What You Don’t See at Conferences

Academics get to go to conferences in exotic places, there is no doubt about that. But that is not the same thing as getting to see the exotic places in which the conferences are held. In my experience, too often one gets to see little more than the inside of a conference centre which, particularly in the US, may be a soulless complex of Hilton, Mariott and the like hotels and a collection of vast identikit rooms with over-patterned carpets to hide the coffee stains. Plus, of course, the airport lounges which are equally soulless and empty of fresh air. I’m afraid I think conference travel is an overstated benefit of being an academic. It frequently seems little more than an opportunity to acquire jetlag, airmiles and a clutch of cards from people you bumped into at the poster session.

Perhaps that is just the jaundiced view of an academic with an insane diary, who lacks the time to add in a day or two at either end to get away from the conference centre in order to explore the heart of the city one is visiting or the surrounding beauty spots and historical sites. Many years ago, when I was a young postdoc at Cornell, I had an excellent trip to the Grand Canyon with fellow postdocs after attending an APS meeting in Phoenix. That was a spectacular trip which made up for the fact I had been forbidden to walk anywhere on my own in the city by my professor, due to fears about the down and out’s who frequented the area around the conference centre.  However, more typical (in as far as I travel abroad at all now, which isn’t much) was the trip to Atlanta from Cambridge, where I spent a grand total of about 36 hours in the US, and all I got to do was attend a reception in a revolving restaurant at the top of some tall building as soon as I arrived (not enjoyable in a sleep-deprived state); walk to and fro between hotel and conference location – a mere 300m in the fantastically hot and humid August air; and see the ever-monotonous inside of said conference centre.  The trip was just long enough for my body to contemplate readjusting its internal clock, without succeeding, before going back to UK time. This was an experience I have taken pains not to repeat.

I write this post in some frustration after a brief trip to a brilliant location at the top of a fair-sized hill abutting the Mediterranean, in a medieval town full of monasteries (now defunct). No conference centre in the American sense of the word, but a converted church. Meetings in a below ground crypt are not ideal, but the views from the coffee room at the top of the church were spectacular despite the haze. And that was all I saw. I arrived after dark, I left in the early morning, and I spent 2 days in deconsecrated church buildings – and restaurants. Early career researchers, don’t kid yourself your professors enjoy themselves on such trips by seeing all the sights of the world you’ve always wanted to see yourself. Chances are, if you get to visit some far-flung place for a conference, you will enjoy your trip much more than your seniors because you live your life at a more leisurely pace. Make the most of it!

But there is a more serious side to this travelling malarkey that I was reminded of when sent some promotion papers to read and comment on recently for someone from another university. This person had stated that they had received various invitations to give talks at international locations, to indicate that they were successful and in demand. They also stated they had declined some of these invitations because they had small children. Why I cheered as I read this was that the applicant was male. I am quite sure the more comfortable men are in stating that they are opting out of travelling for family reasons, the easier it will be for women not to feel embarrassed by making an equivalent admission. It is too common for women to be assumed to be the primary carer (as I’ve discussed before), to end up having to decline trips abroad – or even within the UK – and then fearing that they will be marked down by promotions/ appointments panels for saying so. Or, even worse, be marked down because they don’t feel able to put that in writing so that it looks simply as if they haven’t been getting such invitations at all. If both sexes – and the committees –  feel that the honour of the invitation is what is the mark of esteem, not the turning up and delivering (which, after all, no one will score or report back on to such committees) then it will be one more step to making success in academia not inconsistent with family life.

As I heard stated recently at another meeting I attended, this one at the Royal Society and which was not meant to be discussing gender issues but had strayed in that direction, ‘burning up the kerosene’ should not be a necessary attribute to get on in academia, nor taken as a straightforward proxy for academic excellence. By default, by lack of imagination when people make assessments, it too often is.

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17 Responses to What You Don’t See at Conferences

  1. KK PhD says:

    Totally true. Conferences always sound so great (free travel!) but often end up being a big disappointment for reasons outside of your control – like the venue sucks, or somehow you weren’t able to afford the few extra days to sight-see. I’ve managed great travel experiences out of a conference also, but as you say, I’m luckily early in my career and can afford to take a few days off-the-grid and make the most of it.

    In my department, our PI’s end up sending a postdoc to a conference to cover an invited talk for them. Is it fair for the postdoc (me) to take some of the credit in this situation?

  2. I really appreciate it when a conference has scheduled in a half day for sight seeing, even if it means going to a coffee shop with a nice view of a church to talk to a colleague.

    But a man who says he doesn’t travel for family reasons? That really is a rare sight at conferences. Reading that gave me hope.

  3. Paul Cairney says:

    I can’t quite say the same, but I do *limit* my travel for family reasons (and homesickness). The rub is that maybe you can only feel comfortable doing this when you are established enough at Professor level (the point at which the invitations increase) because it is so important to your CV otherwise.

  4. KK PhD
    Perhaps the first talk you give as a ‘stand-in’ you shouldn’t take all the credit, but certainly some of it. The important thing is that it gives you visibility, making further invitations much more likely for you personally, and that is why part of good mentoring by a professor should include passing some such invitations on to senior postdocs who they know will do a good job of it.

    I think limiting travel is good on many fronts, including professional because it keeps you close to your group, a point I discussed in a rather old post. But, senior or not, I think it should be permissible – and appears to be getting more common judging by paperwork I see – to declare not only talks accepted but talks declined for family reasons.

