How to plan your science conference schedule

February is here, you may have already noticed, as calendars are all the rage these days. This means I am well into planning out my year and what I’m going to be doing to keep myself busy. The first thing is obviously planning how many conferences I can go to this year. Getting out of the office is important especially if I get to go and nerd out about science for a few days. But there are several things worth considering when planing you conference schedule.

Confrence attendance

Subject – I think this one should kind of go without mentioning.  If you haven’t realised that if you’re a molecular biologist then going to a conference on composite material manufacturing might not be all that productive. Probably best to stick to things you actually work on or want to work on. I’d never suggest that people only go to conferences in their own areas – some of the most productive talks I’ve ever attended have had little to do with my current work. But there is a limit and I think even the most flexible scientist would struggle to get a lot out of a conference on 18th century Russian dance. Aside from some snappy moves for the graduation ball.

Size is important because it changes the tone of a conferences completely. A small conference with <150 delegates is a far more intimate affair that a 600+ mega conference. Which can be both good and bad. At a small conference, the focus tends to be on networking and chatting to the speakers after the talks and generally talking and discussing things with people you might be able to either help or get help from. Larger conferences are better for seeing a lot of diverse talks. If possible take a clone or inflatable version of you so that you can attend any sessions that conflict with each other.

Location is a lot less important than the others. Unless you’re looking for a holiday destination to tack onto the trip, in which case it’s more important than all the rest. Screw science and possibly tax payers money, go to Hawaii! But other than that, conferences move around and there are loads of conferences covering a pretty wide gamult of areas. The biggest impact location has tends to be a) the make-up of the attendees (more local attendees) or b) the price.

Timing. Last year I attended a symposium in Japan and then a conference in Brazil with 5 days between them. It was a killer. I don’t recommend anyone try anything similar. If you’re going to attend more than one conference, try to spread them throughout the year. If necessary, just ring up a conflicting conference and ask nicely. More often than not, they’ll happily move it for you….(possibly terrible advice). It’s also worth spreading them out so that you don’t end up away from the labs for 2 months. Leaving equipment unattended that long attracts the equipment stealing trolls (also known as students) who will start building it into their own equipment.

Cost is something I talked about already but it can make a big difference for a lot of people. When we’re looking for grants for students to go to conferences, we normally struggle to scrape together £300, the rest has to come from some random project. There was an excellent series of free 1 day conferences at the Royal Society of Chemistry last year which we attend on mass just because we could. They ended up being some of the most productive conferences we’ve ever attended. I realise that conferences have costs but £600 for a ticket for a 3 day conference is a bit much to swallow as good value for money.

Finally, if your work place is anything like mine, you’ll need to plan to submit some work to all these conferences you want to attend. The basic rule is that the department will try and fund any conference that you have actually submitted something too. Which is pretty fair. Annoying, if I want to got to something a bit outside our field, but they’re flexible. But either way, this means I need to plan what conferences I’m going to slightly around what new work I have. If my experiments aren’t working, no conference for me. I guess it gives the reaction more incentive to work – either run the way I want or be stuck with me for even longer!

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