandic volcano erupted in 2010, I got stuck in London, England for an extra 5 days. In that case the delay was somewhat positive as I got to visit Kew Gardens and the Victoria and Albert Museum , but the uncertainty of when I’d be able to fly home was pretty stressful.
- Meeting new people
The vast majority of the scientists that I’ve met at conferences have been awesome and amazing. I’ve started new collaborations, shared knowledge, developed new research ideas, and learned a great deal. These interactions are what make a conference worthwhile for most of us. I could certainly do without the creepers and the gigantic egos however.
- Oral presentations
Watching other people present is always an education. A great talk can be inspiring and offer tips on how to improve your own presentations. A bad talk provides you with a list of what not to do and can put you to sleep. I often come up with ideas for material to use in my courses, or slide layouts that are more visually appealing.
- Poster presentations
It’s really hard to put together a strong and effective poster, so I’m always on the look-out for great posters and what they have in common. I’m not a huge fan of poster sessions because I’ve often had the experience of having only a few people stop by my poster. I think that oral presentations offer better exposure and opportunities and therefore encourage my students to do talks if possible.
- Social events and field trips
These events are usually lots of fun. I look forward to them as a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, recognize professional achievements, experience the culture and traditions of the host institution and country, and if I’m lucky- dance. I don’t enjoy being around scientists who drink to excess and make idiots out of themselves. I will remember that time in 2005 when you hit on that graduate student and refused to accept that she didn’t want to dance. It’s unfortunate that her first experience of being at a conference hosted by our society involved me tactfully removing her from the situation, making sure that she was o.k., and telling her that you were in the wrong. In retrospect I should have done more, but power differentials suck.
- Participating on the executive of your professional society
This is a great way to become involved and to meet new people. I’ve served on the executives of two different professional societies and I’ve gained a lot of transferrable skills and knowledge. Many societies have positions available for students and post-docs, so even if you are just starting out in science there are great opportunities available.
Overall, conferences are very positive, useful and fun experiences! I’d appreciate hearing your conference triumphs, tribulations, or disaster stories in the comments!