Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Conference Tourists

Some conferences are so highly selective that a small fraction of conference-goers give presentations, but other conferences are less selective and the majority of attendees give presentations of some sort (talk or poster). These less selective conferences are excellent opportunities for students to present their research, but many senior researchers also give presentation.

If you have ever attended the type of conference at which most participants give a talk or poster, have you ever decided to just attend without giving a presentation, even though you easily could have submitted an abstract for review (with you as presenting author)? If so, why did you decide to be a Conference Tourist (CT)? Was it one of these reasons, or something else?:

A1. Fatigue. You have given so many presentations at so many conferences, you just wanted to go to the conference without having to prepare anything to present. Skipping one (or tw0?) conferences doesn't mean you are totally burned out; you just want a break and will enjoy the conference as a CT.

A2. Stress. This is similar to Fatigue, but in this case you decided against trying to give a presentation because doing so always stresses you out so much that you spend all the days and nights before your presentation feeling anxious, and you can only begin to enjoy the conference once your presentation is done.

A3. Lack of anything new to say (not that that reason stops some people from giving presentations). Somehow, a year has gone by and you don't have any new results. You will soon, of course, but you didn't have anything to write up in time for the abstract deadline and you didn't want to present old or recycled research. This is not the best of reasons to be a CT, but it might be fine to do once in a while. Not everyone's research projects fit exactly with conference submission schedules.

A4. Been there/done that.You are happy to let your students and postdocs present all the results from your group. Let the youngsters have all the glory (and stress). You can sit back and be the big cheese research group leader.

A5. None of the above.

And then, just to turn the question around: If you could easily go to a conference as a non-presenter but you never (or almost never do), why do you so often submit an abstract or conference paper for review?:

B1. You love giving talks. You are addicted to the thrill of presenting your research to a large audience. It would be painful for you to attend a conference and not give a presentation and be part of the action.

B2. You like giving talks. That is, you don't love giving talks, but you like it well enough that, if you have some interesting new research to present, you want to present it at the conference.

B3. You may or may not like or mind giving talks, but you feel compelled to give a presentation if at all possible because you want to show funding agency program officers and others that you are being productive.

B4. You have some great new research results and you want the world to know this now, not n months from now when (you hope) the paper is published.

B9+ Some of the above/none of the above..?

My answer for the latter set of questions would be one involving parts of B2-B4.

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

Partly A2, partly career choice (which was in part inspired by A2!). In my current job, I am a professional conference tourist (and in fact, I plan to use this title from now on. Awesome!). I absolutely love that I get to see what's going on without having the pressure of presenting, even though I often enjoyed myself during the actual presentations (poster or talk) when I used to do it.

Anonymous said...

As a grad student, then postdoc, then staff scientist at a research institute, I have never been "allowed" to attend a conference unless I was giving a presentation. Something about the expenses being "not justifiable" otherwise. Yet, many of my colleagues (and before that, my PhD and postdoc advisors) seem to get away with attending lots of conferences without presenting anything. Somehow it is justifable for them.

mOOm said...

A3 - nothing new to say. Or that I want to say to this audience.

On the B's the reason is usually that funding to travel is contingent on presenting.

Anonymous said...

A5. The time spent preparing a poster/talk could be better used working on my research.

This is probably the biggest reason why I do not always present at conferences. I'm a postdoc and need to get papers out. Other reasons have been A2 and A3. Regarding A3, I get tired hearing recycled talks and don't want to waste others' time in a similar way.

Anonymous said...

Same Anon as above (probably). Another A5 is asymmetric interest between me and the typical conference attendee. Sometimes I go to conferences dominated by bench types (I'm a theory/computational type) so I can learn better what they do and model it. I'm pretty sure a lot of them don't care about models, and sometimes it's not worth trying to proselytize.

Barnes said...

Some version of "feel compelled". When I was a graduate student and asked my advisor to send me to a meeting, he would ask: "Are you presenting?". He wouldn't pay my way to a conference to be a tourist; only if I was going to present something. (Except for my very first one, to learn what conferences were like). I stick to the same rule today, even though I'm an assistant professor with my own grant money to spend. It gets tremendously easy to just attend anything and everything. Making sure that I have something to present keeps me on the right balance between being on top of things (knowing others' research), and being at the bottom of things (generating my own research).

Anonymous said...

Networking; hanging out with my subfield friends that I don't see otherwise; seeing a new place.

slac said...

