Welcome to the second part of my series of blog posts about the problems with the standard academic conference format. For part 1 about conference presentations see here and also part 3 about poster sessions and part 4 about value for money. One thing everyone seems to say about conferences is that they are a great chance to network. I disagree, and this second post in the series is about why.
The typical academic conference has only one social event
The conference dinner is usually the only social gathering in the whole schedule. I’ve never really understood this. The purpose of conferences is to bring people with similar interests to meet up, mingle and foster community, but there aren’t many opportunities to actually do this. This is compounded by the fact that with what little social time there is, most attendees will be catching up with people they know.
If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to go to a conference alone then you know how isolating it can be at the coffee break or lunch when everyone turns back in to their small circle of friends. It would be great if there was a way to meet people in the same boat, which leads on to my next point:
Meeting others with similar interests is almost impossible
Ignoring general socialising for the moment, conferences in your field are a rare meeting of people with similarly aligned research to yourself, but actually finding other researchers with similar work to yourself (especially if, like the majority of attendees, they aren’t giving a talk) is very hard.
The only natural route is through poster sessions, which have their own problems deserving of their own post, but this relies on the slim chance the researcher in question is actually standing at their poster. Concerning the other problems with poster sessions, I think this short piece by Annika Coughlin, titled “Conference posters: For lonely people to pretend to read at tea breaks?” really hits the nail on the head.
While the points raised here are critical of conferences directly there is a more serious (and until recently, taboo) subject that these social problems link to:
Loneliness and isolation are common in academia
Thankfully this problem is getting more awareness now, but it’s still a massive issue for a lot of PhD students. It would be naive to suggest that these deep problems could be solved by a couple of social events at the next conference, but I think the fact there is almost no social aspect to many conferences is a symptom, going hand-in-hand with how common loneliness and the feeling of isolation is in academia.
If you’ve had any bad conference experiences or ideas on how this could be improved, please comment below or send me a tweet @Owl_Meat