Tag: professional societies

The Positives and Negatives of Conferences

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.

  1. Travel

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

A Modest Proposal to Conference Organizers

Most of the academic conferences that I attend take place during the summer months from May to August. This means that many people are hard at work during the upcoming months putting together conference programmes. Having organized a conference myself I know how much work this requires and I have the utmost respect for these volunteers who work tirelessly so that we can have a valuable experience. This task includes organizing events that are research related such as symposia, keynotes, plenary sessions, etc. It also involves organizing events that are more social in nature that allow for networking and the development of new acquaintances and the renewal of long-standing friendships. My overall experiences at conferences have been mostly positive, but over the years I have witnessed or been privy to inappropriate and unprofessional behaviours and when these occur they diminish my enjoyment of meetings. In the past I was often silent about these incidents as there were large power differentials at play and I felt I was at a vulnerable stage of my academic career. Now when I see these things happen I point them out. In some cases this involves challenging the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of colleagues and in other cases it involves speaking directly to organizing committee members or society representatives in order to effect changes that remove systemic bias. I have been attending academic conferences since 1998 and present my biggest pet-peeves below. Wherever possible I offer solutions to these challenges.

1) Our goal should be to have a professional conference. Knowing that people sometimes act unprofessionally despite this fact, a written, clear, code of conduct and repercussions for unprofessional conduct should be generated, made widely available, and enforced. This includes mechanisms for the safe reporting of unprofessional conduct and transparency of these processes and the outcomes. Conferences should have a zero tolerance policy for harassing, threatening, or disruptive behaviour. This provides a means of addressing overly aggressive questioners/hecklers to addressing incidents of sexual harassment and ensures that conferences are safe spaces for everyone.

 2) Child-care, elder-care, and accompanying persons should not be an afterthought or receive only lip service. People have complex lives; do the best that you can to recognize and accommodate this fact. At the very least, do not put up additional barriers that have to be overcome in order for scientists to attend and fully participate. For example, does your venue have a lactation room? If you have ever had to breastfeed your child or pump milk in a filthy toilet stall you will understand why this is important.

 3) When picking your venues for events, please think about safety and accessibility. Are you forcing people to choose between networking and personal safety? I especially dread the late night walks in unfamiliar surroundings from the pub back to the hotel that seem to be a staple of academic conferences. Can everyone fully participate in all of your events if they wanted to? Are you using older buildings that lack ramps or elevators? That networking session in the loud bar is a nightmare for anyone who has a hearing impairment. Does your venue have gender-neutral washrooms or washrooms that can accommodate those who require assistance from an attendant? Are your food and beverage options meeting the dietary needs of your participants?

 4) Ask yourself if the speakers/presenters at your conference are reflective of the diversity of your profession and professional society. If they aren’t then you need to try harder. You’re a scientist; use your creative problem solving abilities to fix it.

5) Are your registration and accommodation costs reasonable and varied? Can you offer discounts in exchange for volunteering? Please make an effort to remove financial barriers to attendance. This is especially important for student and post-doc participation.

6) Do you have any hazing rituals that are disguised as “hallowed traditions”? Perhaps it’s well past time to rethink those and end them.