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?