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I just finished the 2nd year of a PhD program. I was planning to present a poster at the national conference but (probably) need to cancel. Now I'm deciding whether to attend the conference anyway. On the one hand: I'll meet people and probably enjoy myself. On the other hand: I could use the time for other work, would prefer not to spend $$ on the hotel, and I'm years away from being on the job market.

$$$. My plane ticket is non-refundable. My hotel is refundable. So I could save some money by skipping the conference.

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    These are fun. IMHO you should go. And maybe look for a cheaper hotel, the ones the conferences recommend never seem to offer good value for money. – Anonymous Aug 14 '13 at 2:02
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    Note that "non-refundable" tickets are usually semi-refundable: if you cancel, you can get the cost of the ticket (minus a fee of US$100-$200) as a voucher, which you can use for travel on the same airline within the next year or so. Of course, airline policies vary. – Nate Eldredge Aug 14 '13 at 4:05
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    I'd recommend going. There will almost certainly be interesting talks you can get things out of. Possibly even more importantly, you'll meet some of the other people in your area. If you're very lucky (I was), you'll see papers which eventually lead to a topic for your thesis. – Peter Shor Aug 14 '13 at 9:30
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    Thank you all. I attended the conference and gained a lot from it. The biggest gains for me were seeing what grad students and young faculty at top programs are doing (giving me ideas for dissertation), conversations with graduate students and faculty from other schools to get a sense of what life is like away from my department, and finally seeing senior faculty give plenary sessions about the "State of the discipline" re-fueled my inspiration and excitement that coursework was slowly draining. – Dr. Beeblebrox Sep 4 '13 at 15:21
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Attending conferences is very useful for several reasons. Usually, the work presented at conferences involve the latest developments in the field. This may provide you with new ideas or tools for your own research. It will give you a good overview of what is happening. You will also become familiar with who is doing what. In addition to this you also have the possibility to get in touch with colleagues and strike up new contacts with persons working on questions for interest to you. This can become useful in the sense that you can possibly start up collaborations or simply become known to others in the field. The latter can be important, for example, when you publish since reviewers might easily be someone you meet during the conference. Obviously, presenting something makes this even easier but being there is far better than not.

The reason I can see from not going is if you do not think the conference is of major interest or if you do not think you will meet people interested in similar questions to yours, in other words if you cannot see any academic benefits from going. Saving money is of course also a valid question if you think you can use that money more wisely on, for example, another conference.

But, in general, go to good conferences regardless of whether you have something to present or not.

7

It also depends a lot on your field.

In my field (mathematics), I largely agree with everything fedja had said. Having been to (and organized a special session for) a big national conference, I found that the best part about it is the social aspect, and some of the cool stuff you get to see at the vendors. In terms of talks I listened to they generally fall in one of two categories:

  1. Someone I know (or know of) speaking on a subject I am (quasi-)familiar with at a level that is slightly lower (more general) than what they would say in a seminar or smaller, more specialist oriented conferences and workshops. Which is rather comforting to hear but often I don't learn much (though there are a few wonderful exceptions) more than what I already know.

  2. Someone whom I don't know speaking on a subject I am unfamiliar with at a level that is slightly lower (more general) than what they would say in a seminar or smaller, more specialist oriented conferences and workshops, yet still flies entirely over my head.

In some fields conferences are a lot more plentiful, and missing one conference, even a "national" one, will not be that big a deal. And if you are short on money, you may well want to be picky about how and where you travel.

But in some other fields (take Geology for example), the National Conference (fully deserving of the capital letters) is the place to be and everyone in the field, from graduate students to emeritus faculty, who doesn't have a very good reason not to be there tends to be there. (The AGU fall meeting attracts more than 3 times the participants than the largest mathematics meeting in the world.) If your field is anything like that, I'd say you probably should make an effort to participate.

Lastly, when it comes to money (though this may be a bit late), many of the national conferences have special funding set aside for graduate students, and in addition many graduate programs have some limited travel funding provided. You may also want to talk to your advisor about travel funding. Both my wife and I are in academia, and neither of us have ever paid out of pocket for conference attendance as graduate students. (Of course, in your field the situation may yet be different.)

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I prefer to rely upon the grapevine, the internet, and the personal communication more than on formal meetings but if you like socializing, by all means go. Just make sure that

1) You know which talks you want to attend and to which people you'd like to talk and are prepared to both sitting through the talks and the conversations. Nothing is as meaningless and time-wasting as sitting through a talk in which you understand only the speaker's name and affiliation, and nothing is as pathetic as a graduate student who tries to communicate with some expert and either has no idea of what he (student) is talking about or has nothing more interesting to say than "My name is ..., my adviser is ... , it was nice to meet you".

2) If you've made a poster already, take it with you anyway. Even if it is not displayed in the main hall, you may still have an opportunity to show it to some people (of course, it shouldn't be 8 by 10 feet in this case, so you may want to downsize it a bit).

3) In spite of what I said in 1) and 2), do not take the whole affair with beastly seriousness and have some ideas about what to do in the town or nearby for fun.

As to work, in most conference places you may find a quiet room or two (in the worst case scenario, just return to your hotel) where to spend some time alone between the events that really interest you. Unless you fly trans{atlantic/pacific}, you can reduce the wasted time to just a few hours, not days. As to the job market, if you are any good, the earlier you appear on the radar screens, the better. As to dollars, it should be your own decision: I suspect you'll not end up in the bankruptcy court or become a millionaire either way :).

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