OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.
Dear Pablo: I have a faculty position and am rather active in research. I publish about one paper per year, but I never attend conferences or meetings because I hate traveling and I am not very good at giving talks. Do you think I will be able to further advance in my scientific career? Why do meetings still seem to be so important in this Internet era? Are there any alternatives? –Andrew, Canada
Many scientists wonder how important it is to go to different meetings: How many should they attend, and which meetings should they choose? I travel so often that I used to joke with my colleagues that I sometimes felt more like a traveling salesman than a professor!
Science is a social field, so getting acquainted with colleagues is a fundamental part of this business. I know some people who travel nearly all the time, some who go on a few trips per year and others who never attend any meetings at all. It is therefore possible to have a career without attending many conferences, but in my opinion one cannot be very successful (sorry!). The personal aspect is critical—everyone likes to put a face to a familiar name, and you will have more opportunities for collaboration with this type of exposure. You need to make yourself and your research known, and to take the opportunity to meet others in your field. There is no replacement for direct, face-to-face contact, although it is true that Skype and teleconferences can save you a few trips.
The number of meetings that you should attend depends on many variables, including your field and where you are in your career. Lack of funding can be an obstacle, but even if you are short of money, remember that this will be a good investment for your future. In many cases, with good planning and low-cost airfares, you can stay within a reasonable budget. In general, regardless of other factors, you should always try to accept invitations to give invited lectures. Taking part in this “invitation” circuit is crucial for advancing your career. It is a part of the system and a way to promote your research and yourself.
In short, you should plan to attend and participate in at least some meetings. I assure you that I understand how difficult it can be to travel. However, in this case, it’s in your best interest to force yourself out of your comfort zone. Initially, go to small meetings rather than large conferences. You will have easier access to key people, and the social interaction is usually much better. If you’re worried about your presentation skills, check out my blog post for some tips on giving successful talks.
Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.