In Praise of Small Conferences

Post provided by NATALIE COOPER

Conferences come in many shapes and sizes, from mega-conferences like the Ecological Society of America (ESA) or Evolution with up to 5000 attendees, to small BES Special Interest Group (SIG) meetings with fewer than 100 attendees. There are pros and cons to both kinds of conference, but I’d like to take this opportunity to focus on small meetings*. Here are five reasons why I think they’re great, and why they’re particularly good for Early Career Researchers.

1. Networking is Much Easier

At a big conference networking can be really hard. Not only do you have to find the people you want to talk to, but you also have to compete with all the other people who want to talk to them! This is even worse if you’re also nervous about approaching them.

Networking more generally (i.e. without specific targets in mind), or just finding people to hang out with, can also be harder. Large meetings tend to cause groups to close ranks**. The sheer numbers of people around can make it really intimidating (there are some tips for networking at bigger meetings here).

Networking is much easier at small conferences.

Networking is much easier at small conferences.

At smaller meetings (in theory) everyone will be in the same session for most of the time so it’ll be easier to find people. In smaller groups and venues people are also generally more relaxed and friendly. And with a small group there is the opportunity to speak to everyone over the course of a few days.

I feel this makes networking more egalitarian – at larger meetings the privilege of speaking to senior attendees is often reserved for those with famous/popular mentors who can introduce them. Hopefully at small meetings this is easier even if you don’t know anyone. Likewise, at a small meeting everyone will see your talk, so you’ll always have something to chat about. At large meetings the chances of the person you’re keen to speak to seeing your talk can be pretty low.

2. You Get to See Talks Outside of Your Specific Area of Research

Although the diversity of talk topics is large at large conferences, talks are often split into quite specific sessions. One strategy, especially where rooms are quite far apart, is to find a relevant session and stay there. Or you can dash about to talks that seem most relevant to you. Either way tends to mean you get a good idea of the advances in your specific field, but you’ll miss other things that might be relevant and/or interesting in other sessions.

Delegates training to get between talks at a big conference.

Delegates training to get between talks at a big conference.

Smaller meetings generally have a more specific remit than larger ones, but there won’t be parallel sessions so you can sit through all of the talks. For example, at the BES Aquatic SIG meeting although you’ll only hear talks about aquatic ecology, you’ll see talks on marine and freshwater ecology, and from a range of angles. If you’re attending a larger meeting you might just go to marine ecology talks and see nothing else.

This has massive advantages for ECRs. You get a broader understanding of what is going on in the field. If you’re applying for jobs outside of your narrow area of focus this can be incredibly useful. It may also provide ideas for writing teaching statements or planning courses. You also get exposure to different ideas and methods that you might be able to apply to your own research. I’ve seen many new research collaborations and grant proposals develop where people at small meetings have discovered links across disciplines just by seeing talks they normally wouldn’t. And the small conference size also facilitates these discussions (see Networking above).

3. Practice Makes Perfect

Giving a research talk or poster can be terrifying and the only way to reduce your fears is to practice. Small meetings are a great place to get this practice! Interestingly, the difference is more in the attitude of attendees than the number of people listening to the talk.

As I mentioned above, everyone will be in the same session so you’ll be speaking to the whole conference (I’ve given talks at large meetings to only 10 people!). But, because at small meetings the atmosphere is more friendly and less impersonal, it feels easier. It’s much easier to get feedback afterwards too.

Presenting a poster at a large conference can also be intimidating. If only a few people speak to you, it can be a bit soul destroying (I’ve given posters and only spoken to three people all night!). At a smaller meeting it’s harder for people to hide by the drinks so you’re likely to have more discussions despite the lower number of attendees. This is great practice, and also benefits your research.

4. They’re Cheap (and Cheerful)

Small conferences are usually easier on your budget.

Small conferences are usually easier on your budget.

Another advantage of small meetings that shouldn’t be overlooked is the price. Large meetings are expensive to run. Even with subsidies they tend to be expensive. For smaller meetings it’s likely that the venue will be free, and corners can be cut on things like catering to make things as cheap as possible. And they’re usually shorter which reduces accommodation costs. Hopefully this means even if you or your supervisor/boss prefers larger conferences, you can also find money in your budget to go to the occasional small conference!

5. A Sense of Community

Finally, something I have found very powerful about the small BES SIG meetings I’ve attended (particularly the BES Macroecology SIG which I’ve attended since 2012) is the sense of community. It’s great to see people come to their first meeting as Masters students, then slowly grow in skill and confidence over the years, until they’re postdocs making the new students feel at ease. This isn’t easy to achieve, but where it does work it’s beautiful. I am delighted by the way BES SIG meeting attendees support and encourage each other at the meetings and afterwards. I think this kind of community is hard to maintain at larger meetings (though it of course exists in pockets).

I hope this has convinced you to give small meetings a try. The BES has a range of SIGs all of which organise meetings (some of the upcoming meetings are listed below). Hopefully you can find one that suits your interests! If you have any interest in macro-scale ecology or evolution, the annual BES Macro meeting is in Cornwall this year, 3rd-5th July and we’d love to see you there!

2019 Special Interest Group Meetings

Data Stories – 3 June (Bristol, UK)

Join the Citizen Science SIG and the Natural History Consortium at this joint conference for anyone interested in telling effective stories using data and evidence.

BES Macroecology 2019 Conference – 3-5 July (Penryn, UK)

Join us for the annual meeting of the BES Macroecology SIG. This meeting aims to highlight all kinds of macro-scale research across diverse taxa, timescales, and career stages.

BES Quantitative & Movement Ecology 2019 – 9-10 July (Sheffield, UK)

Join the Quantitative and Movement Ecology SIGs for their back-to-back annual meetings on the shared theme of analysing big datasets while answering big ecological questions.

Place-Based Citizen-Science for Wellbeing – 14 August (Cardiff, UK)

Join the Citizen Science SIG for this one-day conference discussing the challenges of place-based science.

Impacts of Extreme Climatic Events on Ecosystems – 10-11 September (York, UK)

Join the Climate Change Ecology SIG for a two-day conference to discuss and synthesise the impacts of extreme weather.

Enhancing Fieldwork Learning Showcase Event – 12-13 September (Reading, UK)

Join the Teaching and Learning SIG for this 2-day event showcasing the latest innovations in fieldwork teaching.

*Caveats

  • I don’t think bigger conferences are pointless, I just think they fill a different purpose. They’re great places to keep up-to-date with your field more broadly, but personally, I don’t think they’re great for networking or confidence building.
  • A lot of my points depend on the conference in question. I’ve been to large meetings that felt very friendly (the BES Annual Meeting is a great example), and also to one (un-named!) small meeting many years ago where the senior attendees were so cliquey no-one below a full professor got to talk to them.

**If you go to conferences in a big group of labmates or friends, I suggest trying the rule-of-two. This will help your group be less intimidating to others, and also help you meet more people rather than just your group!

During the conference the rule is that you can only go around in pairs (or maybe threes). This means you’re more likely to be able to join other small groups, and people will be more likely to approach you than if you’re in a big, seemingly impenetrable group of buddies. After the formal social events you can reconvene, maybe bringing your new friends with you?

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Small Conferences

  1. Pingback: Busy practitioner? Think carefully before choosing which academic conference to attend – The Applied Ecologist's Blog

  2. Pingback: Analysing Big Datasets while Answering Big Ecological Questions: #BESQuantMove2019 | methods.blog

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