Devesh has thoughts – How to conference (part 3)

Jul 21, 2019
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I’m back – after a few months of experiments not working, chemicals being duff and life generally being busy, I thought I should write the last post in my series about conferences tips/insights for early stage PhDs. This time I’m going to talk about the money that pays for your conference attendances and diversity/inclusion at conferences. Once again, I hope you find this information useful and please leave a comment if you have anything to add. Criticism is especially welcomed!

You may have noticed I changed the blog-series title from "ramblings" to "thoughts". I never really liked "ramblings" and I may in the future not like "thoughts" either...

Money matters

Conferences, in particular international conferences, can be expensive. Costs include conference registration fees, travel, accommodation, food and drink. In total, these costs can easily reach over $2,000 per conference. If you have a disability or caring responsibilities, the costs involved with attending conferences can be even higher. With PhD funding becoming increasingly limited, it can be difficult to attend all the conferences that you wish – especially if you are self-funded. I would however like to note a few things.

Firstly, international conferences should not be assumed to cost more than national conferences. Check the conference website and flight prices yourself before someone tells you a particular conference will be too expensive.

Secondly, while it is common knowledge that conference registration fees typically have early-bird offers and fees which are lower for PhD students, there may be ways in which these fees can be further reduced. For instance the registration fee for the Materials Research Society’s (MRS) Spring and Autumn Meetings is an eye-watering $750 for (non-member) Academics, Industry and Post-docs. However, for non-member students the registration it is currently $180. Moreover, this fee can be refunded and a stipend can be provided to you if you volunteer at the conference. Volunteer roles include writing research highlight blog posts for the MRS meeting scene and providing technical support for some symposium sessions. MRS also offers hardship grants to aid financially constrained post-docs to attend their conferences. Additionally, the Gordon Research Seminars (typically one-day conferences exclusively for early career researchers that precede Gordon Research Conferences) may offer discounts or even free registration fees for those that speak at the Seminar. Presentations at the Gordon Research Seminars are limited in number and so are very competitive so check the website details and contact the Seminar Chairs to see what can be done what the likely registration fee situation will be.

Lastly, there are a surprising number of research or travel grants which you may be eligible to apply for in order to support your research and cover some of the costs associated with conferences. In the UK, examples of institutions offering fellowships, grants and/or prizes to PhD students includes the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the British Liquid Crystals Society, the Armourers & Brasiers’ Company and the Fisheries Society of the British Isles. Also, those with caring responsibilities or with a disability may be able to find additional support from conference organisers or their own institution that may have pots of money specifically for facilitating your participation. This is not an exhaustive list, but shows you the variety of organisations that support PhD researchers. Of course, it goes without saying to check the eligibility requirements of each funding source before you apply.

Diversity and Inclusion at conferences

As with most aspects of science, in one way or another, conferences suffer from a lack of diversity. If you do come from an under-represented group, conferences – both simply to attend and to present – can be even more daunting than it would otherwise already be. In the majority of the conferences I have attended to date, the chosen speakers did not represent the diversity within the relevant research community. Most clear to me has been the gender imbalance with male speakers outstripping speakers of other genders. In the worst case, at one of the smaller conferences I attended, the speaking time given to all females was less than the length of a single plenary talk.

The issue of diversity, particularly when you start to consider matters of intersectionality, is a complex challenge for many aspects of science and indeed for society. For science, progress over the years has by all accounts been slow. However, there does appear to be momentum growing to change science for the better – just take a look at the Twitter accounts of the people/organisations listed at the end of this post. Additionally, conferences are increasingly hosting special sessions to discuss and share experiences of diversity/inclusion related issues. Just last week at the Gordon Research Conference on Liquid Crystals, Professors Helen Gleeson (Leeds, UK - link) and Robin Selinger (Kent State, USA - link) hosted a fantastic “Power Hour” session where they focused not on coping mechanisms for those from minorities, but instead on what all Universities and all individuals need do to make the academic environment more equal, supportive and diverse. Part-way through the session I realised that all of the people at the conference that I was most interested in talking to and in working with had made the effort to attend and contribute to this Power Hour. This made me feel positive that there is a concerted effort to improve science for all.

The take away message is that the onus is on the community as a whole, but specifically upon those organising conferences, to think about (and act upon) what they can do to make our community gatherings more welcoming, inclusive and representative of all groups that make up the scientific community.

My last comment is based two things I heard several times at the Gordon Research Conference I just attended. Firstly, that those from minority groups are less likely to apply for oral presentations at conferences. Secondly, that you must be your own best advocate. Therefore, I finish by simply encouraging anyone from under-represented groups to be your own advocate and apply for oral presentations at conferences. While you may have insecurities related to standing out and being judged on your identity characteristics, be reassured that the overwhelming (and ever increasing) majority of people attending conferences are solely interested in your science. Even better, by you sharing your work, you may help inspire other minorities to share their work at future conferences.

Inspiring Tweeters

My above comments on diversity and inclusion at conferences is based on my own observations as someone who hasn’t experienced any challenges based on my gender/sex/ethnicity. I am conscious of the limitations of what I can and cannot, or validly, usefully say. So, in an attempt to be more helpful, I took a quick scroll through my Twitter account to find a few people and organisations who do amazing work improving the scientific environment. Regardless of your background and whether or not you face or have faced inclusion challenges, I highly recommend following them and checking out who they follow too. Don’t forget that some of these people are active researchers too, so check out their awesome research!

Dr. Jess Wade (@jesswade)

Dr. Ben Britton (@BMatB)

Angela Saini (@AngelaDSaini)

Prof. David Smith (@professor_dave)

@TigerInSTEMM

@IOPDiversity

Acknowledgement

My sister – Dr. Hemi Mistry (@HemiMistry) – spent time reading and providing constructive criticism to make these blog posts as helpful as they could be. She may be a lawyer but she does on occasion says things of interest to science-types too.

Devesh Mistry

Lindemann Research Fellow, University of Colorado, Denver

Physicist turned materials scientist/engineer specialising in Liquid Crystal Elastomers - which in my unbiased opinion are by far the most exciting form of soft matter. Currently, I am a Lindemann Fellow in the group of Dr. Chris Yakacki, part of the Smart Material and Biomechanics group at the University of Colorado, Denver. I completed my PhD in 2018 in the group of Professor Helen Gleeson at the University of Leeds. My PhD research was supported by an Industrial Fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Aside from liquid crystal elastomers, I'm interested in functional, biomimetic and self-assembling soft matter - so the usual!

1 Comments

Michal Filus 27 days ago

Such a great post, Devesh! I really enjoyed reading your ramblings/thoughts - it has been an incredibly insightful series of posts on how to 'conference'  when you are a PhD student. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!