I just got back from a higher education conference in Australia. Along with a colleague, I had a full peer-reviewed paper accepted to the conference, and gave a 30-minute presentation as well.
I spent a week at the conference (including travel time), and probably another week or two co-writing the paper and preparing the presentation. That puts my total time investment at approximately 2.5 weeks. In return, I got outputs for my CV, a variety of new professional contacts, valuable comments from attendees at my presentation, and exposure to dozens of other research projects in my field via other delegates’ presentations.
Let’s think like economists now: is that time well spent?
On the plane back, I thought about the disconnect between conference time investment and conference rewards. Most of my prep time was spent on my outputs, and of course those are valuable. But career-wise, I probably got more benefit out of meeting colleagues from across Australasia who are beginning to form my professional network. In ten or twenty years, my conference paper will be a line buried way down in my academic CV; but those colleagues will be the people with whom I collaborate, and potentially the people who keep me employed.
Plus, most of my time at the conference was spent in other people’s presentations, but only a few presentations have stuck with me. The vast majority were well-articulated, but not very relevant to my research. Just a tiny fraction were relevant and memorable.
When you put this all together, the time you invest in a conference seems to roughly follow Pareto’s law: 20% of input gives 80% of results. In other words, 20% of the time you invest in a conference produces 80% of the benefit.
On the flip side, the other 80% of the time you invest in a conference produces only 20% of the benefit. That’s a lot of time spent inefficiently. So how can we maximise the benefits we get from our conference time?
I noticed that the most experienced delegates at the conference were not in sessions all day. Like a dedicated student, I attended almost all – but the senior delegates skipped quite a few to hobnob with colleagues, shake hands, and go on coffee dates. They were effectively transferring their time use from a potentially useful activity (attending sessions) to a probably useful activity (networking with carefully selected colleagues).
They also didn’t rehearse their own presentations to death like I did. They spoke extemporaneously, relying on their own expertise rather than copious notes. They didn’t seem to stress about their presentations at all; instead, they focused on the connections they were making.
All of this can be difficult to achieve when you’re new to academia and just starting to get to know your research field and its inhabitants. As a new academic, perhaps it makes sense to attend lots of sessions to get familiar with the variety of research happening in your field. But it also pays to remember that sometimes, the most strategically valuable parts of a conference day are the morning and afternoon tea breaks.