How Do You Like Your Conferences?

I just came back from yet another conference and am looking forward to staying put for a while.

Every graduate student should experience a several-thousand-attendee conference. However, I find these meetings to be generally a poor use of the large amounts of money that are needed to attend them. They are  held in expensive locales, with large conference centers and expensive hotels. They have high registration fees that don’t cover much, so one still has to pay for all the meals, which are also expensive because, again, the whole event in an expensive place.

These days, I like to go to small and focused conferences, with no more than ~200 attendees and a single-session format. At this size, you can make a personal connection and have real technical conversations, which can result in long-term collaborations and science friendships. With a relatively narrow topic and single-session format, you are actually interested in and following most of the talks, as opposed to checking email or browsing the web.

What do I like in a conference?

1. A well-made program, with interesting talks, especially invited ones.

At big conferences, the organizers usually bring in these big names for plenary or keynote talks, but seeing these prominent folks is cool in the same way in which seeing the Rolling Stones play live is cool — sure, you should do it once in your life, so you can see how the legends do it and can tell people about it, but it’s all entertainment and you won’t get to meet Jagger anyway. Indeed, these big names usually give their well-flowing, high-level (overview) talks and then leave shortly thereafter, so they don’t talk to many people and  don’t actually do much for the community that came to hear them.

The conference I just came back from  did a very good job with the selection of invited talks: many went to relatively junior and very active people in related subareas, assistant and associate professors who gave good and engaging talks, and actually stayed the whole time, listened to other talks and mingled with the other attendees. This is good for the speakers and good for the community, who could all now make real, lasting connections between somewhat different but related subareas.

2. The single-session format, with plenty of time to talk with people.

I like to go to a conference to listen to the talks and to talk to other attendees, largely about work.
Ideally, I want to be able to listen to all the talks, and not have to run around between rooms. A conference is a good use of my time and money if there are engaging talks in every session and I want to be there the whole time. Conferences where I end up spending most of my time in a hotel room because I don’t care to listen to the talks are a waste.

3. When I go to a conference, I go to work, I do not go to have a vacation.

This appears to be a difference between me and many people, also a difference between the young me and today’s me.

I don’t want an exciting or expensive place. I want cheap registration that provides a lot for the money, I want an affordable hotel that is close to the conference venue so I can easily go get something from my room if needed (like a sweater if the conference room is at a subzero temperature), I want an engaging technical program, and I want a lot of opportunity to interact with other attendees over food or coffee.

I do not want to skip the talks to go sunbathing or swimming or skiing or sightseeing. I want to work and think and extend my professional network, and honestly, boring but comfortable places where attendees end up spending a lot of time together (in no small part because there is not much else to do) work great for this.

My ideal conference is organized at a university campus in the US. Why? Large lecture halls are excellent auditoria for the talks, with appropriate video and audio equipment and with enough electrical outlets for all attendees, and with reliable internet access; usually the room can be booked for free or very cheaply by the organizers.  There is often cheap university lodging close to where the conference takes place, with plenty of restaurants and bars in the surroundings to briefly walk to and talk with people. University catering is usually affordable, and plenty of food (breakfast, lunch, coffee breaks, dinner if possible) that is included in the registration cost makes for very, very happy attendees.

Finally, a conference is really successful if you come back with a whole bunch of new ideas.

What say you, blogosphere? How does your ideal conference look? 


  1. OMG, I am traveling so much. I just want to stay home!

    I like single-panel invited conferences where the participants had plenty of time to know they needed to get that specific paper ready.

    Our rockstars tend to stick around and seem happy to talk with people. I don’t know why that is different from physics.

    I dislike conferences where they schedule all the talks I’m interested in at exactly the same time. I also dislike it when they are someplace expensive to get to (this includes universities in nowhereville that don’t have their own airports or have extremely expensive airports). Most of our conferences seem to be in the same limited cities, so I’m pretty good at getting around the conferencey parts of Boston/Cambridge, DC, LA, Chicago, etc. I love the way that DC’s subway system gets you right where you need to be faster than a cab would.

    I do not consider conferences to be vacations, but I do love seeing my professional friends. So I do like breaks between talks for chatting with people and making connections.

    I also like healthy food. One of my regular conferences improved tremendously with the addition of oatmeal at the breakfast buffet so it wasn’t just pastries.

  2. Amen, sister. My favorite are Gordon conferences, for this very reason — my field’s Gordon conference is held at one of the cheaper venues, which means that for *exactly* the same cost as the exorbitant registration fee for this year’s mega-international conference in an exotic location (which included no food or lodging), I got a week of decent food, dorm lodging, and prime-time interaction with colleagues (sometimes too much interaction for this introvert, but I could always go back to the dorm and work), including a lot of younger people doing really interesting moving and shaking. It also happened to be within an hour’s drive of my home university, so I didn’t have to get on a plane and was able to drive home for an important prenatal appointment during one of the afternoon breaks — bonus points!

