The last day of the conference
Today’s the day! The last day that is, the final day of the conference I’m attending. The past few days I’ve talked about different aspects of conferences in general and I’ve touched on why virtual conferences are important, needed, and should be the norm. I’ve also talked about the difficulties presenting at a live conference when you have disabilities that make public speaking a challenge. Today I figure we can round out the topic by covering some of the good things about conferences and why you want to attend when you can.
For the past few days I’ve been talking about the things that conferences do wrong. It’s a long list for sure and accessibility is at the top, like with most things in life unfortunately (cities, buildings, homes, stores, sidewalks, you name it, it’s probably not very accessible). Despite the limitations, conferences serve several very important purposes. I think that talking explicitly about these benefits will bring my frustrations from the previous two posts into more clarity (first post here)(second here).
To be perfectly fair I had no idea why we went to conferences. When I started doing research as an undergrad I submitted my first conference paper and was accepted, but I had no idea what purpose it served other than getting my name out in the field. It turns out there are a lot of reasons to attend conferences and not all of them are explicitly for your research, there are a lot of other career benefits to attending.
Conferences give you a chance to see what others are doing. Some of my best ideas came from an amalgamation of things I saw and my own take on them. It also gives you a chance to understand the state of the art, not just with what you’re doing, but with adjacent fields. Most conferences aren’t specific enough to just include things you’re doing. Instead they have a wide variety of things that are sometimes close to your field, sometimes they are no where near your field. Having a broader understanding never hurts and helps you make connections you may have never thought of. Plus it gives you a chance to geek out over other work that is incredibly cool.
Another benefit is getting to network. Despite the lone scientist in a lab trope, great advances are made from groups of people. There’s always someone in the front who gets the credit, but behind every scientist is a team of people who have helped. Networking gives people a chance to meet others who have complementary experience, tools, resources, and who know other people. Being able to form those connections help not only advance the science, but your career as a whole. Sometimes who you know is just as important as what you know. Not just because they can help, but because they can point you in the direction of opportunities you may have missed otherwise.
You also get the chance to meet other students, people in different levels of their career and it gives you the chance to make friends in the field. I have several different groups from different conferences that I’m always looking forward to see. Conference friends are awesome because you don’t have to be alone in the process of being a student, you get to talk with people far removed from your situation which gives you a better look at your situation, and it’s just fun to watch people progress. Obviously virtual conferences aren’t the same when you can’t talk with your groups like you would in person, so with that regard, in person conferences are great.
In the end conferences, like anything, are complex things. There are great things about them, but there are also things that could easily be addressed to make them better if the people organizing them would take those things into consideration. With a few changes with the way they are organized and the way schools pay students to attend them, conferences could be far more inclusive and that can only lead to good things.
Simple to address barriers, like accessibility, funding, and even dress code, could easily change things for the better. I doubt I’ll ever be in a position to make those changes myself, but with a little luck someone else who can will find this. Conversely if enough of us make noise about it, it will be harder to ignore.