Conferences Part II

Rob commented on the previous post:

“Provided you have a paper accepted, and the conference doesn’t clash with other commitments (e.g. teaching), what are the other barriers to participation apart from the registration fee and travel costs? These are the only obstacles that prevent me from attending far more conferences than I do! I’ll enlarge on this in a blog I’m working on.”

I look forward to reading his thoughts when he’s written his blog, but my response to this seemed too long to be a comment so I thought I’d make it a post.

I can’t grant the provision that a paper has been accepted for my response.  If I have got to the point of submitting something for a conference, I have to have overcome the majority of the barriers to participation before submitting the abstract.  Essentially, I have decided that I will go to the conference if my submission is accepted.

Travel costs are a significant consideration but others include ease of travel, suitability of location for a single female traveller and travel time versus conference duration.   Where is the accommodation going to be? How do I get from the conference venue to the accommodation? When will the latest session finish? Can I get back to my hotel safely after a social event that finishes at midnight?  Lets not even talk about the conference where I ended up wandering around a city in southern France on my own at 3 am (sheer dumb luck Mr Potter), or the conference in a major German city where all the restaurants around the hotel and conference venue closed before the final session of each day finished, or the conference in a major Canadian city based on a university campus where the first session of the day started so early that it was impossible to get the breakfast part of the bed-and-breakfast accommodation provided.

When considering the registration fee I will attempt to make some estimate of ‘value for money’ and look at the duration of the conference, included extras such as catering, social activities, outline program (because this is pre-abstract submission) and make some estimate of worth.   I have been to conferences with rather extensive social programs that were included in the registration fee, increasing it beyond a reasonable level (in my opinion) and with no option to opt-out of those activities.  Other than social networking opportunities, those events offered little in terms of scientific relevance to the meeting.  Some may well argue that this is the point of such activities; I would argue that they are a luxury that many of us cannot afford.

I will also think about how I perceive the field – is the conference going to be too ‘old boys network-y’ for my taste?  Is it going to present significant challenges for networking because of the closed ranks nature of the field?  Never underestimate the power of introduction by someone with reputation in the field.  I am more likely to consider a conference if people I know will be going as it will be more worthwhile.

When considering the timing of the conference, I will make an estimate of level of hassle.  Obviously the conference should not clash with teaching commitments but I have other considerations.   Weekend conferences are often a route around work/teaching clashes and 2009 I attended 7 weekend conferences or courses.  That’s 14 weeks where I worked without a day off (in reality I worked more than 14 weeks in 2009 without a day off due to open/visit days and other work related crises).  That’s quite a big quantity of neglect to my family and non-work commitments.  I do myself no favours at certain times of the academic year by not taking time off.  Conferences are tiring and stressful as mentioned in the previous post and therefore lead to a likely loss in productivity in the days after them.  Also, the act of preparing what ever submission I have chosen to make will take time – is the conference at a time of year when I can spend a couple of days preparing slides, or designing a poster?

Removing my personal situation from the equation for a moment – what about people with greater family commitments?  Participation at conferences is governed by child care arrangements for a great many academics.  Some fields seem to do better than others with regard to child care on site, but others refuse to acknowledge that academics may have children.  This barrier could be removed by offering bursaries to cover the additional child care costs that might be associated with being out of the family home for a few days.  And it isn’t just children – many academics are carers for dependents of one sort or another.

Ultimately a judgement has to be made prior to submitting an abstract on whether a conference represents value for time and money.  Barriers to conference participation are personal, and there will never be a ‘one size fits all’ answer to the issue, but we have to start somewhere and I think internet technologies are a good place to begin.

And I’ve not even started on the barriers to being able to submit an abstract…

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