Conference/Workshop Selection

There are many scientific conferences and workshops run around the world each week.  Lots of topics may sound interesting, so how should one decide, where it may be worth going, listening and discussing, or when it is better to spend the time otherwise? Obviously it is a very debatable topic, how to select and plan a conference trip. In this blog I have just collected a few practical experiences and thoughts, which could be useful, particularly for younger scientists such as doctoral students and beginning postdocs.

A (for AVOID): Any conference charging extremely large conference fees and/or organized by scientifically very low profile organisations focusing on commercial profit should be avoided. There are regularly announcements via rather dubious e-mails and/or websites of these types of predatory conferences. Mostly these conferences are run in places far from major academic centers but there are several organizations trying to use major scientific areas and cities for their advantage so it is helpful to pay attention. The best indicator, how to identify these conferences and workshops is to just use common sense and historical data from previous conferences of the same organizer, name or format.

B (for BEAUTIFUL SCENERY): Another warning sign for places to avoid are strange remote locations, which sometimes look more like holiday destinations. For example, just to exaggerate it makes very little sense to hold a big scientific meeting in the Himalayas, on the beaches of Zanzibar or Brazilian rainforest. Of course, there is sometimes a grey area in this criterion as one could use empty or cheap holiday destinations outside of the tourist season as conference centers. Major cities are generally exempt from this warning, e.g., it might make excellent sense to hold a very large conference in a major city. It is easily reachable with lots of flights, there are enough hotel rooms available, there is a sufficiently large conference center, etc. Also, most conferences held at major top-ranked universities should be very reasonable although it can always happen that university authorities make mistakes and endorse a conference or workshop that they definitely should not have supported.

C (for COST): Cost is an issue. I have declined several conference invitations just based upon the actual travel cost and/or size of the conference fee. For some major meetings, travelling and actually paying the cost is unavoidable as big conference venues usually cost a lot of money to rent and to actually organize a meeting in. However, if the destination is remote, it is a very small workshop, and the conference fee is gigantic, then it would definitely be a strong consideration to put such a meeting into the low-priority list. Furthermore, many excellent smaller conference centers actually charge no conference fees as they are partially state-funded, which are often excellent meeting venues. For example, in mathematics there are MSRI/ICERM/MBI/IMA/etc in the USA, MFO in Germany, INI in England, CIRM in France, MLI in Sweden, and so on. These places are frequently excellent locations for meetings organized with little to no conference fee.

D (for DEFINITELY-Go): There are circumstances, where attending a conference or a workshop is just a very important part of the scientific endeavour and imperative for a successful career path. In those cases, the only realistic option is to go. There are many good reasons, let me just name a few:

  • (I) The conference is ‘the’ meeting point for the community you work in, i.e., it defines the field, it shapes the frontiers, it is super-efficient to work at, and all the major experts go. Hence, so should you.
  • (II) It is extremely important for your current work to get an impression of the research progress. In particular, without a status report on ongoing work from colleagues you may just waste several years by either going into a path that has been proven to be unsuccessful already or has already being researched sufficiently.
  • (III) It may shape your future career path in a consistent and positive way. For example, you get an invitation to a very prestigious workshop with many plenary speakers being the leaders in your field. You are also invited and given the opportunity to give a plenary talk. All the key contributors in your field are going to listen. For a young researcher, this is a rare opportunity. You can present your work and yourself in a situation with potentially very high career upside if you do excellent work and give a brilliant talk about it.
  • (IV) “Many other good reasons.” Personally, I always like to attend at least one conference per year, which is really quite far away but still somewhat connected to my main areas of research. A change of perspective is necessary from time to time for me. It can provide inspiring ideas, which would be impossible to obtain without attending a conference outside your community

E (for EXCEPTIONS): To any of the guidelines A-D there are exceptions. Hence, developing experience and a gut feeling, whether it is a good idea to go in debatable cases can be of tremendous help. As a personal example, I learned about myself on several conference trips that I do not enjoy destinations, even if the conference is brilliant and would be useful, if there are too many dangerous side effects. I am just not focused enough to make the conference efficient while worrying about personal security near or at the conference, major visa issues while travelling, problems with health due to environmental conditions such as extremely high temperatures, and so on. Therefore, I have decided to try to avoid such situations if possible and select conferences, where my focus is as close to 100% on science as possible.

F (for FAILURE): Sometimes it is helpful to learn from failure. Even attending a meeting, which didn’t turn out well can have positive future impact. On the one hand, it may avoid incorrect selection of conferences in the future. On the other hand, suppose there is a small apparently successful workshop series you always wanted to go but never did due to some of the concerns raised above. How would you know whether these concerns are really justified until you at least went once? Maybe you are missing out on a really useful platform? Perhaps the community meeting there could be really interesting to talk to for your interests?

G (for GOOD-NIGHTS-SLEEP): Actually this entry should appear under T for time zones but this blog entry has a very low probability to ever reaching the letter T. Another issue to consider for conferences is the danger of just not being fit due to lack of sleep caused by time zone shifts. Personally, I have no trouble flying west for a 6 to 8 hour difference and then just stay up very long. I am tired, I can sleep well enough and then I am well-prepared the next morning. This means a conference trip from Europe to the US is relatively easy for me. Doing it the other direction, i.e., going 6 to 8 hours east, say with a redeye flight, is just not good for my personal biorythm. The conference could easily become a mess. Hence, you have to figure out, which distances and time shifts your body tolerates. If it just does not tolerate certain time shifts, you might want to make conference a low priority that require such a shift to get there.

H (for HELP): Accepting help from more senior colleagues in your department is almost always a good idea, when trying to select or decide for a workshop or conference. In such a practical issue, it is actually perfectly OK to copy a colleague, who has experience with different communities, conferences and workshop series. If your colleague has shown to make good selections in this regard that worked out for his research discussions at conferences, it might be at least worth a try to see yourself, why it has turned out this way and go to the same conference.

I (for IDEAS): Any further ideas are very much welcome and can be added below in the comments. I would then even consider assigning them to a new letter and update my blog accordingly. THX in advance.

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