08 August 2007

Conferences: Costs and Benefits

I typically attend two or three conferences per year; usually NIPS (which has been in Vancouver since I started attending), and an ACL-related one; the third is typically a second ACL-related conference or ICML, depending on the year. Typically two of these are domestic, one is international. Domestic conferences cost me about $1500 and international ones vary, but Prague weighed in at around $4000. This means that my travel costs (just for myself!) are about $5500-$7000 per year. Moreover, this takes 2-3 weeks of my year (more than 5% of my non-vacation time). When I was a student, this question never entered my mind (I seemed to have a nearly endless supply of money); now, I find myself wondering: are conferences worth the time and money investment?

I'll focus on international conferences because these are the biggest sink in terms of both money and time. In particular, I'll consider Prague, which hosted both ACL and EMNLP. Here's what I feel like I gained from this trip:

  1. I saw some interesting papers presented.
  2. I saw some interesting invited talks (Tom Mitchell's stands out for me).
  3. I had semi-deep hallway conversations with 3 or 4 people.
  4. I had non-deep hallway conversations with probably ~20 people.
  5. I gave two presentations. (The implication is that this may make me "more famous" and that this is a good thing for some reason :P.)
  6. I saw an area of the world that I hadn't yet been to.
  7. I spent a not insignificant amount of time socializing with ~20 friends who I pretty much only see at conferences.
So the question is, was this worth just over $4 grand and 10 days of my life that could have been spent doing research (or taking a vacation)?

I have mixed feelings.
  1. does not seem compelling -- for conferences close to me that I do not attend, I still read proceedings. Sure, sometimes presentations are helpful and there's a bit of a serendipity aspect, but overall, I'd say this is something I could do in a day in the park with a copy of the proceedings.
  2. is important. Especially when the invited talks are good and aren't just a long version of some paper presentation---i.e., when you can get a good sense of the overall research direction and the important long term results---I feel like these things are worth something.
  3. is important. Some people say that hallway conversations are the most important; maybe it's just me, but it's pretty rare for me to have hallway conversations that are sufficiently deep to be really meaningful in the long run, but I'd say around 3 per conferences is something that you can hope for. At least with these, they seem to have either led to collaboration or at least new ideas to try out in my own work.
  4. provides good social networking... I don't feel like these really change how I think about problems (and I think the same is true for the people I had such conversations with). The only important thing here is if you find out about what new problems other people are working on, you can learn about new areas that may interest you.
  5. is nebulous to me; I feel like the key purpose in conference talks is advertisement. It's a bit unclear what I'm advertising for---citations, perhaps?---but hopefully something I've done will save someone else some time, or will give them ideas of something to try or something along these lines. But this is highly correlated with (1), which suggests that it's actually not particularly useful.
  6. shouldn't be underestimated, but if I compare taking a vacation with going to a conference, they're very different. In particular, even at a conference where I a priori intend to spend a bunch of time touristing, I never seem able to accomplish this as much as I would like. Of course, $4k out of grant money versus $4k out of personal money is very different.
  7. also shouldn't be underestimated, but like (6) is maybe best accomplished in other ways.
Based on this, I feel like overall the main benefits to going to a conference are: seeing invited talks, having deep hallway conversations, and a minor bit of socializing and serendipity.

The thing that occurred to me recently is that it's actually possible to achieve these things without going to conferences. In particular, consider the following model. I invite one or two "famous types" to my university to give invited talks. Each of these would cost maybe $2000, but a lot (if not all) of this would be subsidized by the department. So I get invited talks for (nearly) free; for safety, even say it costs me $1k. I now have $3k left. With this $3k I tour around the country and spend a few days at different labs/universities and meet with people. If I know someone well enough at a lab, I can probably stay with them, which means my only real cost is airfare (assuming their university doesn't want to invite me and pay for it) and incidentals. For domestic flights, it's hard to imagine that I wouldn't be able to pull off each of this for around $750. And that eats up the $4k.

What do I get out of this model? Well, I'd give talks at four universities. This is not quite as broad an audience as at a conference, but they're more focused and my talk can be longer. Instead of having semi-deep hallway conversations, at the very least I get 4 very deep office conversations, which is potentially much more useful. I get one or two invited talks per year, by people that I choose (modulo availability).

What do I lose? I lose seeing other papers presented, which I don't think is too serious. I lose socializing and touristing (in foreign countries). This is too bad, but is perhaps better served by a legitimate vacation. The only other big thing I lose is conversations with multiple people simultaneously (eg., in Prague, one of my "good" conversations was with Ryan McDonald and Joakim Nivre... this would not be possible under my proposed model). I also lose seeing questions and answers asked at talks, which are occasionally quite interesting, but also something that I'm willing to live with out.

