This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 7 December 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.
For as long as I’ve been in academia, one of the staples of scholarly life has been attending conferences. It’s traditionally how you cut your teeth as a researcher, test your ideas among peers and build those all-important networks for your career. Conferences are often held on fabulous sites in wonderful cities.
But there seems to be a turning of the tide when it comes to thinking about academic travel and conference mobility. Today, there’s a lot written about how conferences can be a waste of time and how they could be improved or shaken up to provide more value.
The imperative remains, however, that you must go to conferences.
But what if you don’t?
What if you think that the environmental impact of all this international jet-setting is too much? Many people do, and not just in a ‘yeah, we probably shouldn’t but what can you do…’ way. There are dedicated blogs, such as Flying Less, that give information on the problem.
There’s also a site where you can join Climate Scientists Who Don’t Fly. This group (who aren’t only made up of climate scientists now) describes its project this way: “we’re experimenting with having satisfying academic careers without all the flying; we hope that our openness about not flying helps to change this culture of flying, gradually reducing the professional handicap for those of us who choose to align our personal actions with our scientific knowledge of global warming”.
The group presents compelling reasons why we shouldn’t fly, and I think this school of thought will only grow as awareness of the alternatives spreads.
Budget and personal restrictions
Another take is the high cost of conference registrations and how flying in keynote speakers contributes substantially to this. If we are truly committed to freeing the conference, or at least ensuring that it is as equitable as possible, spending thousands on one international keynote speaker is unconscionable.
There are many alternatives: videoconferencing them in, inviting local emerging researchers or luminaries instead, or maybe not having invited speakers at all.
What if you can’t afford to fly? What if you’ve got zero funding and can’t (or refuse to) self-fund? What if you’re a person with caring responsibilities, health issues or disabilities, and travelling anywhere is an order of difficulty that can be overwhelming? Very few accommodations are made for people who can’t get to conferences and, in fact, those who can’t are made to feel—or even told directly—that they are compromising their career, that conferences are a must.
This is an area where the ‘survival of the fittest’ academic mind-set comes into play very strongly. We hear that the ‘ideal scholar’ is someone who doesn’t have caring responsibilities (or can hand them over) and is highly mobile.
If regularly going to conferences is set up as a compulsory rite of passage, what happens to those who regularly fail? Are they worse scholars? If they’re well published but haven’t presented at an international conference, does it matter?
Only slowly—so slowly—are associations and convenors recognising the need for childcare considerations at their events. Some are now offering bursaries and awards for speakers to travel with their children. This is to be strongly encouraged, and it’s frustrating to think how rare such considerations still are.
Or—and here’s a radical thought—what if you don’t want to go to conferences because you think they’re a waste of time? Many researchers feel that their time is better spent researching and writing articles, chapters or books; talking to colleagues and discussing ideas at length with critical friends (online and offline); and doing deep cultural work at home institutions or disciplines with research mentoring.
This is especially the case when many departments and universities are cutting back on supporting their staff to go to events but researchers’ work plans and surrounding academic cultures still insist that they must go.
These days, I don’t feel you have to go to conferences, for the following reasons:
1. Conferences can come to you
Online conferences, where people present and attend from wherever they are, are increasingly popular and well done. My early experiences with these formats weren’t great but they’re now much more likely to give good value and sustained benefits. There’s a whole other article to write about what makes a good online conference—look out for that one in 2018!
2. ‘Local’ conferences don’t have to be of lesser intellectual value
Academia reifies travel, hierarchies and exotic locales like no other. Some think that being able to say ‘When I was at ANZSCHLOCK in [exotic locale]…’ stands in for doing good scholarly work. It doesn’t. Some think that local scholars with good reputations aren’t good enough to feature for their conferences. They’re wrong. Others think that local equals parochial. It doesn’t have to.
I advise questioning these assumptions. They get bandied about a lot, in various forms. I don’t doubt there are examples aplenty of bad local conferences, but there are as many examples of bad national and international conferences. An outward-looking, thoughtfully convened smaller event that grows a local scholarly community isn’t a bad thing.
3. We do not need to ‘conference’ at all, do we?
I end with this provocation because I do wonder sometimes what the value of conferencing is. If it’s a question of networking and getting your name out there, I know of many researchers (myself included) who do the absolute majority of their networking (with old and new connections) through other means.
For me, that’s through social media and occasional face-to-face discussions. To get your name known within your discipline or area, it’s not just about the conferences you pop up at; it’s about doing good things within your field that people can see and attach to your name. It can mean becoming involved in societies or organisations as a postgrad or early career researcher, bringing groups together or into established associations, publishing differently or blogging effectively.
If it’s a question of testing out your work before your peers, there are many ways to do that without having to travel to a conference (and you’d probably get better, more focused feedback in many cases than from randoms who attend your paper and have a comment rather than a question).
A colleague told me of an established professor in their field who posts draft papers on their Academia.edu profile and asks for any and all feedback.
If it’s a case of forcing you to write a paper that then gets published, I think we can skip the conference step and just write the paper.
What are conferences good for?
Let’s think through this slavish devotion to conferences. What work do conferences actually do? Is it a generational priority that is fading? If we want academia to be as inclusive as possible, thinking of regular travel to conferences as a compulsory part of scholarly life is not the way to do it.
And before you protest that conferences are where you can get noticed by the old guard, let’s have a serious think about whether our future as a scholarly community is best served by getting noticed by the old guard.