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 | unsplash.com

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

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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A manifesto for better academic presentations

Dr Jonathan Downie is a practising conference interpreter with a PhD in stakeholder expectations of interpreters from Heriot-Watt University (2016).

His first book, Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, was published by Routledge in 2016.

He is also a columnist on research issues for two industry magazines and is a regular speaker on the academic and translation & interpreting conference circuits.

He tweets at @jonathanddownie (personal / academic) and @integlangsbiz (interpreting / business).


Academic presentations are broken!

Admit it – the average academic talk is a cure for insomnia. It goes a bit like this:

  • Speaker clears their throat and begins in a hoarse whisper by reading their name and presentation title from the screen, despite the fact that those words are shown on the screen in font size 36!
  • Next comes the pointless “contents” slide. It still amazes me that when people have only 15 minutes to summarise the work that has taken four years of their life, they feel obligated to spend a quarter of that time explaining that their introduction will be followed by a literature review.
  • By the time we get to the meat of the presentation, the presenter has run out of steam. The part of the presentation that should have the biggest impact – what they did, why they did it and what they found – gets forgotten about or rushed as the speaker realises that their time has run out.

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Free the academic conference

Craig Lundy photoCraig Lundy is a Senior Lecturer in Social Theory at Nottingham Trent University.

After finishing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Craig held a series of teaching and research positions in the UK and Australia, moving between the fields of Sociology, Cultural Studies and Politics. Most of Craig’s research has focused on exploring the nature of change, and in particular the usefulness of Gilles Deleuze and related thinkers for understanding processes of transformation.

In 2011-12, Craig teamed up with like-minded colleagues in London to create an annual conference with inclusivity at its heart – the London Conference in Critical Thought (LCCT).

This post speaks to one of the issues that prompted the creation of the LCCT: large and unfair conference registration fees.


2016 London Conference in Critical Thought program | Photo sourced from Twitter's @A2K4D

2016 London Conference in Critical Thought program | Photo sourced from Twitter’s @A2K4D

We have a problem with academic conference registration fees.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a multi-day conference to attract a registration fee in the region of AUD$600 (USD$450, €400, £330). I have seen fees that are even larger, but it is the size of the ‘average’ or ‘competitively priced’ conferences that are perhaps greater cause for alarm.

There are of course exceptions to the rule, but need I say that the exceptions prove the rule, and only highlight our problem. Such sums may not be a big deal to some sections of academia, but they make conference participation prohibitive to many. Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent what our problem really is: not nearly enough academics on ‘hard’ employment contracts see a problem with the status quo, and even fewer are willing to speak about the problem, let alone do something about it.

The status quo is morally compromised

Conference organisers do their best to put on events that serve the needs of their constituencies, and they generously sacrifice their time and labour for the good of the academic community. It’s important that we acknowledge and applaud their efforts.

Nevertheless, it must be said that the status quo regarding conference registration fees is to a large extent morally compromised. There are a lot of things that could be said here to illustrate the point, but I’ll limit myself to one: while ‘standard’ participants pay a registration fee, it is commonplace for keynote speakers to have their expenses subsidised or paid entirely by the conference organisers, these costs being covered (at least in part) by the collection of conference registration fees.

So, when participants such as students or unemployed/underemployed postdocs pay and ‘star’ keynotes don’t, we have a situation where the least wealthy participants are paying the way for the most wealthy. And I have yet to come across a convincing justification for this situation. Read more of this post

Great conference dinners – Part 2

glasses-1036424_640The first part of this post – Great conference dinners – Part 1 – talked about my reasons for wanting to write about conference dinners in the first place, and presented some stats about the respondents, and the components of conference dinners they considered great.

The post generated really interesting comments, and garnered good discussion on Twitter, too. I was particularly taken by @siandart’s comment about the conference dinner she attended at SeaWorld because it captures how the experience can roll out for someone across time. There can be great elements, but the end of the event can derail warm and fuzzy feelings about the earlier experience:

Prize winners (best answer to an earlier posted question, and person who brought the most delegates) got to go in the water and pat a dolphin, we all got to see a dolphin show, and then it had really average food, but I accept that in exceptional venues. The downside was there were only 2 buses back to the resort the conference was at – so while we did escape before the dancing started, it was still a venue with no way out (short of hiring a taxi to drive an hour or so, I guess).

