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.

Air Travel

Sometimes it turns to be necessary for scientific exchange and to develop new ideas to travel to international conferences. Of course, travel can sometimes be avoided using, electronic communication (voice-over-ip, remote presentations, videotaped lectures, etc) but for direct discussions about new topics and with new colleagues, personal communication is very valuable. Several international conferences require travel by plane. Personally, I do like aerospace engineering, fluid dynamics problems, as well as travel planning quite a bit! However, being locked in a metal box for several hours with almost no real space is not fun. It is mostly just annoying and can be a waste of time. So I thought it would be useful to discuss in a blog a few tips and tricks, how to make air travel more convenient and arrive more relaxed at a conference. I am going to discuss airport tricks in a different blog and entirely focus on the plane trip here. The suggestions essentially come from my personal experiences. So it is certain that I have missed a few useful hints. Please use the commenting option below to add anything that you find is missing.

1) Getting on the plane: The key issue is to judge the trade-off between trying to queue early, or wait and enter as one of the last few passengers. Being early, means more luggage space. Entering late often means a smoother trip onto the plane and more time to stretch your legs or use the time for work in the boarding area. The general rule seems to be that on buisness-oriented flights, there is more carry-on luggage so entering early makes sense. On commuting or not-fully booked flights, there is often plenty of space. Hence, it just boils down to a rough glance at the number of typical carry-on luggage passengers in the lounge and the decision is made.

2) Seat: Aisle or window? This is the question. Well, not quite. It also depends significantly on the type of aircraft, which seats are more comfortable. I prefer the aisle seat and tend to go for a seat as far forward in the plane to allow for quicker changes if I have a connecting flight. In terms of airplanes, if there is a triple-configuration, e.g. 2-3-2 or 2-4-2 seats per row then an aisle seat in the middle segment might get you extra room if you are flying alone since if someone else blocks the other aisle seat then the middle seat in 2-3-2 is really bad and nobody is going to want it. Hence, if the plane is not full, the middle space is an ideal hub for stretching your legs and putting papers, your laptop, etc.

3) Working: Even for expert frequent fliers, working productively on a plane can be very difficult. There is very little room, it is noisy, the air is quite strange through the ventilation system, so is the pressurized cabin environment as such. My recommendation would be to avoid creative work almost completely, even writing a talk is dangerous, particularly if it is a last-minute pressure situation, where all you are going to achieve is conveying some elements of what you really want to say. Instead, just bring plenty of routine work. Examples are typing up hand-written notes, run simulations for different parameter values, type up the report for a paper you have already read and marked, draft/correct any administrative proposals, sort/browse recent papers or watch lectures saved on your laptop for later viewing. Also: writing e-mails, which you always wanted to write, as offline drafts, and then sending them off once you land has been an effective strategy for me.

4) Noise: Depending on the type of plane, the noise level can really be annoying. A relatively simple solution to get rid of the plane noise is to use noise cancellation headphones. Obviously I won’t advocate a specific brand here but I found proper over-ear versions of noise-cancellation headphones to be best. Make sure to try them first before you buy them to make sure they are also extremely comfortable as one has to wear them for many hours on long-distance flights. Unfortunately, even modern technology cannot get rid of all types of noise. When I want to have it really quite, I use a pack of ear-plugs, which can be used as the first layer below the over-ear headphones. Again, there are many ear-plug products on the market. Since they are quite cheap you might want to try several options until deciding on one type to stockpile and just grab a new set before each trip.

5) Sleeping: In fact, the previous combination for noise reduction can already work wonders to catch some sleep. Generally, you have to feel out your own biorythm well enough to be able to trick your body to sleep in a situation, where it feels really uncomfortable doing so, i.e., sitting up, crammed between other people and in a strange microclimate. [Remark: If you fly business or first class, and hence can lie down in your seat, you are probably not a scientist and can safely ignore this blog.] Another important trick to get some sleep is to use temperature regulation. Often the air-conditioning system is on a rather cold level on long-distance flights. This makes sense as airlines try to save money. However, this can be used to your advantage by bringing socks, a neck-pillow, a warm jacket, etc. Personally, I use an inflatable neck-pillow to save space in my carry-on and backpack. The idea is to create the same temperature scenario most people sleep in comfortably, i.e., a relatively cold room but using a warm blanket. In addition, I found it very helpful to take the ‘red-eye’ flight when travelling long distances, i.e., go for the overnight version if available on one leg of your trip.

6) Food: The main hint is to always carry around emergency food and drinks (buy the drinks after the security check). I found still mineral water and cereal/vitamin/sports bars the best solution. You can use them if you don’t like (part of) a meal or when there are significant delays. In addition, I highly recommend trying to eat, what your stomach is most familiar with before and during the flight and/or to opt for the simple menu choices at restaurants inside the airport. Catching a stomach bug or, even worse, some form of serious food poisoning definitely ruins even an otherwise well-planned flight completely.

7) Infections: Being in a new environment with several hundred people inside a small space necessarily is a test for anyone’s immune system. Also, airlines do not really advertise that air-conditioning on planes is ‘clean and healthy’, and they would certainly do so if this would be the case; in fact, for some new airplanes those advertisements seem to slowly surface so you can judge for yourself, how clean the air is inside older planes. In conclusion, you can be sure that you may have to fight off potential infections. Since time zone differences can weaken your immune system as well, as it is difficult to sleep regularly, it is helpful to take precautions. For example, trying to eat extra-healthy the week before the flight and during a long trip is more than worth it. Also, if you are unsure whether you can follow your regular diet, it might be useful to take supplements such as certain vitamins as you do not have full control, what is served on the plane and in restaurants during your trip. The usual precautions of washing hands after a flight and not touching your face with your hands during the flight, etc. are all useful. Personally, I try to avoid flying during the peak of flu season (northern hemisphere, roughly around January-March/April) completely.

8) Other: As stated above, I am sure there are many other hints that are useful and I urge readers to provide them below. Thank you in advance for contributing and making conference trips more productive and enjoyable.