In terms of why people would not go without presenting, those in disciplines without grant money to support conference attendance may not get travel money (or may get reduced travel money) from their schools if they do not present.

Anonymous said...

You left off another important answer option to the second question. I give presentations at conferences because otherwise I do not qualify for department travel grants for going to the conference. I have a very small research budget, so if my department is willing to give $300-$500 toward travel for one conference a year, provided I'm a presenter (co-authors do not qualify), I will present an abstract. Its always at the one "big meeting" for my discipline, and usually its research though teaching and outreach abstracts are also accepted.

franglais said...

I can be an occasional CT and have no problem with this. At abstract deadline time I evaluate how much new stuff I can present relative to the conferences I will have attended within the months before this particular meeting. I may decide that I am thin on new things to say or that no good session exists in that meeting for my kind of results. Yet, I feel it is important for me to attend because it is always an excellent meeting and I am confident I will learn many things. I would start to worry though if I became a chronic CT.

Prof-like Substance said...

I was a CT for one conference this summer and it was nice. I did it for reason A4, because I brought the whole lab and wanted them to have the experience of presenting their data.

I do like giving talks, but I most often speak at conferences now to get our system on the map and make it clear that I have moved to my own lab and am pursuing new projects. Now that we're through conference season two as an independent group, I think people are noticing. We'll have the papers out soon to back it up.

TriPartite Academic said...

I would actually add a category to the ones listed under A: staying connected to my research field. I sometimes attend, but don't present, at a conference that is central to my field, because I want the opportunity to be stimulated intellectually and see my colleagues in my specialized area of research. I don't have those sorts of peers in my department, so conferences are a kind of scholarly lifeline for me that help keep my research agenda on track, by getting me to think about my own research, even if I'm not presenting.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to be a Conference Tourist for the first time in my career this year, at my discipline's big annual meeting. As for why, I suppose it's a combination of all or most of the reasons you listed. First, I present at least one talk/poster as lead author at several conferences annually, and I feel like I've earned a year off. Second, I have four students presenting so I feel that my group will be well-represented and I'll have to put a bunch of pre-conference work into getting everyone ready. Third, it's been a year of finishing up projects for me, and I don't have anything new that's quite ready to be presented. Interesting and timely post, since the abstract deadline was just a couple weeks ago and I am still feeling a bit of guilt/regret about my decision.

Anonymous said...

A5. At a topical meeting with ~140 people this summer where anybody could have a poster and many many people had talks I chose not to present. It's a subfield I'm just moving into, that I have a big instrumentation grant that should result in a lot of nice new results driving the field forward, but the instrument is 18 months from completion and I didn't work in this specific area previously. I could have shoehorned in some other previous work that is peripherally related but didn't think it was necessary.

Sharon said...

B2-B4. Plus, my department only gives me money to go to a conference if I am a presenting author.

queenrandom said...

For the A set of questions, the only time I was a CT was when I was a very, very new student with not enough data to write up by the abstract deadline. I'm not a PI yet but I'd like to think the only reason I'd ever skip submitting an abstract is A4. I really don't see the point of *not* submitting something, if you plan on attending.

For the B set: I hate public speaking, but I *do* love being involved and active in scientific communication; giving a talk in front of an insanely large audience is sometimes a necessary evil towards that goal. So I'd say it's a combination of B1 and B4, with the stipulation that public speaking is sucky but communicating with colleagues is awesome.

a physicist said...

Mostly B1: I love giving talks.

Also B9: I figure it's good publicity for my group. And, often there is someone from my group who can't make the conference (perhaps because they've just started a new job) and so I talk about their work, to give the missing person some more publicity. Usually it's also that I'm excited about their project and want someone to talk about it, and if they're unavailable then I'll give the talk. When possible, though, I prefer students and postdocs to give their own talks.

Rick said...

For me it is B5: Visibility *at* the conference. I am naturally shy, so it is hard for me to approach people, even colleagues I know, to talk. I like to give presentations because that gives everyone a topic of conversation if they want to approach me. Even people that know me seem more willing / able to approach when I just presented some new results that are interesting. Likewise, I find it easier to approach people who presented interesting work at a conference.

GMP said...

My answers would be A4 (the students can do it, they need exposure and practice) and A1 (want to get a break from presenting) for your first question, and probably a combination of B2 through B4 (I like it well enough, program managers need to see activity, plus exciting new stuff going on) for your second question.

Anonymous said...