  5. One of the benefits of a career in science – the possibility of traveling to exotic locales from time to time. I was quite worried I wouldn’t have any time for sightseeing on my recent Bangkok trip, a fear duly put to rest by my excellent hosts, who made sure I got out and about a bit. But I’ve been in the situation you describe, too – overnight trips, day trips, packed agendas and no sightseeing (or in one recent case, no chance to meet up with a fellow OT blogger (i.e., Cath)).

    Regarding KK’s question – my feeling is that if you go to a conference and give a talk, even if deputed by the boss, it’s still an invited talk and needs to be recorded as such on the CV. The organizers could have said “no” to the delegated person, after all.

  6. cromercrox says:

    We editors are obliged to hoof it to international conferences, too. I have chosen not to go to some conferences because I had small children, and if I went, I did often limit my stay, especially when Mrs Crox also had work commitments.

    I well remember a few years ago when Mrs Crox was a political journalist and attended all three major UK political party conferences, between which I squeezed in two or three days at a scientific conference. Somewhere in this frenetic period of a month or so we squeezed in attendance at a family wedding. Mrs Crox has since referred to that episode in our life as ‘Four Conferences and a Wedding’.

  7. The following is quoting something I wrote on space travel to the planet Mars, but is equally applicable to conference related travel. ”The ability of a person to correctly perceive an external environment is physically subjective and virtual in its afferent conception, relative to the biology that makes it possible. To correctly perceive realistically is obtained from a sound scientific education. Be the interface a screen or some other means of a technological phenotypical extension is, on the receiving end, just as virtual as biologically internally sensing through at atmospheric medium.”

    What I most like about conferences is meeting other people and discussing with them what they have proposed after their talks, when there is time to do so. Sometimes, one only has time to attend a specific talk rather than a whole conference but at least is illuminated in the topic given with no socialising occurring. Google is well ahead in the game of conference attendance. Over the past few months I have using their Google+ hang outs service whereby those interested in conferences video streamed online live, or for later viewing if the time permits(just like BBC iPlayer), are able to contribute to the events by typing in their questions. Depending on the event, questions asked are replied to during or at the end of an event as would be done in a non-virtual conference.

    From what I gather are the deleterious effect of travel from your experiences Athene, it would seem that virtually attending a conference, be it as a spectator or someone actually giving a talk, sometimes has great benefits over being there in person. Avoiding jet lag and the sense deprivation caused by being transported elsewhere on this Earth in unfamiliar and possibly unhealthy environmentally unstimulating surroundings makes the enjoyment and mental intake of conferences more possible. If at the end of a virtual conference one wishes to follow on the topic presented then present day technology efferently extends in the virtual world our being somewhere in person by the use of webcams or simple email.

  8. Simon Johnston says:

    It is great to hear about some balance in putting family first. These changes have started but it will be a slow process. Not that many years ago I remember reading an interview with some prize winner who said how he put his family before his work by making sure he had a meal with them at least once a week!

    Personally I find attending conferences to be extremely productive scientifically especially in coming up with new ideas and developing existing ones as well as making new contacts. I try and focus on this aspect because, as you rightly say Athene, the conference environment can get you down. I have never considered conferences to be an opportunity to see new places but on a number of occasions this has been the case (notably a visit to Woods Hole and a conference with an amazing social programme in Nagasaki).

    Related going to conferences in general: I think it is important for members of the lab to go to different conferences and not for us all to go to the same two every year. It is also good to go to conferences that are occasionally slightly removed from your research area. I would always try and send someone from the lab if I can’t give a particular talk.

  9. rpg says:

    “One of the benefits of a career in science – the possibility of traveling to exotic locales from time to time.”

    “One of the nuisances of a career in science – the possibility of traveling to exotic locales from time to time.”

  10. LL says:

    I must say I still consider conference travel one of the significant perks of my job… although perhaps this is a consequence of being an early career researcher who only goes to one or two carefully selected meetings a year…

    As the mother of a young daughter and a recent returner from maternity leave, I also think they are vital to attend, not only to get back up to date with happenings in your field.. but also to remind people that you are still ‘here’ and doing exciting science that they should pay attention to. Another significant benefit to some of the meetings (Keystone, FASEB, Gordon conferences) that have gaps in the afternoons for networking/skiing/sunbathing is that they are great times to get some distraction free grant or paper writing done, and to catch up with collaborators without the time pressures of our day to day lives in the lab/office.

    Saying all of this, I also know how frustrating it is to not be able to get hold of supervisors who are constantly travelling to meetings… so am pleased if it is becoming acceptable to not have to accept every invitation that comes across your desk!

  11. My dad (physicist) tends to go only to a couple of conferences a year (they call them symposia, usually about explosives). He carefully selects those that take place in the Alps or Pyrenees, with early morning start, finish just after lunch and time for skiing in the afternoon. The bastard.

  12. Cate says:

    Just wanted to chime in – I agree it’s nice to give postdocs/students opportunities to talk in your stead. However, it’s very frustrating not to know in advance this will happen – i.e., if I show up to hear a talk by Professor X (especially at a big conference where I’m choosing between many good sessions), I usually came specifically to hear Professor X, not just to get the update from that lab. Then again, perhaps if the substitutes’ name was on the program no one would come because no one would know them, thus no exposure… anyway, important to tread carefully on these switcheroos.

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  14. Philippa says:

    My husband is an academic and travels a lot for work meetings, but has in the past turned down conferences because we have a small family. He has also accompanied me on the occasional conference that I go to an an industrial reseracher, so we could take the kids, and he was with them while I was in my sessions. It was great to have family dinners and an outing or two together. It was helped by the conference hotel also being a European package holiday family hotel too. I think taking the kids will be harder now the oldest is at school but it was nice that we managed to get some family fun from conference travel!

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