In the last thirty-six hours I've flown from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Edmonton, Alberta and back. The trip out took me twelve hours (thanks to a four hour layover in Pearson Airport) and the trip back took eight hours. I left Alberta Saturday night and arrived home at 6am on Sunday. I'm jet lagged, a little behind on my work, and still have a lecture to write, but if you're asking yourself 'was it worth it?' I can say that for me, this time, the answer is yes!
The topic of conferences has cropped up here multiple times. We've considered why conferences are so bad and offered examples for how to make them better. There have been posts and responses that discuss the ethics and practicality of recycling conference papers. We've also written about the joys and complications of conference season. Lately, I have been wondering how many is too many? And, when you're not on the tenure track and don't have access to conference travel funds, how often should you pay out of pocket to attend a conference?
Like the author of this article and the author of this one I am of the mind that conferences are a great way to get a sense of your field, especially as a graduate student. I started attending conferences as a Masters student and throughout my degrees I went to LOTS. This was made possible both by my mentors who build conference travel funding into their RA budgets, as well as my choice to attend association conferences like ACCUTE which offer travel support for graduate students. But, if I really wanted to attend a conference and felt like it was going to be useful for my professional development I paid for it myself. Yes, even when I couldn't really afford it (which was most of the time). Wise? I'm not sure, but I can say that attending conferences has been integral to building my confidence in my own work. Then again, it takes a looong time to pay off conference travel if you couldn't really afford it in the first place.
I'm lucky right now. Though I am still in a contract position I am qualified to apply for some conference travel support through my university. This year all of my conference energy is focussed on the same project, meaning that unlike previous years when I've written papers that are conceived of specifically for the conference I want to attend, this year I am only submitting abstracts that come from or will turn into chapters in my manuscript project. This seems like an obvious tactic for the busy academic, but it has taken me years to realize that conferences can function as self-imposed writing deadlines for projects that extend beyond the twenty-minute presentation!
But not everyone is in a position to apply for travel funding, and in a job climate that seems to demand bigger! better! more! the pressure to attend as many conferences as possible and achieve Maximum Networking Time can be, well, daunting. While I'm no authority on the matter my feeling is that when funds and time are tight it is best to focus your energies on one significant conference in your field per year. Significant might mean big (lots of other interesting papers!) or small (no concurrent panels! sustained discussion over days!). That decision is ultimately up to you, you should decide what is best for you at this stage of your career and wallet. When you do choose a conference, ensure that you'll make the best of your time and money by preparing a paper you're proud to present.
When they are well-curated and moderated conferences can be a wonderful way to network, to get a sense of your field, and to encounter emergent topics of study. Be realistic, do what is feasible for your schedule and your budget.
What are your thoughts? How many conferences do you attend in a year?