I am from a large university in the upper midwest. The big meeting I go to every year is in San Fransisco in December . It is cold in December in the twin cities so I always submit an abstract, go to the meeting for a half day to present a poster, then spend the rest of the week taking a nice vacation all on my per diem.

Ann said...

Reasons to give a talk:
1.B4 Promote your work. Most people are more likely to pay attention to a paper they have heard someone give a talk on. If you don't go around giving talks on your work, people may assume that you don't think it is interesting, so why should they?

2. Promote yourself. For a young person, all talks are job talks, to at least some extent.

3. Your CV: talks given is viewed by promotion, hiring and grant committees as one of the metrics used to judge how active you are and how interested others are in your work.

4. Funding: the travel funding sometimes is contingent on giving a talk.

Reasons not to give a talk:

1. A5, You are so well established that none of the above is necessary.
2. A3, often correlated with 1.
3. A4, I wish more senior scientists would deliberately decide not to give talks and give the slots to young scientists.

Anonymous said...

Our department does not pay for going to conferences, so unless you happen to be rich you have to apply for money for this specific purpose yourself. All funding agencies here that I know of requires you to present something (a talk or a poster) at the conference, otherwise you get no money. Also, as a student you need the credits you get (at least here) for giving presentations at conferences in order to graduate.

Given a choice, I would prefer to give fewer but better presentations myself.

Kim U said...

The only time I've been a CT was because I was using the conference for a career networking purpose. I was just starting my diss research when abstracts were due and in the middle of job searching when the conference was held. I probably wouldn't have gone, but my advisor used some of her discretionary funds to help me with travel expenses.

On the B side, I honestly like presenting. I think it's fun. I like creating a dialog with other researchers, in a different way than when I publish in journals.

Anonymous said...

The most interesting thing about this topic is that it seems to be field/culture-dependent. In my field, CT's are extremely rare, only about 1-2% of conference attendees. Almost everyone is funded for travel on grants, and with the current economy, one simply can't justify attending without presenting your grant-funded project. Which of course results in a grant-funded conference proceeding (although nowadays most proceedings have morphed into a web posting of your slides). Even if I have a bit of discretionary funding, it seems wasteful and indulgent to spend on a conference if no tangible benefit (i.e. presentation) will result.

Somehow, we rarely suffer from repetetive presentations by the same people. Everyone somehow always seems to have new findings and/or fresh perspectives. I rarely see anyone present the EXACT same thing more than twice.

Average Professor said...

I know lots of people (and sometimes am one) who attend but don't present at my disciplinary society's big annual (not selective) meeting. Many times it's because they have taken on some administrative or service roles within the society and a main reason for attending the conference is to tend to that, rather than to talk about research. At the big society meetings there are often non-research issues to meet about and discuss - legislative liaison stuff, curricular things, etc.

When I present at that or any other conference, it's usually research that is not-quite-finished but that I think is interesting and about which I'd love to have some discussion with other experts on the topic.

Alex said...

The problem I face is that my favorite conference accepts most abstracts, but relegates most of them to the poster session while upgrading a handful to "selected" talks alongside the invited talks. If I can give a talk, that's great, it raises the visibility of my work. If I can't give a talk, I'd just as soon let my students give posters, and spend my time helping them polish their posters instead of spending time on my own poster. So I have a dilemma on whether or not to submit an abstract or just let the students submit abstracts.

Anonymous said...

I almost never attend a conference without presenting our research, I prefer to be an active participant and "justify" my presence at the conference.

The couple of times I went to a conference without presenting, I ended up spending more time socializing with old friends and colleagues than focusing on science (which is, of course, not a bad thing!).

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

A1, A3, A4.

B2, B4 (but not really, since I have results from 6 years ago I *still* haven't gotten around to writing up)

quasihumanist said...

I did A3 this year. I wouldn't have gone though, if it wasn't also a chance to meet with collaborators on two different projects during the same week.

I have done A5: interview for jobs - in mathematics, a large number of colleges (though not many research universities) do preliminary interviews at the annual disciplinary meeting.

I'm mostly a B2 when it comes to presenting.

Anonymous said...

Another reason is that if you don't present at least a poster, you are not allowed to use your grant funds or any funds from the university to help defray the cost of attending the conference.
And it is a high cost if we take into account the salaries in our country!

Anita

Anonymous said...

