This week the BES journals are focussing on how to survive at conferences! In this post, Associate Editor Oscar Godoy discusses how he chooses what conferences to go to and why.
Hi everyone! This is Oscar Godoy and I am here to share my personal experience with deciding which conferences I attend yearly, and how these decisions have been changed since I started my Ph.D. a decade ago.
With an increasing number of conferences and meetings worldwide, deciding which to attend is indeed not an easy task. Attending all conferences is almost impossible for logistic, monetary and several other reasons, so here I provide some questions to ask yourself, and discussions that reflect my personal view and approach to choosing conferences, based on what I want to get out of them. Of course, I would love to hear other thoughts- this topic is barely discussed, and I surely am missing several points. Please either respond to this post or write me on twitter @Eco_Godoy
Big conferences versus small conferences?
Big annual conferences, such as the European Geoscience Union (EGU) with more than 15,000 participants (yes fifteen thousand—although incredible these numbers are correct, check the last EGU 2019, yourself), the Ecological Society of America (ESA), or the British Ecological Society (BES) are simply massive. I understand that they can make you feel overwhelmed at the beginning, but I think they are unique opportunities because they gather much good science and many researchers altogether in a single place.
Obtaining maximum profit in terms of valuable information from these conferences is not an easy task, so I always force myself to do some homework before attending the conference. This means three steps. First, reading the programme in advance to select which presentations are interesting, and making a schedule accordingly. Some meetings like the 2018 BES meeting in Birmingham provided an app to have the programme readily available and the selected schedule in my smartphone. I felt this opportunity was very handy, definitely much better than carrying the programme from one place to another for several hours. Second, becoming familiar with the conference venue is a must as it will help to move from one room to another in the shortest time possible. This is key when there is only a five minute break between talks.
Third, and perhaps the most important point, I always try to find some time to relax in my schedule. After many conferences, I have realised that my brain is quite limited, and it can process little information. So I spend time thinking about what I’ve just heard and how this information can be related to my own research or to other previous talks or posters.
With all that said about big conferences, this does not imply that small conferences are not great, but they are not in my priority list unless I am highly interested in being exposed to a new specific topic or learning new statistical techniques.
International versus national or regional conferences?
My preference is international for several reasons. Although we all do science, the specific ways of tackling ideas and developing them into particular studies is very different between countries and even continents. For instance, many times I feel that the approach to facing fundamental knowledge gaps in community ecology differ between North American and European labs. Each continent has its own style, and preferentially publish in different journals, which sometimes leads to poor communication between the two areas. So going to international conferences can break this dynamic just by being exposed to researchers from many different areas that hold different backgrounds.
Another reason I decide to go to international meetings is because they bring with them the perfect opportunity to meet with other collaborators to discuss specific aspects of our research projects. Also, it is great if it’s time to look for a good post doc or PhD student candidate (or the other way around, if you’re a candidate looking for a position).
There is one exception though to this rule of attending mostly to international meetings. I always go to the Spanish (now Iberian- Spain + Portugal) ecological society meeting, because it brings the perfect opportunity to closely learn the science done in my home country—plus I cannot hide the fact that it is the meeting for me to see many good friends, which always ends in a party and dancing.
Attending specific topics related to your expertise versus attending broad research topics?
I guess this highly depends on each one current interest. There was a time when I was doing my PhD when I was always focused on the topic of my research, that was invasive plant species. This is no longer the case. Now, I try to balance between topics matching closely with my research (such as species interactions, functional traits, networks, demography), but I am also open to knowing what’s going on in other research topics, such as disease ecology, marine ecology, and microbial ecology.
Being exposed to other topics far from your expertise can come at the cost, perhaps, of “wasting time”, but at the same time , it can help to build bridges and bring better communication between fields, which I think it is a highly important task. Big conferences are definitely a good opportunity for that cross-communication.
Going alone versus going with labmates?
I went to my two first ESA and BES meetings by myself. I have to say that the experience was difficult at the beginning. Moments during the conference like going to poster sessions or to the conference dinner alone can be stressful, as well as introducing yourself to others. However, going alone has the advantage that you can be focussed 100% on the conference.
Going with labmates helped overcome those difficult moments where I asked myself “What exactly am I doing here?” But when I have gone to a conference with labmates, I always felt less pressure to introduce myself to other researchers. I do not have a special preference here but I see pro and cons of both decisions.
Paper notes versus electronic note?.
Electronic notes would be my preferred answer. In fact, I took paper notes for a long time and the end for all of them was always the same: they were lost somewhere. Electronic notes allow you to attach images and photos to the text, which helps me to remember in what specific part I was interested a lot. There are many apps that can synchronise these electronic notes between a smartphone and a computer desktop.
Accessibility and childcare needs
It is surprising how often (and I always feel annoyed when I see this) others do not provide enough support for child care or lactation rooms for instance. See this entry for instance, this is key for many researchers including myself, and my family. Other researchers might have other needs and I think as attendants we should make aware of our needs to the organisers politely.
It is important to check whether the conference covers any accessibility needs the attendees might have – this can be very varied, so it’s important to check what provisions the conference organizers have in place.
According to these preferences, I went last December 2018 to BES at Birmingham and last February 2019 to the Iberian Ecological Society (SIBECOL) held in Barcelona, where I gave a plenary talk. I am planning to go to the forthcoming 2019 BES meeting and to the ESA meeting in Salt Lake City in 2020. I’m looking forward to attending to these conferences. If you see me over there, do say hello
Oscar is a researcher working at University of Cádiz (Spain), interested in the effect of species interactions on the maintenance of species diversity, and associate editor of Functional Ecology.