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Some conference frustrations (and suggestions) from an ECR perspective

posted Apr 10, 2015, 3:47 AM by Nicola Wardrop   [ updated Apr 10, 2015, 4:51 AM ]

Over the past few years I have attended quite a few academic conferences, large and small, national and international, as speaker, poster presenter or merely an attendee. The more conferences I attend where I feel that I have been valued as a participant and have benefitted from the experience, the more irritating it becomes to attend one where I feel the conference has taken advantage of me and very many other early career researchers (ECRs). I shall explain what I mean by this, and then will provide some hints for conference organisers (albeit with the caveat that I have never personally arranged a conference) as to how they might provide a better environment for all attendees, including ECRs.

A bit of context - how conference finances work (in simplistic generalisations)

There are a number of invited/keynote speakers (and sometimes also session chairs) who are subsided to attend and who are generally senior, “big names”, who are intended to attract other participants. These speakers and chairs will usually not need to pay a registration fee and may also have their travel and accommodation paid for them. Then there is everyone else, including other speakers, poster presenters and attendees, who pay a registration fee to attend (as well as travel and accommodation), although I note that generally PhD students, and less frequently other ECRs, will have a lower registration fee than other participants. Registration fees vary widely, but a couple of recent international conferences I have attended had registration fees (for an ECR) of over £1000…on top of travel and accommodation costs. Other income is generated via sponsorship and exhibitors and the main outgoings are of course the conference venue and food (plus a lot of other costs which vary depending on the conference).

Is this an upside-down system?

Presumably ECR registration fees are not directly paying for the keynotes and chairs, given that there are other revenue sources, but it does sometimes seem like an upside-down financial system. The invited senior academics, who have greater access to pots of research and travel money than PhD students, post-doctoral researchers and junior lecturers, are either partially or fully subsidised. Meanwhile, ECRs, even where reduced registrations fees are available, often struggle to find enough funding to attend. At most conferences, I can put this somewhat upside-down funding situation to the back of my mind…so long as the event is well balanced, giving good opportunities to all attendees.

A few conference frustrations, from the perspective of an ECR

However, a couple of recent experiences have left me feeling incredibly frustrated, particularly when considering this upside-down funding system. Rather than creating a lengthy text about this, I will briefly list some of my main issues (which are all derived from personal experience) below, and then provide a few pointers as to how conference organisers might take better account of ECRs when planning a conference.

  1. Large number of invited speakers and session chairs (relative to overall attendance): this can make paying attendees feel that they are subsidising a meeting where a bunch of senior academics get together and talk about their work, and you just happen to be allowed to watch.
  2. Few ECRs selected to deliver contributed talks: as above.
  3. Poorly arranged conference handbooks “demoting” specific sessions: e.g. a recent conference I attended had a fully detailed programme for the whole week including keynote speakers, and organised sessions. Following this (and un-noticed by many on the first day or two), were the sessions with contributed talks, mainly delivered by ECRs.
  4. Names of speakers not included in the conference handbook for contributed talks: I shouldn’t even need to explain the problems for this one.
  5. Very large number of poster presentations (relative to overall attendance): it is impossible to find the time to look around all of the poster exhibits, and, unless the poster sessions are very well organised, poster engagement can be low when there are huge numbers of them.
  6. Poorly organised poster sessions: poster sessions can be amazing or they can be useless – where poster sessions are not well organised or structured, it is immensely frustrating for all those attendees who have put a lot of time and effort into creating their posters. As an example, if there are a very large number of posters, it is not suitable to expect all poster presenters to stand by their posters during all the breaks...who will be looking at these posters if most attendees are standing by their own posters?! And when will poster presenters have a chance to talk to the other poster presenters about their work? It does not make logical sense.
  7. Posters arranged too close together: when there is not enough space between poster boards, it is very difficult to enable flow of attendees through the area and to enable conversation about the presented research. No one likes to talk about research inside a crush of people.
  8. Overall programme biased towards a small number of large research consortiums: as for points 1 and 2, plus it is rather egotistical.
  9. Poor gender/ethnicity balance of invited speakers and session chairs: this one should be obvious enough.
  10. No attendees list: As an ECR, I have not yet had the opportunity to meet all other researchers that I want to, and if I don’t know who is attending a conference, I won’t know who I should be looking out for (and of course I won’t recognise them as I haven’t ever met them before).

So, when a few of these problems come into play, I begin to wonder why I am paying so much to attend a conference which is paying very little attention to ECR research contributions, and is not considering how it could enhance the overall experience for all attendees. I feel as though I am being taken advantage of: I am paying a full registration fee, plus travel and accommodation costs, while the senior researchers are being subsidised, but I do not feel satisfied that I am really benefitting from attendance at the conference in the way that I should be.

A few suggestions

Based on all of this, I have a few simple suggestions that conference organisers may like to consider.

  1. Make sure you have at least one ECR on the organising committee, and make sure that you explicitly consider whether the conference is addressing their needs.
  2. Likewise, make sure you have a good gender and ethnicity balance on the organising committee, and take steps to ensure a good balance in invited speakers, session chairs and in all other areas. Ask for speaker suggestions from colleagues rather than relying solely on your own existing contacts.
  3. Try to keep a good balance between invited and non-invited speakers – yes, people do want to hear from the leaders of the field, but they also want to hear about the breadth of the field from a wide range of researchers at different career stages.
  4. Don’t schedule more than one invited talk by the same speaker…they generally end up giving (at least partly) the same talk twice.
  5. In conference advertising, if you use an acronym, always also include the full conference title. An ECR won’t necessarily know what ICCGHH means (I made that up by the way, so it probably doesn’t mean anything!).
  6. Try to provide as much subsidy to PhD students and other ECRs as you can, as it is often very difficult for ECRs to secure enough funding to attend.
  7. Carefully consider your conference handbook. All elements of the conference should be integrated into the overall schedule so it is clear exactly what sessions are going on when. Make sure full names are included in the handbook for all presenters, including poster presenters. If possible, also include an attendees list with full names and institutions.
  8. Try not to overlap different types of sessions in the schedule (e.g. a poster session while there is also a keynote speaker).
  9. Consider limiting the number of poster presentations.
  10. Otherwise, where there are large numbers of posters, the poster sessions should be well organised – posters should be arranged into different themes, with specific poster viewing sessions for each of the themes. This will allow poster presenters to engage more fully with others about their research. It is not acceptable to expect poster presenters to stand by their poster during all breaks throughout the conference (unless, perhaps, if it is a very small conference). Refreshments and lunch should be served in the poster areas to encourage participants to view the posters. Poster placement should be in areas where people are likely to be during the breaks, not hidden out of the way. Spacing should be enough to ensure all posters can be viewed by 2 or 3 people at a time.
  11. Think creatively about how you can encourage more engagement and networking throughout the conference. Speed networking events, ECR social events, informal social areas, short (e.g. 1 minute) oral overviews of posters etc.
  12. Make use of social media – for example, encourage the use of a specific conference hashtag to promote online interaction.
  13. When considering ECRs, please don’t think only about PhD students – post docs, research fellows, junior lecturers and assistant professors (and others) can also often be considered as ECRs.

Don’t forget, ECRs are the future of the field!