Overall, I think the biggest thing I would lose is a sense of community, which I think is hard to quantify and yet still important. Though, I'm also not proposing that I would never go to a conference, but that maybe 2-3 per year is overkill for the benefits obtained (especially for expensive destinations). If I went to one domestic (I count Canada as domestic) conference per year and visited 2-3 other sites, I'm not sure that I'd be any worse off. (Of course, the fact that I'm in the States helps here... you probably couldn't get away with this model outside of US/Canada.)

22 comments:

Fernando Pereira said...

I normally go to NIPS and one other conference (or collocated set of conferences). (1) and (3) were much more valuable for me this time in Prague than usual. I was there for the conference and I made a point of going to lots of talks and seeking out colleagues to learn about their latest ideas. If I had stayed home, I would have gotten distracted from scanning the proceedings by the usual interruptions and distractions. As a result, I picked up on several ideas that are already influencing our work; I don't think this would have happened otherwise. I also enjoyed very much meeting some relative newcomers to the field, mainly students of various friends. I'm now paying more attention to their work as a result. As for (7), I found the socializing quite valuable in establishing connections with those new people in the field.

Mark Dredze said...

Your summary of the positives and negatives are very good. In the end, I don't think I can quantify the benefit of attending a conference. I can say that I do get very good ideas from conferences, either from social interactions or papers. Maybe your model of touring the country would also work. However, as a community, how many would really do that? You need lots of people interacting to create a flow of ideas, some of which may influence you. I don't know if its worth $4000, which does seem like a lot. However, I don't think I would be nearly as successful without the conference experience. Perhaps the most valuable part of a conference is creating a community. In that case, the sum may be greater than the parts.

Anonymous said...

While I am a student and have not yet attended any international students I feel I should chime in to tell you that #6 (at least for Prague) is probably worth that amount of time AND money.

Anonymous said...

Sorry. Conferences not students. :-)

Oren Tsur said...

I think it's not only about deep hallway conversations it's about the more shallow ones as well. Sometimes some one could contribute a sentence or a tip that you missed and will save you lots of time or gives you a new angle on the matter you are too busy thinking about.

I think the atmosphere helps a lot too - I had my deepest conversation with Roi Reichart. We actually share an office in the huji, we talk a lot anyways and we don't need to travel to Prague in order to speak - but a midnight metro ride after a few pints started with academic-gossiping and a debate about the pros and cons of conference attending - led to maybe the most significant conversation I had about my research and its open issues.

The same thing goes with Mark (D) which I only met in Prague. A small and almost insignificant comment of his might help me a great deal. I think the conference creates this kind of atmosphere.
4000$? well I don't know... the whole Prague trip (flights, room, food, acl registration) was less than 1K. Next year is going to cost big time, though.

Yoav said...

Things might look different when you are faculty -- my views are those of a student.

I totally agree with Oren on the shallow conversations and the atmosphere effect.
I also very much appreciate the community feeling being established, and find most Q&A parts of the talks to be interesting.
The 4K figure does seem somewhat high -- my costs for last year's Australia were about 2500$.. (and this year totalled in less than 1000$).

But what strikes me most interesting in this post is the absolute America-as-center-of-the-world attitude it reflects. While it is true that A LOT of
interesting research is being done in the states, there's some really neat stuff taking place in other parts of the world (in fact, at least one of my favourite paper of this year's ACL is such a work -- Fast Unsupervised Incremental Parsing).

I don't think this kind of shutting yourself out from interaction with the rest of the world is worthwhile.

Kamadev said...

Yoav, are you advertising your paper or what?:-) My experience is that such big events as ACL or Interspeech are really useful to attend, since one gets many many new contacts everytime. OTOH, smaller conferences are usually only good for tourism, one must get really lucky to get some real profit out of them.

However, the conf costs are really really high, my experience is smth like $2000 if the conf is on the same continent and nearly $3000 if the conf is overseas... I always contemplating whether I would rather find these expenses in my pocket as a part of my salary;-)

And yes, confs are especially useful for students, but there's only few lucky ones who get funding to visit a major event... And this also causes increasing difference between US and the rest of the world. If you study in US, or another rich country, it's much easier to have a better scientific career

Oren Tsur said...

Kamadev - it's not the same Yoav.
the one who posted the comment here is Yoav Goldberd from Ben-Gurion university in Israel and Yoav - the author of the paper is Yoav Seginer from the ILLC, the University of Amsterdam.

