Why attend a conference? (1) Perhaps you’re presenting a talk or poster about your work; (2) Or maybe you want to listen to talks and read posters on the latest findings in your field of research; (3) It’s your chance to meet with someone famous in your field, network with other researchers or to be on the look-out for potential postdoctoral positions; (4) Or could it be you simply need a rest from the lab and it’s the ideal way to get a change of scenery whilst ‘working’ at the same time? Plus you may be able to add on a holiday in some exotic location.
It usually costs a lot to attend a conference, both in terms of time and money: Talks and posters take time to prepare and practice; travel grant applications to one or more charitable organisations may be needed to help fund your trip; you may need to persuade your supervisor to release funds or you may be using up precious funding attached to your grant; then there’s the conference itself, which takes time to travel to (especially if it’s an international one) and sometimes lasts for as long as a week, with relevant sessions bookended to ensure you stay for the very last talk. Something else to consider: Is any really novel research presented at most conferences these days? Much of what you hear about can be gleaned from people’s web pages and papers.
I would suggest that the primary reason to attend a conference is to meet people in person, talk to them, ask questions, discuss your work, find common ground and make connections, even collaborate and strike up long-term friendships. Most delegates find that it’s the informal chats after the sessions, during breaks, lunch and networking events when they really reap the rewards of attending a conference.
Many people are cynical about networking, but it’s only talking after all. To make it easier, set yourself a few goals whenever you attend a conference: Look at who’s going to be there and decide who you want to talk to; take some business cards or an A4 précis of your poster/talk with your contact details to hand out and follow up any useful connections when you get back to the lab; if you’re lucky enough to be presenting a talk, make the most of having the limelight for a few minutes, and don’t be scared or defensive of questions – if someone has a different perspective on your work you hadn’t thought about it may help you to solve a current problem or find new directions.
So, why attend a conference? I reckon that reason no. 3 (in my opening paragraph) is the most legitimate motive, with no. 4 coming a close second (it’s always good to get away to let your mind relax and allow space for ideas to develop). Reasons 1 and 2 come next – yes, presentations are good, but with back to back talks it can be hard to concentrate for hours at a time, active listening can be very draining and, what’s more there’s no interaction with everyone facing forward (or down, looking at their laptops). The only real value you get from a talk is when it acts as a catalyst for people to approach you afterwards or for you to approach them – otherwise known as networking.