Monday, November 5, 2018

Dear Conferences: I Miss You



The second annual Symposium on Space Innovations in Atlanta is next week. Surprisingly, this is the only conference I will attend this year. This is unusual for me and got me thinking about where I have been and where I'd like to be.

I attended my first scientific conference in 2006 during my senior year of undergraduate. The conference was hosted at my university so there were no travel costs and I was able to attend for free. No one asked me to give a talk or even offered it as a suggestion, and I would have been terrified if I had. It was intimidating enough just to attend. It was a broad scientific conference so only a few talks held any interest for me, but I was happy to be there. I'm an extrovert and enjoy being surrounded by like-minded people.

We all have different comfort levels with conference attendance and travel. Some of my colleagues seem to always be on the road, back to back to back conferences. Some of my colleagues avoid conferences as much as they are able. I learned in grad school that as much as I love traveling, I do have a limit. One conference per quarter is a good rate for me, maybe more if it's a local conference. Seven in a year is too many for me as I learned in 2013. I remember that year turning down an opportunity to travel for a conference, and to this day I wish I could have gone, but my mental health necessitated the decline.

Out of curiosity, I tallied up all the science and space conferences I've ever attended to the best of my memory and records. Most of these conferences included a poster or oral presentation. I worked some of these conferences as part of the volunteering staff or organizing committee. Currently I'm on the organizing committees for two conferences.

2018: 1
2017: 4
2016: 3
2015: 3
2014: 1
2013: 7
2012: 4
2011: 4
2010: 3
2009: 1
2008: 3
2007: 3
2006: 2

This year is an anomaly for me. One conference in a year is not my usual rate. I had to turn down conference talk earlier this year because I didn't feel comfortable traveling with a 5-week-old baby. But truly, the limiting factor has been funds.

Starting my own business has been a challenging adventure. I've been fortunate that my company has been profitable since its third month, but I'm not rolling in dough. I don't have a university grant or company budget line to support my conference registration and travel. My travel budget comes out of my own salary. Many times this year, I've seen conferences come and go, wishing I could afford to attend. "Maybe next year," I think, knowing full well my financial situation will likely not be much different next year. (Unless a big client wants to hire me for a lot of hours right now. Contact me!)

Wanting to feel less alone about my situation, I inquired within my Twitter community: how do others running small businesses and startups travel for conferences? I want to thank everyone who responded because I truly felt I wasn't alone. Others struggle with this as well.

One piece of advice I got was to combine conference travel with other business travel. I'm glad this works for others, but this isn't great advice for me. Almost all of my clients are non-local to the Atlanta area and almost all of my business is conducted online with little to no need to travel to client locations.

Others suggested ways to stretch a penny. I was a poor grad student once; I know how to travel and eat on the cheap. That's not an issue unless it's a far away destination with an expensive airline ticket. US west coast and international conferences are out of my reach for a while.

Conference registration costs are usually the big killer. Many conferences comp registration cost (complimentary registration) for student volunteers and conference organizers. Students: contact conferences to ask about joining their student volunteer teams! Some are even able to provide hotel rooms for their staff. I'll gladly join more organizing committees if anyone is looking to expand their teams!

Of the 4 or 5 conferences I was invited to attend later this year, none of them could provide funds for their speakers for registration and travel expenses so I had to decline. Many new and small conferences can't afford to provide for their speakers, but most well established conferences can. I don't seem to be on the radar for those conferences.

Having been on conference planning committees, I know we are guilty of a speaker bias. We see someone speak at one event and we think of them first when we are planning our event (unless they are a terrible speaker). This leads to many of the same people getting invited speaker slots. Hello conference and colloquium organizers: I am available as a speaker. So long as you can get me there.

There is a misconception in the public that scientists are paid for their talks through speaker fees. This is rarely the case. The famous can command a speaker fee. The rest of us just want to be active in the community, spreading our ideas and being part of the conversation.

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