Both are great guys, btw :)

hal said...

just in case it was unclear: i'm not really advocating this model, just presenting it as an alternative that isn't necessarily inferior...

to me, i think the most important thing lost is the same thing that most people have commented on in one way or another: these informal meetings and a sense of community. the comment about the US-centric view is also quite right, but I think we're already missing out here. i know of lots of great work in japan that goes on that's rarely seen in western conferences (i don't know why) and is often published only in japanese language journals. (i'm not picking on japan -- it's just the only other language i can get by in so my awareness is higher.) it's really too bad that "international" conferences are not more international, to the extent that interesting research is going on in other places. there's also a strong per-country bias that occurs --- for whatever reason, if you look at AI or ML conferences, they tend to be much more "logical" when set in europe than when set in the US.

and yes, i agree that for students the situation is quite different.

one option would be to attend, say, ACL only every other year. i remember someone saying to me at some point (no clue who it was) that they only attend any particular conference every three years because in this way, all the papers they see seem way cooler. i think the comment was made tongue-in-cheek, because presumably you'd follow papers even in conferences you don't attend, but that's another way to solve the problem. and if you make these every-three-years conferences explicitly ones that are international, then you solve that problem too. i guess one worry would be that people would forget about you and then you'd have no friends to socialize with any more, though...

Anonymous said...

I think going to conferences is generally a good thing, if you don't overdo it. But if you go to the same 2-3 conferences every year, after a few years you are probably going to get bored and somewhat inbred. :) And if you are constantly presenting incremental improvements to work you presented the year before, well, then people are going to get bored with you too. So I think absence can make the heart grow fonder, the mind a bit sharper, and the audience a bit more interested. I'd propose a model where maybe every third year or so you skip the conferences and take a longer vacation or do more reading or take up painting or whatever. After a few years, 2-3 conferences a year can become a grind, and is not worth the time or expense.

Kamadev said...

Oren: Thanks, I didn't know that Yoav is that popular name these days;-)

As to the conferences, I guess the problem is we should push to make conferences cheaper. For instance, Czechoslovakia is definetely cheaper place than, say, Hawaii, but the costs were basically identical as if the conf would take place in US. This really had to be money making conf. Do you think it is necessary?

Anonymous said...

I wish we could find out how many people actually pay from personal funds to attend conferences. I usually don't, and I'm guessing most people at ACL aren't actually paying their own way, but maybe I'm wrong about that.

Unfortunately this can leave people who are at less well funded places (and in countries outside of the usual places) very much on the outside and unable to really be a part of the community (see comments on social functions of conferences).

I wonder if we'll get to a point where we can have "community" where we meet people, advertise our own work, meet new people, etc. without requiring lots of very expensive travel? I guess this would mean using the internet more for conferencing, chatting, socializing, etc. and for most of us that might not sound so good since we spend all our time in front of a computer anyway.

Anyway, blogs like this seem to represent a start towards that. :)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps "Yoav" is getting more popular; but "Czechoslovakia" is definitely becoming less so: the country ceased to exist 14+ years ago.

mark johnson said...

I wonder if there's not some way to get the benefits of conferences without the travel?

I don't resent the money spent on conferences ($4K is a small fraction of what it costs to support a grad student for a year; I hope you're getting paid considerably more!), but what I do resent are the days spent traveling ...

Anonymous said...

Holding conferences in less interesting places is a bad idea because for a lot of us, especially students, going to a conference is a huge reward for the hard work we've done. I assume all of you used to be students and know what I'm talking about. So please, professors! (And we won't cost you $4k for sure. Promise!)

. said...

酒店經紀PRETTY GIRL 台北酒店經紀人 ,禮服店 酒店兼差PRETTY GIRL酒店公關 酒店小姐 彩色爆米花酒店兼職,酒店工作 彩色爆米花酒店經紀, 酒店上班,酒店工作 PRETTY GIRL酒店喝酒酒店上班 彩色爆米花台北酒店酒店小姐 PRETTY GIRL酒店上班酒店打工PRETTY GIRL酒店打工酒店經紀 彩色爆米花

酒店上班請找艾葳 said...

艾葳酒店經紀公司提供專業的酒店經紀, 酒店上班小姐,八大行業,酒店兼職,傳播妹,或者想要打工兼差打工,兼差,八大行業,酒店兼職,想去酒店上班, 日式酒店,制服酒店,ktv酒店,禮服店,整天穿得水水漂漂的,還是想去制服店日領上班小姐,水水們如果想要擁有打工工作、晚上兼差工作兼差打工假日兼職兼職工作酒店兼差兼差打工兼差日領工作晚上兼差工作酒店工作酒店上班酒店打工兼職兼差兼差工作酒店上班等,想了解酒店相關工作特種行業內容,想兼職工作日領假日兼職兼差打工、或晚班兼職想擁有鋼琴酒吧又有保障的工作嗎???又可以現領請找專業又有保障的艾葳酒店經紀公司!