With that in mind, I present Part 2 below. It talks about the formalities and the optional activities, and reveals the responses to my ‘would you conference dinner on a boat?’ question!

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Great conference dinners – Part 1

glasses-1036424_640Those of you who know me, or have heard my rants from afar, will know that there are several things that send me into major hobby-horse mode.

One of them is open plan offices, another is conference dinners.

There may be some furrowed brows at this stage.

Conference dinners? Don’t people go to them to eat good food, have fun, and get to know one another better? Isn’t it just one of those blurred professional / social things you do as part of a conference? Who doesn’t want to dance? Why would anyone have such weirdly negative feelings about a conference dinner?

Well, I’m so glad you asked.

When I wrote It’s not you, it’s me, and included a conference quiz that Inger Mewburn (an avowed extroverted type) and I (a mostly introverted type) filled out, this was our answer to the conference dinner question:

conf dinner yes no

I’m not just a bit conference dinner averse; I avoid them where possible. Occasionally, when I’m convening an event, I have to attend the conference dinner. Or friends force me to go with them (after assuring me there will be an escape hatch – escape hatches are extremely important). Why am I this way? It has a lot to do with previous bad experiences at conference dinners (stuck with incompatible people for hours in uber-awkwardness, expensive bad food, awful meal-side entertainment…), and the ongoing forced socialisation aspect that has never sat well with me.

I love going out to dinner with certain conference people. To a place we choose. To do things we like.

So, as a biased non-participator of conference dinners, what’s with this post about them?

I think of it as a bit of an anthropological exercise. My spontaneous and only-open-for-a-day survey the other weekend brought lots of confirmation that my twitter echo-chamber is populated by many of the same persuasion as me – others who hate conference dinners, and never go.

I’m very interested in what people consider a great conference dinner, because I know they do happen. Many thanks to the 45 or so people who answered the survey, provided information via direct messages, or commented on my Facebook query.

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Finding your inner extrovert

Dr Julie Preston (@julzpreston)Julie Preston coordinates NECTAR, an Early Career Academic/Researcher initiative at the Australian National University.

She is responsible for the delivery and evaluation of programs in which ECR share ideas, build confidence in leadership, develop cross-college networks, and acquire skills and knowledge required to establish a successful teaching and research career.

Julie promotes career development through ownership and self-empowerment. 

Julie’s academic background is in Immunology and Microbiology. Her PhD thesis and postdoctoral research investigated mechanisms of Streptococcus pneumoniae infections.

Julie tweets at @julzpreston.


Photo by Martin Wessely (http://wesse.ly), sourced from unsplash.com

Photo by Martin Wessely (http://wesse.ly), sourced from unsplash.com

The recent post by @tseenster “It’s not you, it’s me” compared the conference approaches of an introvert and an extrovert.

My experience of conference attendance has been influenced not only by my own personality, but also that critical first impression of conference attendance.

My contrasting perspectives come from when I was a budding young scientist, then when I was an older – but equally impressionable –  trainee career practitioner.

Personality tests, whether you believe them or not, have always labeled me an introvert. “Fantastic!” I thought. “That’ll get me through those long periods alone in the lab!”

The other end of the spectrum – extroversion – can be great for those short bursts of intense social interaction we call conferences. I attended a very small primary school where I was encouraged to find my voice and get involved, which, combined with other childhood pursuits, should leave me sufficiently confident in social situations like conferences.

So, what went wrong? Why were academic conferences such a challenge? And why did I feel more confident in my post-academic life?

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In praise of national networks

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

I was listening to a wise old researcher the other day when she said:

International networks are lovely, but it is your national network that will get you funded.

I realised that she was right.

We talk a lot about the importance of building an international network, but we don’t often talk about the importance of building a local network.

We put a lot of time into going to international conferences, looking for opportunities to get out of our own countries, and there are very good reasons for that. International conferences, by their very nature, tend to provide a wider point of view, a better sense of what is going on in a field.

International links provide enormous opportunities for better research, whether it is comparative research across cultures or access to more specialised equipment and facilities. Also, getting outside your own country helps to widen your perspective.

However, my job is to get you funded, and so I’m going to tell you what she told me:

It is your national networks that will fund you.

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