I've gone to some fairly focused workshops on topics I've worked on in the past and will in the future but am not currently working on, so I didn't give a talk. Still, it was worth going to just to keep up with new results and catch up with former (and hopefully future) collaborators. I guess this is a form of A3, "nothing new to say"; it's not so much that I didn't have new results, but that I didn't have any that overlapped strongly enough with the narrow focus of the workshop.

Februa said...

Still a student here, but Ive been a CT for A5 a couple of times - my PI wants me to discuss my work with his collaborators who are attending the meeting, and/or does not want to share our super awesome data quite this early (scoopable, preliminary) and/or some committee Im a part of is having a meeting at the conference as most team members are attending anyway. I get to CT at a big conference coming up where th A5 is PI decided after abstract submission deadline that we should go. But I wish I had known in advance to try and get an extra presentation.

AnonComputerScienceProf said...

Wow, culture clash!

I come from computer science, where conferences are our main publication venues. (We do have journals, but relatively few papers get published in journals, and they're not higher quality than conference papers in general.)

So the leading conferences in my field tend to be very selective: accepting perhaps 8-15% of papers submitted to them. You only give a talk if your paper was accepted to the conference.

For that reason, I almost never give talks at conferences any more. When our group does have a paper accepted, the student gives the talk (so they get the practice and the visibility). I guess you could categorize me as a near-permanent "Conference Tourist". I quite like it. I find that I can enjoy the conference, knowing that I have no responsibilities, and focus on the science.

StyleyGeek said...

A5. None of the above.

Sometimes I hear about a conference only after the deadline for abstract submission has passed, but decide to go anyway.

And sometimes I don't plan to go to a conference that I do know about until after I see the programme, and then I realise there are some must-see talks, relevant sessions, or big names that make touristing worthwhile.

StyleyGeek said...

I should add that our university does not cover conference attendance anyway, except in exceptional cases, or if you have a grant to fund it (in which case, if the conference is relevant enough, you can use your grant funding to play the conference tourist anyway.)

So if I'm paying out of my own pocket to attend a conference anyway, I feel like I might as well (sometimes at least) sit back and enjoy the talks without the pressure of giving my own. (And in my current position, I even have to take annual leave to attend most conferences, so I damn well am not going to "work" while I'm there!)

Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised by how many are required to present in order to get grant money. I thought half the point of attending conferences was to *learn* - that is, listen to other talks, discuss, network. Of course the other half is to share your own research - but if you have nothing to say/no time to prepare something, it is still important to attend, isn't it? Our major research granting agency actually requires conference attendance as part of all funded projects (and so includes travel money) - the point is dissemination, so of course presenting is encouraged, but attending for discussion purposes is also fully acceptable.

I have been a CT at the major annual meeting for our specific subtopic, which is important enough that the whole group usually attends to meet colleagues and learn what everyone else is doing (this year we will be 14 from our group). It isn't really realistic or necessary that we ALL present, and I usually find it is better to give the students and postdocs the chance to present - especially since I give plenty of other talks (so I guess this is A1, A4 and a bit of A3).

For B, I was going to say B1 combined with B4, but just realized it's been three years since I've given a contributed talk - not sure if that means it's time I submitted something...

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Bioinformatics also has 15% acceptance rates at top conferences, but conference publication is actually slower than journal publication in the field.

The best of the bioinformatics conferences (ISMB) has started adding a "Highlights" track where people present work that they have published in journals in the past year. This actually makes a lot of sense to me: people publish 4 or 5 papers in a year, then submit the best of them to the highlights track. This makes for a track of very interesting work and means that people don't have to delay publication to fit the conference schedule. If you think of conference talks as basically ads for papers, it makes a lot of sense for the product to exist BEFORE the ad.

JaneB said...

Simple decision - no presentation, no money from the university to attend. Even if it's money from a grant I manage, the accountants still won't approve the expenses unless I present. So I am never a CT unless someone else pays for the costs of attending!.

joyous726 said...

My Postdoc Mentor sent me to a large conference as a "tourist" within my first 4 months in her lab to encourage me to learn. I thought this was amazing of her to do and was very grateful for the opportunity and it was pretty nice to attend without pressure, but honestly, I get so much from poster presentation networking (and less from platform presentations), that I think I might prefer the poster-presentation-attendance.

Otherwise, as a grad student and as a postdoc, I submit abstracts to 1-2 meetings at most per year for the obvious training involved with presenting/networking. Money has never been an issue because the grants I've been funded by have always included travel funds.