Calling time on conferences

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at University of Leeds and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland

Dani works in the field of water, sanitation and health in developed and developing communities. She is passionate about working at the nexus of technology and society, particularly investigating how appropriate technologies, community-led programs and public policy can improve health and well-being outcomes.

She tweets at @Dani_BarringtonYou can read Dani’s other Research Whisperer posts here.

I love attending conferences. Not because of the exotic locations, but because of the amazing conversations.

Who has time for sightseeing when there’s so much networking to be done? I meet new people, continue discussions with existing colleagues, and get fired up about what’s going on in my field and how my latest research idea might fit in.

Recently, there have been articles about how prohibitively expensive conferences are, particularly for early career researchers (ECRs).

Photo by Mikael Kristenson |

Photo by Mikael Kristenson |

In some cases, these articles call for a scrapping  of the traditional model in favour of cheaper and more inclusive events, such as webinars. This worries me. Although I definitely agree with them on some issues, I feel like some of these “calls to arms” are missing the point of conferences and what I think makes them a useful expense.

Then I realised that, in most cases, the way that conferences are designed misses the point…

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There’s this conference I want to go to…

Clouds, seen from an aeroplane window

I love cloud land by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

One of the most difficult requests I get is for conference travel funding.

Many researchers think rustling up these funds will be easy because it is only “a few thousand dollars”. Unfortunately, a small amount of money can be almost as hard to secure as a large amount of money. In addition, people are usually hunting this money fewer than six months before the conference actually happens, and most funding works on a 12-month cycle.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that conferences are fantastic! They give you an opportunity to look up from your day-to-day work and get a glimpse of what everybody else is doing. They help to recharge your intellectual batteries and find your feet within your research network. Tseen and I like conferences so much that we have written about them several times before: why you should run a conference; how to be a great participant; and how to cope with question time.

But there’s a catch. Most of the time, the interesting conferences always seem to happen ‘over there’ – somewhere else in the world, somewhere that it costs money to get to.

This post provides five ideas for funding your conference travel. Not all of them will suit your circumstances and most of them involve a long lead time, so they may not be the solution that you are looking for.

With a bit of luck, though, them might give you some ideas for how to get where you want to go.