I was struck by a comment today in what I can only imagine is now a record-breaking post by Scicurious: her musings on the challenges of networking. If you haven't yet stopped by, I highly recommend you do--great issues raised, and fantastic comments from her readers. But what moved me didn't have much to do with networking per se; instead, it was the mention that only her PI attends small meetings, while he sends her mainly to the biggies--SfN and sometimes Experimental Biology, I presume.
Now, the big meetings are awesome, and some might argue that you get more "bang for your buck" at those, where your entire field, in a very broad sense, is all in one place. I love SfN to pieces, but I can honestly say that at this point, SfN is (for me, YMMV) a reunion. It's less about absorbing crapload of science, and more of a chance to catch up with my friends from grad school, my post-doc, and friends I met at other meetings. Small meetings.
There's this scene in Back to the Future when Doc Brown sees the flyer for the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and remarks, "Look, there's a rhythmic ceremonial ritual coming up," and that was basically my thought process when I, as an undergrad, saw my first flyer for a scientific conference. Look, there's a gathering of individuals intending to discuss a topic of interest coming up. I was totally fascinated without comprehending exactly what it even meant, and sent off my travel award application as fast as I could. Fortunately, they gave out a ton of travel awards for this conference, and I went. Every year, for the next six years.
Since that fateful day, I've probably been to 3 or 4 other small meetings, some for several years in a row. Small conferences (and by small I mean really small, <250 attendees) are the bomb. Here's why:
1. They can be relatively inexpensive, because they usually only last 2-3 days so you only need 1-2 nights in a hotel. Moreover, they often provide breakfast and lunch, and sometimes even dinner, depending on the meeting and its location. I went to one where they had a stocked freezer full of ice cream treats, and you could just go and take them whenever!
2. The intimacy provides much more opportunity for non-awkward shmoozing than the giant meetings, where all the BSDs are hanging out with their pals from grad school. You never know who you'll sit next to at lunch/dinner/the bar! Plus, it's easy to seek out new friends who are and will be your contemporaries. Unless you wildly change fields, these current grad students and post-docs are the faculty you'll be seeing at meetings forever. I hadn't realized how many great friends I'd made from all these small conferences until I was at a new one about two years ago. I remember looking around the opening reception and thinking, Wow, I know a lot of these people already! There really is a fantastic group of young scientists in my sub-field, and we are just about poised for total world domination! That was a fun feeling.
3. There is often a strong emphasis on highlighting the trainee attendees. In addition to travel awards, most small meetings I've been to have had one session of grad student/post-doc speakers, and all had wine-filled poster sessions. Wine + science = much, much winning, and a little liquid courage never hurt anyone.
4. You will learn a TON. Small conferences are for people in a small field to get together and share their ideas, and you get to listen in and participate, you lucky stiff! Because there is only ever one thing going on at any given time, you're afforded the luxury of paying attention to the speakers, instead of flipping through the program, stressing about what you're missing. Not only will it help you figure out who the real movers and shakers are in your sub-sub discipline, but you'll have a better opportunity to see how everyone's research fits (or doesn't fit) together, and you end up with a clearer sense of the field as a whole.
When I come back from SfN, I'm exhausted. My back hurts from standing all day, my feet are blistered, and my liver is begging for a lemonade cleanse. But when I come back from a small conference, I'm invigorated. I feel smarter. I have ideas about where I want my research to go and how it fits into my field. If you're ever feeling down on your science, the best thing you can do is go to one of these small meetings, and you'll be all ramped up and ready to start 5 new projects when you get back. If that isn't reason enough for your PI to let you take off for two days, I don't know what is.
Finally, how do you find these conferences? You can start by checking out the lineups for the Gordon and Keystone meetings. But you can also just try googling the sciencey thing you love + conference, and see what comes up! There are SO many meetings out there--now go forth and attend them!