    I was slightly dazzled by the conference-going life for about my first two years of grad school. Since then, I’m all “if I MUST get on an airplane again how can I minimize the amount of time I spend away from home while maximizing scientific return?” There are occasional perks (once every few years my husband flies out to join me for fun travel after conferences in particularly awesome locations, like Alaska a few years ago), but overall I’m totally on the same page: give me cheap lodging, healthy food, free wireless, and lots of time for interacting with my colleagues, and you’ll have a happy conference-goer, even if the conference is in Wichita.

  3. Small conferences have their advantages for the exact reasons you state, but there’s also a high risk/reward ratio: if the people/sessions/presentations in your subfield or area of interest don’t happen or are cancelled after you’re already committed to attend, it can feel like wasted time (“I spent that much money and time and wound up visiting with one person and hearing one talk relevant to my work?”). The huge conferences (in my discipline, the biggest one has over 25,000 attendees!) are overwhelming and sensory overload, but it’s guaranteed you can always find something going on of relevance or someone you want to meet with at any time.

    I’ll bring up another point: as a scientist with a disability, the best conference for me is a small to medium-sized meeting, self-contained in a modern hotel with accessible meeting rooms and accessible sleeping rooms all under one roof without too far to go between them. I don’t have to worry about getting into and out of, or long distances between, venues. I’ve gone to far too many meetings on college campuses where there were inaccessible meeting or dorm rooms, too far to walk and no alternative way to get between venues (meeting room, dorm, and lunch/dinner venue), no provision for accessible parking (and even if so, it often means I would need to rent a car to get around the campus- an extra expense), etc.: even when the organizers are well-intentioned, there always seem to be issues which make meetings on campuses a hardship for the disabled.

  4. Couldn’t agree more! For me a conference has never been about vacation. I love the smaller ones, as I can get to network much more. In the larger ones I tend to get more isolated as my inner introvert kicks in in full mode 🙂

  5. I like conferences that have 3-5 concurrent sessions. It’s a sweet spot that’s hard to find, but it’s just large enough that you get a pretty wide swath of your field, but still small enough that it isn’t a zoo. With 3-5 concurrent sessions, you won’t see everything, but if the range of topics is broad enough you also won’t miss a lot that you will really regret.

  6. Agree with what you’ve said and also with the commenters, especially CPP. Conferences aren’t vacations, and if you do take an afternoon out and about, you will have missed what everyone describes as the best session in the history of conferences.

    That said, I do like to get out to at least a museum for a couple of hours to justify the $1500-$2000 (often of my own money) that I’m spending to get to the place. Some conferences might just as well have been held in my back yard for all I saw of the place, and that’s another kind of frustration.

    Medium-size conferences with fewer concurrent sessions are better than the big ones.

  7. I’ve gone to so many big huge conferences and dislike them for all the reasons you list. I am looking for some smaller, more sub-field specific conferences for this year, again for the reasons you listed. Honestly in the huge conferences, its far too easy to just slip away and vacation or just go back to the hotel to do REAL work since the networking opportunities are difficult to find & everyone is doing the same thing.

  8. Coming back energized with new ideas is the most important thing for me. That can happen at big or small conferences, in boring or exotic locations. Smaller conferences clearly offer better interaction opportunities with colleagues, but I often find that I already know what everyone is working on and have already seen either the talks or preprints. Bigger conferences offer more breadth and opportunities to see talks that are not in your narrowest field of expertise, which can lead to new ideas. I am happy to take advantage of sightseeing/beach/skiing locations, but I can live without it. I do very much enjoy seeing friends at conferences – that makes a huge difference for me. My favorite conferences give you new ideas, new collaborations and both professional and social time with friends in your field.

  9. Whiiiiine. I’ve been invited to go to a conference in England in March and I don’t waaaaaanna goooooo. Plus it’s at a university that looks somewhat difficult to get transportation-wise. Maybe we won’t get accepted…

  10. I’ve had a long, unedited post about this topic in my blog queue for a long time, but with a lot of profanity and chastisement for the people who organize conferences. Maybe eventually I’ll get to that, but I totally agree with your points, nice post.

    My perspective is a little different because I’m at a non-elite undergraduate institution so I can’t really be counted as an actual scientist, it’s more of a hobby. It’s nice to see those of you who are real scientists in agreement on these points, as you seem to be much harder to find in the wild.

    My most recent experience at the main conference in my physics-related field was disappointing. Way too cliquish. If you aren’t hot stuff yourself, good luck talking to any of the movers and shakers! There’s not much time after panel talks, and they tend to not even be at their posters during the times set aside exclusively for that. I had a some good conversations with undergrads and grad students at their posters, but it was wasting their time because I’m not in a position to help them in their careers, and it’s probably not good networking for me either. I assume many of the real scientific discussions are back channel within existing research collaborations. To be generous, I have finally come to the conclusion that the main conference is probably not taken particularly seriously by people on the conference circuit in lieu of the smaller more specific conferences. Precious few people are spending their own money, so there’s not even much of a financial reason for them to take it more seriously. But, someone like me really needs to be top one’s game to justify going to one of the smaller ones.

  11. I agree..I hate the massive conferences which I have to start attending again since I’m now grad program director. Boring locations stranded in industrial parks. Why are the conference schedules always so thin and filled with hours and hours of dead air? Also: can we agree that the final conference night’s terrible band/dance/drink party thing should just die?

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