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Choosing Your Conferences

Being intentional about where you choose to present your work.


January 16, 2020

Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Conferences can be a big part of academic life, and there's plenty of good advice around for getting the most out of them. Today, I'd like to discuss the first step in the conference process: choosing the right conference to attend.

There are several factors to consider here.

First, how relevant is the conference to your research and career goals? Between my work in disability studies, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), and neuroscience, all of which are themselves interdisciplinary, I can find relevance at a variety of conferences. Assistive technology conferences, AAC-specific conferences, disability studies conferences, neuroscience conferences and most conferences run by organizations with disability or communication and technology interest groups could be relevant to me. However, that's not all conferences. Most chemistry conferences aren't going to be especially useful to me. There may or may not be many presentations I'm especially interested in at a general graduate student conference -- it depends on the graduate students involved. At my university’s graduate conference, most of the presentations in my field are posters rather than panels, but they exist. I can look at previous year’s programs as a guide if they’re available.

Then, who else will most likely be at the conference? While my university's general graduate student conference tends to host presentations that are unlike my work, the people there are my fellow graduate students at my university. These are people worth knowing! Or, despite the relevance of my work to autism research -- my first journal article was in Autism in Adulthood -- I almost never go to autism conferences, because there's a tendency to segregate autistic people as somehow separate from autism researchers, and constantly challenging that is draining. The few I do attend are typically autistic-run.

The question of who else is at the conference ties in with the question of how big the conference is. I have attended conferences of a variety of sizes. The Society for Disability Studies is currently the largest it's ever been, having just registered a 500th member. At this size, there aren’t too many overlapping sessions to choose from, the venues can be smaller and I’m more likely to actually find the people I know who are also attending. Worldcon 2019 had over 4,000 attendees, exceeding the capacity of the Dublin convention center. There was always something going on, which was cool, but there were usually multiple things I’d have liked to have seen happening at the same time. I also had to move between two different venues, which was tricky. The International Communication Association has about 4,500 members, though I'm less certain about attendance numbers. I know it was huge, though they did manage to fit the conference proper into a single hotel. They had quite the variety of presentations, and they had the numbers to arrange smaller pre- and post-conferences for people with more specific interests. Both larger and smaller conferences have advantages, but it's nice to know which one I'm getting into when choosing a conference!

Now, where is this conference? Most of the time, a local conference will win out over a distant one on this measure, because travel costs money and takes time. However, if my travel is funded, I might prefer to take advantage of that and go a bit farther afield. The closest a conference can be, of course, is online. While the conversational part of conferences can be trickier to achieve online, it can be done. AAC in the Cloud uses a Slack server, with a general channel, a track-specific channel for each track and a presenter's channel to support conversations between attendees.

The question of location is tied to the question of affordability. How much does this conference cost? Is there a student discount? Will we need to pay for a hotel, or can we commute from home or stay with a friend? Since conference budgets are generally limited, do we want to spend them on one more expensive conference or several cheaper ones? Online conferences aren't guaranteed to be free, but sometimes they are. Free is a very good price for the graduate student budget!

Another question is whether or not this conference publishes proceedings or transactions, as records of the research presented at the conference. Depending on whether or not my results are publication-ready, I could have either preference. If the results are ready, but there are few enough of them to fit in conference proceedings (usually shorter in IEEE) instead of a full article, published proceedings are great. I might not want to bring a working paper to a conference that publishes its proceedings.

Even if a conference doesn't publish proceedings, there may be other ways it can support us in bringing papers to publication. The Society for Disability Studies has workshop papers as part of the conference, allowing authors to get feedback on papers from each other. While the conference isn't a publication outlet, this directed feedback can help us get ready for publication!

And of course, since we're graduate students, there's always the consideration of "what conference does my major professor want me to attend?" But if there's one we think is a good idea, we can probably suggest it, and we might not only go to the conferences our major professors tell us about. Plus, it's good to know how to think about conference choices after we graduate!

How do you choose which conferences to attend? Share in the comments below or on Twitter at @GradHacker.

[Image by Dion Hinchcliffe used under a creative commons license.]


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