Four things to consider before booking your next conference

Going to an academic conference can be an effective – and enjoyable – way to invest in your professional development, extend your network and improve your career prospects.

Spending a number of highly focused hours or days with other experts in your field not only gives you access to new developments and unpublished research, but can also help raise your profile and broaden your horizons as you meet potential new collaborators and employers.

But there are challenges. Attending a conference can be costly in terms of finance, time and even environmental impact.

James*, for example, had an abstract accepted for a conference on precarity in contemporary work. As a part-time, fixed-term contract worker himself, he was unable to afford the full registration fees. But when he enquired about more flexible, cost-effective options, he discovered none were available. The result was that precarity in his own employment prevented him from attending.

It is therefore well worth taking time to reflect carefully before choosing a conference. Here are four things to consider:

1. Financial cost – can you afford it?

Many universities are wealthy, but many academics are not. If it’s your first time booking a conference at your current institution, it’s a good idea to check policy around reimbursements. Plenty of institutions are happy to cover most associated costs, and pay promptly. But too many people still wait months to be reimbursed, long after the event. This can be a source of both resentment and genuine difficulty.

Many ECRs without permanent contracts who may stand to gain most from the exposure and opportunity that a conference offers find themselves unable to meet steep conference-associated costs. Here are two suggestions if you are in that position:

  • Take a long, hard look at the true value a conference is likely to offer, and ask for advice from your mentor or peers as you weigh your decision. They may point you to sources of funding, and can also help you evaluate whether you might gain more in the short term from focusing on growing your online network instead.
  • Get creative. Conference organisers may reduce or even waive your registration fee in exchange for time spent helping with duties such as registering delegates, managing the microphone at plenary sessions, or covering reception.

2. Time – can you spare it?

Meeting deadlines and managing a heavy workload can be demanding enough without factoring in time away at a conference, including potentially lengthy journeys there and back. But the stimulation a conference offers may well boost your motivation and effectiveness on your return – and remind you why you invest so much of your life in your chosen field.

While you are weighing up whether you can justify the time cost of committing to a conference, here are two tips to consider:

  • Try maximising the value of your time investment by looking for ways to tie your trip in with other work-related appointments, such as meetings with a publisher. 
  • Take this opportunity to fine-tune your time management skills with these top tips.  

3. Environment – what’s the impact?

Higher education exists to help create a better world for generations to come. There’s a clear tension between this lofty goal and the reality that many international conferences have a heavy carbon footprint at a time of climate emergency.

For that reason, these academics have committed to reducing or refusing to fly all together. Maybe it’s time to widen your conference options to include more local alternatives or video-conferencing.

4. Ethics – how thoughtful is it?

By registering for a place at a conference you are adding to its credibility, and helping to ensure its future. Before you do that, consider asking a few searching questions about how the conference has been designed:

  • Does it promote and celebrate diversity?
  • What do the speaker panels look like?
  • Who are the keynote speakers?
  • Is it accessible to people with disabilities?
  • Is there provision for those with caring responsibilities for children?
  • Is a high registration cost excluding academics on lower or less secure incomes?

In a sector still shaped by discrimination, it’s worth checking that your attendance isn’t sustaining tired stereotypes.

Finally, when your mind is made up and you register for your next conference, do remember to check out these three Global Academy Jobs guides to: 

Getting the most from an academic conference

Making friends at a conference, aka networking

Creating a show-stopping conference poster

Further reading

Inclusive conferences? We can and must do better – here’s how from the LSE Impact Blog

The Research Whisperer’s Free the academic conference

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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