Resolving the conflict between conferences and care duties

[originally posted on the official blog of Functional Ecology, a British Ecological Society journal]

Conference season is about to start again. For many this is a chance to present latest research results, connect with peers, and establish new contacts and networks. But what if your resource of time is poor? What if you have care duties, or, for other reasons, cannot travel far away or for long periods of time? The goal of this blog post is to give tips and a moral boost to those with limited options to attend conferences.

(Not) going to conferences

There can be significant pressure, particularly to early career researchers (ECRs), to go to conferences and network with (senior) experts. If you have limited travel options, this pressure can make you feel uncomfortable, or even stressed: why are you not going? Everyone else is going! There is pressure not to miss the same event that other people in the field are attending. However, at least in my experience, no one offers a solution to the conflict of wanting to attend conferences, but not being able to do so.

I haven’t travelled to international conferences for the last six years because of care duties (though I do go to local ones). And I’m not the only one (see e.g. this paper by Fraser et al. (2017) on ‘The value of virtual conferencing for ecology and conservation’ in Conservation Biology 31:540-546, and this Q&A with Ashleigh Griffin in Current Biology 28: R726-R727). I mentioned this the other day in a returners-to-academia group I am co-mentoring, and the group breathed a sigh of relief. To them, it was comforting to know that not all scientists regularly travel to international events.

Are there advantages to not going to conferences? Well, for starters, it frees up time to do research and write papers! And it reduces your carbon footprint, which (you’d think) would be a big incentive for biologists not to travel too frequently.

Alternatives to attending

online conferencingNot going to international conferences has made me think of other ways I can reach some of the goals of going to conferences: present my work, keep-up on new research, and network. With regard to presenting your work, there are indeed other ways. Social media, like blogging and Twitter, potentially gives you a much wider impact than speaking at conferences. When you speak at a conference, only the people who come to your presentation will hear your talk, unless your talk is posted online. But you could reach many more people by writing one blog post. What about keeping up on new research? Again, social media offers solutions. Conferences can be followed on Twitter (see here and here), sometimes talks by keynote speakers are posted online, or made available through the learned societies that organize the meeting (see e.g. almost complete records of the Society for the Study of Evolution meetings). Finally, what about networking? Again, there are online “virtual exchange” options, like Skype. Or, instead of seeking out contacts in conferences, invite prospective collaborators over for a seminar to your work place. A bit of creativity can get you a long way.

Given the technological possibilities available nowadays, web-enabled communication causes one to ask the question of whether we should look for alternatives to the way we currently run conferences. We could, instead, join together in virtual networks, with people presenting their work via online conference call or video. Sessions could be set up to link as many network participants as is desirable, with a chair to moderate and control the discussions (see e.g. Hampton et al. (2017) on virtual conferencing best practices in Ecology 98: 57-63). We go to conferences to meet our colleagues, and to spend time with collaborators (or competitors) from abroad. Surely there are ways of achieving this creatively from the office. Collaborators from abroad could again be linked by conference video, while key people could arrange to meet offline occasionally.

Know what you’re going for

Finally, for those ECRs that struggle to fit conferences into their daily schedule, I have the following tips:

  • Don’t just go because you feel you have to; only go if it means you can achieve a goal that you have set yourself. For example, go to a conference if this contributes to your CV (like giving a talk, preferably an invited one).
  • If the goal is to meet collaborators, arrange this beforehand and meet with your collaborator(s) on the day of your talk. This way, you maximise conference output, while not needing to stay for the whole conference period, assuming it isn’t possible.
  • And if you really cannot go, finish that paper! And then invite prospective collaborator(s) over to your work place.

In case you’re wondering: This summer, I’ll be writing a review paper and grant proposal and enjoying a holiday with my family.

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