艾葳酒店經紀是合法的公司工作環境高雅時尚,無業績壓力,無脫秀無喝酒壓力,高層次會員制客源,工作輕鬆,可日領現領
一般的酒店經紀只會在水水們第一次上班和領薪水時出現而已,對水水們的上班安全一點保障都沒有!艾葳酒店經紀公司的水水們上班時全程媽咪作陪,不需擔心!只提供最優質的酒店上班,酒店上班,酒店打工環境、上班條件給水水們。心動嗎!? 趕快來填寫你的酒店上班履歷表

水水們妳有缺現領、有兼職缺錢便服店的煩腦嗎?想到日本留學缺錢嗎?妳是傳播妹??想要擁有高時薪又輕鬆的賺錢,酒店和,假日打工,假日兼職賺錢的機會嗎??想實現夢想卻又缺錢沒錢嗎!??
艾葳酒店台北酒店經紀招兵買馬!!徵專業的酒店打工,想要去酒店的水水,想要短期日領,酒店日領,禮服酒店,制服店,酒店經紀,ktv酒店,便服店,酒店工作,禮服店,酒店小姐,酒店經紀人,
等相關服務 幫您快速的實現您的夢想~!!

qishaya said...

one day i went shopping outside,and in an ed hardy store,I found some kinds of ed hardy i love most they are Your website is really good Thank you for the information ed hardy ed hardy ed hardy clothing ed hardy clothing ed hardy shoes ed hardy shoes don ed hardy don ed hardy ed hardy clothes ed hardy clothes ed hardy bags ed hardy bags ed hardy swimwear ed hardy swimwear ed hardy jeans ed hardy jeans ed hardy mens ed hardy mens Thank you for the information

seldamuratim said...

Really trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading..
sesli sohbetsesli chatkamerali sohbetseslisohbetsesli sohbet sitelerisesli chat siteleriseslichatsesli sohpetseslisohbet.comsesli chatsesli sohbetkamerali sohbetsesli chatsesli sohbetkamerali sohbet
seslisohbetsesli sohbetkamerali sohbetsesli chatsesli sohbetkamerali sohbet

cilemsin42 said...

Really trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading..
sesli sohbetsesli chat
sesli sohbet siteleri

sesli chat siteleri sesli sohbetsesli chat
sesli sohbet siteleri
sesli chat siteleri
SesliChat
cılgın sohbet
güzel kızlar
bekar kızlar
dul bayanlar
seviyeli insanlar
yarışma
canlı müzik
izdivac
en güzel evlilik
hersey burada
sesliparti
seslisohbet odalari
Sesli adresi
Sesli Chat
SesliChat Siteleri
Sesli Chat sitesi
SesliChat sitesi
SesliSohbet
Sesli Sohbet
Sesli Sohbet Sitesi
SesliSohbet Sitesi
SesliSohbet Siteleri
Muhabbet Sitesi
kamerali chat
Görüntülü Sohbet
Hasret gülleri
Çet sitesi
SesliSohbet
Sesli Sohbet
Canli sohbet
Turkce sohbet
Kurtce Sohbet
Kurtce Chat
Kurtce Muhabbet
Kurtce Sohbet
Kurdish Chat
SesliChat
Sesli Chat
SesliSanal
Guncel Haber
sohbet Sitesi
Chat sitesi..

DiSCo said...

Really trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it

to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading..
seslisohbet
seslichat
sesli sohbet
sesli chat
sesli
sesli site
görünlütü sohbet
görüntülü chat
kameralı sohbet
kameralı chat
sesli sohbet siteleri
sesli chat siteleri
görüntülü sohbet siteleri
görüntülü chat siteleri
kameralı sohbet siteleri
canlı sohbet
sesli muhabbet
görüntülü muhabbet
kameralı muhabbet
seslidunya
seslisehir
sesli sex

Sesli Chat said...

Really trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it

to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading..
seslisohbet
seslichat
sesli sohbet
sesli chat
sesli
sesli site
görünlütü sohbet
görüntülü chat
kameralı sohbet
kameralı chat
sesli sohbet siteleri
sesli chat siteleri
sesli muhabbet siteleri
görüntülü sohbet siteleri
görüntülü chat siteleri
görüntülü muhabbet siteleri
kameralı sohbet siteleri
kameralı chat siteleri
kameralı muhabbet siteleri
canlı sohbet
sesli muhabbet
görüntülü muhabbet
kameralı muhabbet
birsesver
birses
seslidunya
seslisehir
sesli sex