I attended my first astronomy conference in high school and I’m not ashamed to admit I understood less than a tenth of what was said at the meeting. This meeting was a small conference dedicated entirely to discussing new science which could be done with a telescope that was little more than concept art at the time, and even now is still not operational. Even though I was the youngest there by at least ten years and felt woefully out of place, I still remember a surprising amount. A few months ago, I saw a poster for the latest in this conference series and dug out the notes I took during that first meeting. Curiously enough, they make a lot more sense now that I’m a graduate student in Astronomy. Seeing the notes from my high school self reminds me what a long process science can be, and I would’ve never gained this viewpoint without attending this small conference.
Small conferences that focus on a specific area within a larger field have many benefits over larger conferences. Karna Desai, a recent astronomy grad student who studies simulations of planets in protoplanetary disks, emphasized that small conferences are the best opportunity to learn about your chosen research subject. At IU, there are no courses on disk dynamics or exoplanets, but at a recent conference, he was able to learn about many projects being done in this field, often before the results were published in journals. Because these are smaller conferences, often discussions will take place after presentations where different researchers will come together and discuss finer details of a project or offer alternative viewpoints for approaching a problem.
If you are just starting out in your field, a general conference may be your better option. In astronomy we have two American Astronomical Society (AAS) meetings that cover the breadth of astronomy. When I attended the 2016 AAS meeting, I was able to meet with two IU students to learn more about what graduate school was like here before I started, speak with people in science communication to learn what they liked about their job, and attend talks ranging from gravitational waves to students in third world countries setting up their own tsunami warning systems. Although I didn’t see a lot that was closely related to what I thought I wanted to study, AAS was still an exciting crash course in the vast field of modern astronomy. After the conference, I started the semester with a wider appreciation of all that is being accomplished in astronomy.
Conferences are not only a place to learn, but a place to present your own science. Presenting at a conference yourself can be scary, but it has incredible benefits. Maria Tiongco, another IU astronomy student, explained that “the biggest benefit of going to a conference is getting your name and what you do out there, in a community relevant to your research.” This can lead to the all-important job offer that every grad student craves, but more simply, it’s also a chance to meet authors of papers that inform your work and ask them questions in a casual setting. Over the course of your life, conferences can become a way to catch up with old friends, or even make new ones. At one particularly fun conference, I made friends with some colleagues who helped me make a mathematical function for how much conference material we understood. (It depends on proximity to your own research, your highest degree, and how many cups of coffee you have had so far).
Throughout your career, conferences become beneficial in different ways. From the faculty position, Caty Pilachowski points out that you can recruit new students and faculty to your institution, learn more about the status of projects you are invested in, and even get advice on grants, awards, and the priorities at funding agencies. Often these are not formal talks or presentations, but happen in informal settings over lunch or a chat in the hallway during a break.
Ultimately, conferences are about learning. You are able to learn about new perspectives on your own research topics while also gaining an understanding of topics vastly different, but no less important, than your own. Conferences can also be just plain fun, and that’s really why I keep going back. If you’re lucky, you get to visit warm places like San Diego and enjoy nice dinners at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. You can see friends who share your love for sailing and astronomy but are normally many time zones away. With all of these reasons, there is only one question you need to ask: when is the next one?