What Makes a Conference Good?

There’s a fun article in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology on what distinguishes a good scientific meeting from a not so good one. The author advocates attending small meetings or workshops (under 100 people), which is tough for a young scientist. Small workshops are usually either not well advertised or difficult to get to. The only small meetings that I attend are local meetings, and the only workshops I go to are the workshops that are hosted at larger meetings. For a young scientist, large nation/international meetings allow for the most interaction with the most people in your field. Networking is important, and a young scientist needs to make as many connections as possible. Granted, small meeting meetings are more intimate, but they also have less people.

As for my meetings, I try to go to at least one ‘far away’ meeting every year — last year it was San Diego, this year I’m going to Arizona. I also try to make it to as many ‘local’ meetings that I can; whenever my university sponsors a meeting in a relevant field, I try my best to attend. Also, if the meeting is a short drive away, I’ll usually go. I once traveled to a small meeting, but that was because I happened to be in the area for other reasons. I always try to present either a poster or talk at any meeting I attend (it gives you something to talk about), gunning for a talk whenever possible.

I have reproduced the author’s tips for conference organizers and conference goers below the fold.

Ten tips for conference organizers:

  • The best part of any conference is the human interactions, and the best conferences are those that facilitate them.
  • The ideal length for most meetings is less than 3 days — for big ones, maybe 4, no more.
  • There’s no such thing as too much background, no matter how ‘expert’ the audience is supposed to be. Clarity of thought is the most important quality in a speaker. Meetings that recognize these things and choose their speakers accordingly will be successful.
  • Gender and ethnic diversity in speakers and the audience helps in many ways.
  • Even specialized conferences benefit from a few talks that are outside the box.
  • The world can be divided into morning people and evening people. Meetings with a schedule that only caters to one type are making a mistake.
  • Meetings with no free time aren’t just exhausting, they’re inefficient.
  • Scheduling important talks opposite one another annoys the conference goers as well as the speakers. This is true even if the subjects are different.
  • Nothing ruins a conference faster than inaudibility. (You can help: if you ask a question, make yourself heard; and if you’re a speaker, repeat the question so the whole audience can hear it — regardless of how good you think the sound system is.) And, everyone needs to be able to see the screen clearly.
  • The setting matters. So does the food. Ambience is underrated.

Ten tips for conference goers:

  • In a developing country, don’t drink the water. In a developed country, don’t drink the beer.
  • Don’t hesitate to give feedback: organizers need it. And don’t neglect positive feedback: organizers deserve it.
  • Try not to hide, even if you’re shy. (I’ve met some of the best friends of my life at meetings.)
  • Don’t monopolize poster presenters. And if you’re presenting a poster, don’t let one or two people monopolize you.
  • If you only go to talks and meetings in your own field, you will never grow. Take a chance.
  • You are what you eat. (Given this point, you might want to skip the rump roast.)
  • Never underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep.
  • Life is too short to only go to meetings close to home.
  • Life is too short to spend a week at a meeting.
  • Have fun. Remember, science beats working for a living.


  1. #1 coturnix
    February 28, 2006

    Those are excellent points. I was lucky to get invited to a Gordon Conference once (and it was far away – in Oxford, UK) and that was a wonderfully organized conference – hit all the poins above. It was also NOT in my narrow field, which made it even better.

  2. #2 PZ Myers
    February 28, 2006

    Oh, yeah…I gave up on the Society for Neuroscience meetings years ago simply because they had become such a relatively unproductive, exhausting drain. 30,000 attendees? That’s just nuts.

    I much prefer the local meetings where you get maybe a hundred people, lots of them students, and you can actually stop and think about what you are learning.

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