The IX NIS conference wouldn’t have been so enjoyable if I had attended both days of the event. One full day of two plenary sessions and 4 breakout presentations was enough for me. Being lectured by distinguished speakers and learning about your colleagues’ achievements will only last a few months in your memory, unless you are assigned to take notes on the presentations. Sounds pessimistic, but this is what modern conference is — a business enterprise, with “a top-down program”, aimed at gathering as many passive learners as possible to yield financial benefits.
Consumerist ideology of purchasing goods and services that exceeds consumer demand has not left education aside. Educational conferences have become a business to cater for our needs for ‘networking’ and ‘professional development’, which indeed is nothing more than a person’s natural desire for a change of scene and seeing a few new faces. The extent to which we actually learn at conferences and how often we make connections with like-minded people remains an empirical question — the issue that conference organizers rarely address (as far as I know). So, if you don’t like feeling trapped by a marketing machine, try to get the most out of the experience.
From the onset, when you first open the program, the hierarchical scheme of the conference stratifies the participants. The glorification of keynote speakers in the very first pages of the conference booklet already puts you in a humbling position. When in a plenary session you catch yourself thinking, “Will I ever be able to talk like that in front of such a large audience?”, try to concentrate on what is being said and then look for the the speaker’s contribution to the field, which is perhaps more important than their affectionate speech.
Another critique of conferences is that you don’t choose the program. The good news is that “the top-down” programs are usually broad and the chances are high that some talks can be relevant to your area of interest. Equip yourself with a pen and a notebook and go for it. Listening to a presentation can be engaging, but catching something relevant and potentially useful is when you actually learn.
Remember that networking does not happen out of the blue and it does not imply taking “look-who-I-met-at-the-conference” photo either. Suppose you like the presentation and want to know more about the study. How will the presenter know about it, if you don’t approach and initiate the conversation? Doing this might be difficult for an unsociable person. But this is precisely the reason why you are there.
Conferences may be good or not very. How much you get out of them depends on you. However, you shouldn’t let the conference enterprise get more out of you than you get out of it.