Conferences…meh

Even though I’m expected to do research and be competitive for external funding and publish papers, I almost never get to go to scientific conferences.  Hell, I went through the full process of working my way to tenure without attending a conference!

Even with external funding, there’s not always money to pay for the trip (that’s not really normal; it’s complicated).  In my field, very few people pay their own way, so there are a lot of structural aspects of conferences that make it not worth going on your own 15,000 dimes or so.  Timing is a problem because the median person at a conference in my field teaches zero classes so no shit is given about scheduling the main annual conference such that one doesn’t have to miss up to a week of classes.  You can’t pull that kind of shenanigans very often at an undergraduate institution.  Of course, by not going to conferences, it avoids conversations like the following:

“How do you like it at [your school]?”

I don’t!

“How is your research going?”

To be honest, I’m only working on this project because I felt like I needed to be on a grant to get tenure.  I do all of my research in my personal time anyway, grant or not.  I will be so fucking glad to be done with it so I can maybe work on something interesting.

“Doing okay?”

Haven’t killed myself yet!

“Married?  Kids?”

I barely have any friends, let alone anything more than that!  I’ve barely kissed a woman on the lips in this millennium.

“Well, good seeing you, gotta go…right now!”

And, all of this while wearing a name tag.

Ahem.

Of course, the truly worst thing about going to conferences these days is that I’m so far out of the loop that I don’t know very many people.  In the sciences, a large part of the whole conference scene is getting to see friends and colleagues on taxpayer expense.  Spending several days at a conference and eating every meal alone isn’t all that fun, but I don’t do enough research nor party hard enough to hang with the cool kids.  (The “pub crawl” on the night before the end of the conference is well-enough established that otherwise intelligent adults were posting about it on Facebook using the conference hashtag.)

Undergraduate research is valued in my field – if it’s being done at a research-intensive institution.  Undergraduate education is valued in my field – if it’s being done at a research-intensive institution.  I’m exaggerating that latter point a bit, because to be fair, most undergraduate students in my field do happen to be located at research-intensive institutions.  On the other hand, research-intensive institutions aren’t necessarily the gold standard for undergraduate education (to put it politely), and yet it’s almost always some big-shot scientist that gets the annual award for education.  Unfortunately, I’m too busy teaching to do the things that would get me nominated for an education award.  In any case, this means that the undergraduate-oriented content at the conference isn’t necessarily relevant to me, either.

The other bad thing about going to a scientific conference is seeing all the interesting research being done and knowing that I’ll never be anyone who could be described as “research active” when looking at my field as a whole.  Sure, I do a little science and even sometimes have external funding, but again there’s that thing where more than half of the people in my field are doing research more or less full time.  Granted, that includes advanced graduate students and post-docs who still need to establish a career path, but all of the latter and most of the former get paid reasonably well for one’s age if one didn’t take major breaks along their academic path.  (Contrary to some other fields of academia, graduate students in the sciences are often in the $20-25,000 range and sometimes more, which is not so terrible when including the usual tuition waiver and health insurance, and the fact that you are getting an education and job training.  Twenty years ago, I barely made $10K with no benefits in grad school.)

Contrary to how things get hyped up in the media, most of the advances in most scientific fields have to do as much with technological advances as having the “right” people doing the work.  After all, much of the detailed work on major university research projects is conducted by relatively inexperienced graduate students.  Smart, talented graduate students, but still.  Without the crutches of money, equipment, grad students, postdocs, and tens of hours per week to work on research, I can’t execute any of my good ideas.  Try as I might to play stupid, I still get good ideas and I’m still a competent scientist.  Crapload of good that does me.  Of course, being a good teacher doesn’t help me all that much, either, just gets me larger classes and more grading.

On the plus side, I was heartened by the fact that the undergraduates I talked to at the poster paper sessions were enthusiastic about their research and had good grasps of what they were doing and the relevance of their research projects.  Although I think that the large number of people who rarely work with students sours the milk a little, this conference has a very good record of involving undergraduates in meaningful ways, and my undergraduate research students that have been there had good experiences.

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3 thoughts on “Conferences…meh

  1. Without the crutches of money, equipment, grad students, postdocs, and tens of hours per week to work on research, I can’t execute any of my good ideas. Try as I might to play stupid, I still get good ideas and I’m still a competent scientist.

    Are you an experimentalist? I know of a few people who switched to doing more theoretical or computational work due to lack of resources, so they’d be able to do most of the work themselves or relatively inexpensively with undergrads.

    • Yes, I live in the observational/experimental realm where access to gear and/or data is a challenge. I have contemplated moving to a more computational realm. A fair bit of the analysis I do requires non-trivial modeling already. But, under my current circumstances, it seems difficult to think that I can successfully make a significant research change (although I could be wrong). The two general topics about which I’ve been able to publish first-author papers here are basically the kinds of things I did in grad school and as a post-doc.

      (BTW, thanks for ignoring the snarkiness of my original comment. Taken by itself, the first sentence you quote does come off rather condesending. When my job is going well, I’m occasionally thankful I’m not in the R1 world due to some of the issues you’ve written about.)

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