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:
- I saw some interesting papers presented.
- I saw some interesting invited talks (Tom Mitchell's stands out for me).
- I had semi-deep hallway conversations with 3 or 4 people.
- I had non-deep hallway conversations with probably ~20 people.
- 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.)
- I saw an area of the world that I hadn't yet been to.
- I spent a not insignificant amount of time socializing with ~20 friends who I pretty much only see at conferences.
I have mixed feelings.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- also shouldn't be underestimated, but like (6) is maybe best accomplished in other ways.
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.)