This is part 4 of my blog series aiming to start discussion about the problems of how typical academic conferences are run, and my experiences with them as a PhD student. Previous parts covered presentations, socialising and poster sessions.
The traditional academic conference format gives little value to those who are the main funders of it.
I don’t believe this is true for all the conferences I’ve been to, but considering my previous 3 blog posts about my experiences with conferences as a PhD student, I can’t help but feel we get shafted more often than not. In fact some of the comments I’ve had from people about this blog have mentioned conferences that they’ve been to that have abandoned the typical format, with great results. In my experience, generally small conferences are more likely to be good, but the issue is that the larger ones do not give good value for money. This is especially problematic as I’ve found they are usually a lot more expensive to attend, and the ‘bang for your buck’ aspect is the focus of this post.
I think I can best demonstrate this by recalling the last conference I went to, earlier this year. It was one of the biggest in my field and came at a cost of 600 Euros in registration fees alone, not including international flights, hotels, transfers and food. In return for this we got the ‘privilege’ of presenting our poster in a hall full of 300 odd other posters at a 1.5 hour session, sandwiched between the PhD student talks and lunch. I felt sorry for those poor souls whose posters were allocated to the dingy corner with the broken light. It’s no surprise that attendance to the whole morning session was extremely low and it was pretty disappointing to see several senior academics appear back at the afternoon session holding shopping bags.
I’ve cherry picked an example but generally speaking the attitude towards the contributions of PhD students and postdocs at conferences is not particularly a good one. I’m not suggesting all, or even the majority, of academics do something as brazen as the above, but it’s hard to see value in something of which the feeling to it is pretty much “who cares?”. On the financial side of things we get a bad deal – PhD students and postdocs form the bulk of the attendees and hence we are the main source of funding. Additionally, travel funding for students is widely variable depending on the source organisation. For many, the above conference may have been their single opportunity of the year, the cost of attending this 4 day conference came out to over 1000 Euros.
Whatever way you look at it the money has to come from somewhere, and you can’t force people to be interested in something they simply don’t care about, like with the poster sessions. This is why I advocate changing the way conferences are formatted and that organisers look at how value can be added for those of us early on in our academic careers, for instance in the form of better organised events – I like the idea of ‘academic speed dating’ with other researchers, as one example.
The frustrating thing for me is it’s hard to change the current system, beyond organising my own conference (with blackjack! And hookers!). The truth is we are on the lowest rung on the academic ladder without real representation, the senior academics who organise these things get a pretty sweet deal with no real incentive to change. As always, any ideas leave them in the comments or send me a tweet.