I remember my first scientific conference very clearly—it was the American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting in Washington, DC. I was a first-year graduate student at the time and I was crashing on the floor of a hotel room shared by two of my graduate-school colleagues. I had never been to a professional society convention before, and I was surprised by the sheer number of people around me who belonged to the same vocation: It looked like there were several chemists on every street corner, many complete with badges. A postdoc, who was the clear leader of our small delegation, told me to take off my badge every time I got to the street. In his words, wearing a badge was a clear sign that said “I’m from out of town and I am a geek…Please mug me”. Aside from receiving an education in urban landscape navigation, I remember being thoroughly overwhelmed by the number of parallel sessions on any given day. I became exhausted just trying to navigate between different rooms that held the sessions. But more than anything else, that trip taught me that science was a community of people, and that behind every name on a paper there was a human being and, quite often, an interesting story.

Shortly after I started my postdoctoral training, I got a chance to go to a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) in rural New Hampshire. That experience could not have been more different to the mad dash of the ACS meeting. There I was, astonished by the opportunities I got to talk to people at length, often over a hike, or a leisurely beer (or a plastic cup of cheap wine), and by seeing some of the most prominent people in the field put aside their busy schedules and willingly spend almost a week in cramped college dorm rooms with no air conditioning. The general quality of the presentations was amazingly high, too.

Now we live in the age of ubiquitous information sharing, webinar presentations that attract global audiences, countless Web pages and blogs. It is legitimate to ask whether traditional scientific conferences still hold the same relevance to the scientific process as they did before. Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science, made a passionate argument in a recent editorial that it is face-to-face interactions that move research forward. By that measure, scientific conferences are a critical piece of the puzzle. Since the science is ultimately performed in a laboratory, the answer to this question may be more nuanced. Still, the benefits of live discussions with your colleagues are clear. These days, the number of different meetings available to a researcher seems to be almost limitless, yet the travel budgets seem only to shrink. Thus, researchers, especially young scientists, must deal with the problem of choosing the size and the scope of a conference that they want to attend in order to make the best use of their time and travel dollars, euros, or yuans. So, how do you choose the right meeting to go to?

It is impossible to categorize every type of conference, but for me, they fall into roughly two types: The first type are large multi-topic society-wide or agency-wide meetings held in major convention centers. The second type are small, tightly focused topical meetings that usually bring together around 100 people for a few days in a small, often secluded, facility. Not surprisingly, each type can accomplish very different goals. Large conferences provide an unmatched opportunity to see what is going on in the areas that are beyond your own field of expertise. These meetings are often a low-risk way to find out more about a new field, and to see some of the emerging trends. Another benefit is that almost everyone tends to attend those conferences, so (with a lot of advance planning) you can connect with a large number of people. However, the intensity can feel overwhelming, people always end up running around between different sessions, and every conversation seems to last less than 10 min. Large conferences are not everyone's cup of tea.

A small conference, such as the GRC that I mentioned before is almost the polar opposite. The focus is very tight, so you get a very thorough survey of a particular field. There is usually ample time for discussion. A small conference usually affords the best opportunity to interact with a busy colleague, or someone whose time is in high demand. If you are a graduate student, this maybe the best time to “interview” a future postdoc advisor. For students, it is also a very good place to get to know other students in the field—these students will become your peers, colleagues, and competitors for years to come. Many friendships and collaborations have been born at small meetings. GRCs in particular are well known for fostering this type of interactions Because such meetings are very focused, you must of course choose carefully to make sure that the topic matches your research interest.

So, what would be the ideal conference strategy for a student starting in the field? My advice would be to start with a small conference that is tightly focused on your area of research. You will learn a lot and the friendships that you will make can stay with you for the rest of your career. As you get more experienced and you start to think about future career choices, the large meetings come in handy: You get to see a more comprehensive picture of your profession and you can get your work exposed to a large number of potential employers and collaborators.

Scientific meetings should be an integral part of your professional development. Let's hope that the institution of a scientific conference can withstand the advancement of technology and that face-to-face interactions remain a vital part of scientific progress.

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DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2013.03.002