I’m standing in a dingy, dimly lit classroom at a small university somewhere in Europe, preparing to tell the world about my research. I glance back at the screen to make sure my PowerPoint presentation is displayed and ready to go, and then I look at my audience.
There are about 40 people in the room, but I notice with dismay that only about 10 are looking at me. The rest are hunched over their laptops or iPads. The noise of fingers hitting typewriter keys is rather disheartening.
I look at the moderator. He nods and I start to speak.
Twenty minutes later, it’s all over. There are a few questions and a smattering of applause. Many in the audience didn’t ever look up during my talk; too busy working on their own papers, looking at Facebook or chatting with colleagues (ironic given the fuss many faculty members make about disruptive behaviour by undergrads).
It’s taken me 12 hours’ flying time and $2,500 of university and personal money to get here for that 20 minutes. I’ll sit in on presentations from about 10 other researchers, view the dozen or so posters on display, take the obligatory tour of a local historic site, attend the conference dinner, and then head back to Canada with my souvenir conference bag, conference-paper memory stick, and increasingly hazy memories of just what was said at the conference.
And in four weeks time I’ll do it all over again. This time I’ll be going to Genoa, Italy. That trip will take 15 hours, but this time I’ll get to speak for 30 minutes, instead of 20. And they say the Italian Riviera is lovely, even in November.
Is it worth it? The scramble to get colleagues to cover our teaching obligations, the hours spent filling out travel grant applications and searching for convenient and cheap airline tickets, then the long flight followed by three or four days in featureless rooms listening to talks about planned research or pilot studies, followed by the flight back and the scramble to get caught up with all the work we missed?
I’m beginning to think it isn’t worth it. Yes, I get to hear about new research somewhat related to my field, but the papers presented tend not to be the strongest, and better-quality, more-relevant research can be found in a few seconds on the web. Yes, I get to meet other researchers, but very rarely do I contact them again. And yes, I do get to experience a new city, but I’m not sure the university should be subsidizing my sightseeing, even if travel does broaden the mind.
So why do we do it? As Tim Kovacs of the University of Bristol notes, there are four reasons to attend a conference:
- to learn abut the area
- to interact with other researchers
- to add a publication to your CV
- to have a holiday somewhere nice
For grad students like me, the third reason is often the deciding factor. PhD students, like other academics, are expected to publish frequently. Scholarships, grants and fellowships depend on fat resumés. But publishing can be difficult for multi-tasking grad students, and it’s very tempting to take the easy road and reposition part of the dissertation as a conference paper.
I’m not arguing that all conferences are a waste of time and money. You can make useful contacts and discover papers that you wouldn’t find through an academic search engine. And both large multi-faceted conferences and smaller select events can be intellectually stimulating and help renew your own academic excitement.
But I am getting disillusioned about the value of what you could call the “B-list” conferences. (They’re easy to spot — a few hundred delegates, a handful of papers, a preponderance of grad students, an obscure but exotic venue). I don’t doubt the sincerity of the conference organizers or the credentials of those who present; I just wonder whether these conferences are worthwhile.
Perhaps university departments could be convinced to put less emphasis on conference presentations for career advancement and scholarship acceptance. That would be easier on strained university travel budgets, too. Another option, as University Affairs noted a few years ago, is the virtual conference. Virtual conferences make a lot of sense. No carbon footprint. No jet lag. No pricey hotel bill.
I’ll have to think about it. Once I get back from Genoa with my conference swag.
Terrance Lavender is a PhD candidate in interactive arts and technology at Simon Fraser University.