Size (of a conference) Matters

Mar 30 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

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!

14 responses so far

  • physioprof says:

    SfN suckes shitte. Unless you have a Nobel Prize, you can't just show uppe and expect to spend quality time with your friends and colleagues. Rather, you have to spend weeks beforehand organizing your "dance card", and it's a goddamn motherfucken annoying time-consuming pain in the motherfucken asse. Small meetings, you just show up and hang out with your pals.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Related: My students compare their experiences at small and big conferences:

    My devil's advocate defense of big conferences:

    "1. They can be relatively inexpensive." But remember the adage, "You get what you pay for."

    "2. The intimacy provides much more opportunity for non-awkward shmoozing than the giant meetings."

    Aside: I despise the phrase BSD. It's sexist.

    There are fewer people to meet at small meetings. If you're at a small meeting, it's unlikely to have many people who are truly doing the kind of research you do.

    "3. There is often a strong emphasis on highlighting the trainee attendees." True, but some larger meetings do that very well, too. SfN is not a good yardstick for large meetings, because it is in a league all its own.

    "4. You will learn a TON." But the question is, what do you want to learn? If you want to learn about the latest stuff from people doing the work most directly related to your own work, small meetings often don't cut it. They're too general. You typically need to haul yourself to at least a national level meeting to get to meet your real community.

    Those in places with high population densities, like the east and west coast, may have an easier time finding small, boutique meetings that are bang on related to their interests.

    • scicurious says:

      I actually find the opposite is true for point #4. When I look at small meetings, I see the lineups and it's ALL the people who's papers I've read and who I'm citing in my own papers. Sure, some are missing, but it tends to be a much more relevant slice of the field for me.

      • Zen Faulkes says:

        I'm betting you live in a high population density area, Sci.

        You can have small meeting that are international in scope and very focused (more likely to be at major metropolitan areas), and small meetings that are regional in scope and general.

    • Dr Becca says:

      Point taken on the BSD thing, but I have to admit I'm a little confused by some of your other answers, Zen.

      1. I don't believe "you get what you pay for" to be true in this case at all. As I said above, I get much more out of 2 days at a small conference, which probably (depending on airfare) costs around $600 total. 5 days at SfN can run upwards of $1500, and I rarely come away with the new contacts, knowledge, and energy I do from small meetings.

      2. We are obviously talking about different kinds of small meetings--you seem to be equating "small" with "local," which isn't what I mean at all. By "small" I mean "small number of people." Yes, I live in a high population density area, but almost every small meeting I've been to has been in a distant state, so I'm not really sure why that's a relevant piece of information. Each meeting has been incredibly focused on pretty much exactly my research interests, so a good chunk of the big-wigs in the sub-field have been there.

      • Zen Faulkes says:

        I was thinking about this as I was walking into work. You're right that most of the small meetings I was thinking of are regional.

        There are similar issues for particular fields. Some fields have high researcher density (those working on model organisms), for instance. Sure, there are probably great small, targeted meetings with national or international representation you're working on learning in rats, development in Drosophila, or mouse genetics.

        I'd die waiting for a crayfish neurobiology meeting.

        • Zen Faulkes says:

          Slight correction to my comment that I'd die waiting for a crayfish neuro meeting.

          There have been two crustacean neurobiology meetings during my career. They were ten years apart. The second was in 2000. Nobody seems to want to do a third.

  • Bashir says:

    How many per year do you attend?

    Still trying to figure out what my conference line up is. I have two main conferences that are in the small to medium-small range. But both of those are every other year. I've tried out the big boys a few times. I dunno, probably too much for me to go most years. Might put SfN on a 5 year rotation and focus on other meetings. Have one coming up that I've never been too. It looks promising.

  • BeckyPhD says:

    "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."

    This!!! I only went to small conferences as a grad student, so I didn't really understand that the big ones are a different culture. As a postdoc, I got to go to my first big conference...I was so excited and I knew I needed that nice refreshing, invigorating feeling I got from conferences. Instead, I came home exhausted and more depressed about my science than I had been when I left.

    I would still consider big conferences valuable, but I'm with you on the small conferences, they are the place to be. And presenting your poster is so much more fun with a glass of wine in your hand.

  • Couldn't agree more -- I really have minimal interest in going to the big conference in my field (AACR) anymore because 90% of the talks don't apply to me, and those few that do always seem to happen at the same time. I think the biggest benefit to the huge meetings are just that feeling of WOW -- so many people share the same field as me! And of course, it's always interesting to sit in on talks that have nothing to do with what you do, but that's more overall general learning than actually inspiring your own research.

    Keystone/Gordon conferences, however, can truly feel life-altering. There's no need to struggle with networking when there's only one bar in the small town and everyone goes and drinks together; it's easy to start up a conversation with anyone. The conference might contain the 250 people in the world studying your tiny little niche, and the suggestions and advice I have received have been absolutely invaluable, especially considering I work so far outside the scope of what the rest of my lab does; without the connections I have made, I'd really flounder, since my PI can no longer provide guidance and suggestions.

  • gerty-z says:

    Totally agree that small meetings are The Bomb. But I don't know which Gordon Conferences or Keystones you go to that are $600. Most of these, based on a quick survey of the 2012 meetings are $800-1200 for double occupancy. Add in airfare and such, and IME the small meetings end up being = or more expensive than the bigger meetings. But totally worth it!

  • Dr. O says:

    Totally agree, and I have generally found the smaller ones to cost a bit less. I'd also add Cold Spring Harbor into the mix as a good place to look for some smaller meetings. Plus, check out some of your sub-sub-field societies for what meetings they might offer.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I've been an ichthyologist for many years, and know a lot of the people I see at Ichthyology and Fishery meetings. I had the odd experience of being a replacement invited speaker at a Fish Biology meeting. I knew no one there expect for the person who invited me, and another attendee who happened to know of me through the aquarium hobby. Until I did my presentation, no one knew who I was, or cared. I did make some new friends as a result of the presentation, so it became less wierd.

  • Dr. Cynicism says:

    1000% in agreement. Every point you hit on is what I and each of my grad students have felt in the comparison. I said early on that I would expose my students to both and hope they get benefits from each, but most of them adore the smaller (<500-1000) conferences way more.

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