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I started my PhD not long ago, and I have heard some of my colleagues something to the effect of since they did not get their submission to some conference accepted, they will not be going to that conference.

This made me wonder whether it is normal for academics to go to conferences or workshops even if they didn't get anything accepted by that conference or workshop. Obviously, the organisers and committee members could still have a reason to go, but what about other people? As a PhD student, I would think that it's a good idea to go to conferences that are relevant to your area of research, whether or not you actually have anything accepted by that conference, just to make connections and hear about the latest research.

So long question short: As a new PhD student, should I go to relevant conferences and workshops even though I have no publications accepted at that conference or workshop, or would this be seen as a waste of time and weird?

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    Many stduents choose not to go to conference because they do not have funding to cover travel expenses. If you can get funding, of course you should go for the reasons you say. – scaaahu Jul 26 '15 at 8:37
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    What's your field? I can imagine the answer being different for fields where conference publications are the significant output... – Andrew Jul 26 '15 at 9:16
  • @Andrew my field is theoretical computer science. – mrp Jul 26 '15 at 10:00
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    Btw, it probably shouldn't affect the decision, but there might be a psychological difference between attending a conference where you didn't submit anything, and attending a conference where your submission wasn't accepted, meaning that the conference rejected you(r work). – Steve Jessop Jul 26 '15 at 10:27
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    Speaking as a theoretical computer scientist: Even without travel funding or results, you really should go to at least one major conference a year if you can afford it. Think of it as investment in your future career. – JeffE Jul 26 '15 at 17:41
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This answer is written with a background of a subfield of applied CS, where conferences are a primary venue of publications.

tl;dr: Yes, it is normal. At the same time, it is unusual (though not "seen as weird") for someone to actually attend all conferences related to their field.

Indeed, it can be a good idea to attend a conference simply out of interest for the topic. Both learning about new research and especially making connections with other researchers are worthwhile goals.

However, there are a number of reasons why it might not be realistically feasible:

  • Some employers would not want to regularly cover travel expenses to conferences unless the attendee is presenting something ("has to go") there, especially if they take place far away. To clarify, presenting something on the conference counts as a compelling reason that requires attendance (even if it means the person gets to attend 5 or more conferences in a single year), while simply attending out of mere interest does not.
    • As suggested by JiK, there are also arrangements where the total number of conferences that will be funded within a given timespan is restricted by an upper limit. In such cases, "saving" conference trips for the instances where you actually can present something may be the way to go.
  • Even if the conference takes place very closely, registration fees are sometimes considerable (600€ or more).
  • The time required to travel or at least to attend the conference is missing elsewhere. It is "just" a few days, but it is a few days ever so often that the conference attendee will not be available for progressing with their research and fulfilling their possible other duties (e.g. giving or supporting classes, supervising students, performing non-research tasks required by their funding source and/or department, etc.). This is especially difficult with regular (e.g. teaching-related) duties, as they cannot just be postponed; someone has to fill in for the traveling researcher.

Moreover, the value of visiting these conferences (especially compared to other strategies for using your time that restrict conference visits to when you also present something yourself) should not be overestimated:

  • While a conference can usually be picked for being "on-topic" for your research, most conference scopes are often still wide enough so the vast majority of works presented there are at best "nice to see, though essentially unrelated" to your work (especially in early stages of your PhD, where you are probably somewhat focused on rather narrow topics, as opposed to more senior researchers, who are more likely to be interested in a whole bunch of topics covered by their own group).
    • This is less of a concern for workshops, which are usually more focused on a specific topic or set of questions. On the other hand, workshops (at least as I know them from some CS-subdisciplines) often have lesser requirements to the completeness of contributions, and also sometimes later deadlines than the main conference. As such, it can be easier to still produce something to present on a workshop as a "justification" to attend the workshop (and also the conference it is embedded in).
  • While some talks are certainly interesting to watch, not all of them are. A bit of personal preference towards receiving information in talks vs. in writing certainly plays into this. Still, I think it can generally be said that attending a conference is not an overly efficient means to quickly get updated on a wide spectrum of new ideas, given that every single such idea occupies a timeslot of some 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Finding new contacts tends to be a bit of a "gamble" that is, among other factors, influenced by the nature of the conference. Especially smaller conferences can easily have something like a "core community" that considers the conference their "annual meeting of old friends", where it is very difficult to get into. Again, this depends a lot on your personality, of course; different people are very differently skilled at getting in touch with strangers.
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    Some of this advice does not apply to theoretical computer scientists, who can still do research at conferences; all the necessary equipment is either between their ears or between the ears of the other people at the conference. Early PhD students need to see breadth; conference attendance is extremely helpful, especially for early students with no results. Don't even try to see all the talks, or even half the talks; I generally aim for about 25%. You're really there to make and maintain contacts. Finally, part of your advisor's job is to help break you into the "circle of old friends". – JeffE Jul 26 '15 at 17:38
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    @JeffE: Granted, some research is still possible while at conferences, but multiple screens or enough desk space for lots of paper and a quiet, largely uninterrupted atmosphere in one's office are still more conductive to work than a small laptop screen on one's lap in an auditorium while splitting one's attention between writing something and listening to new results presented in a talk. Also, 'part of your advisor's job ...' seems to imply the PhD candidate is not the only representative of their group at the conference, which in my experience happened so rarely that I did not think of it. – O. R. Mapper Jul 26 '15 at 19:39
  • @ORMapper while splitting one's attention between writing something and listening to new results presented in a talk. — If you're spending more than a small fraction of your time at conferences listening to talks, you're doing it wrong. – JeffE Jul 26 '15 at 20:33
  • @JeffE: Ok. Possibly, I have indeed learned from people who have all been "doing it wrong". – O. R. Mapper Jul 26 '15 at 20:53
  • Tho give a slight variation to the first bullet point: My doctoral school funding includes one conference trip each year. I could easily use it to attend a conference where I don't have a presentation, but using it for a conference where I do have a presentation is even more useful. – JiK Jul 27 '15 at 9:00
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Some or all of this may be specific to my own field, which is theoretical computer science.

It's not unusual to go to conferences and not present anything. Going to conferences lets you meet other researchers in your field and learn about what other people are doing. However, most PhD students have very limited funding to go to conferences: in the departments I've worked in, it's typically been of the order of one conference per year. Also, most conferences require that at least one author of the paper attend to present it, as a condition of acceptance. As such, most students will save their funding for conferences where they're going to present something. Sometimes, funding is only available if the student is presenting. Of course, if the conference is nearby (so travel costs are lower) and short (keeping registration and accommodation costs down), it may be possible to attend more than one, or to find money from an alternative source.

Research staff and academics tend not to be quite so constrained in their funding but still mostly try to get the best value for money by mostly going to conferences they'll be presenting at.

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Yes. There are many reasons to go not merely to present your work. Learning more about the field and more broadly is the principle reason but you should not overlook the importance of networking at this stage in your career.

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I used to go to conferences that interested me even when I was not an academic. At one talk I even got offered a job by the speaker because he thought my questions were so perceptive! (I didn't accept because I had other things going on)

The key is to be interested in the ideas of the others and, if possible be familiar with their work. Then, whether you ask questions formally or informally they are more likely take you seriously.

Ask a question at the end of a presentation that interests you. Gauge how much this sparks the interest of the speaker. If they seem impressed then it's a good cue to have a chat with them afterwards, especially when they aren't busy.

When you finally do present a paper, they will remember your face and, with luck, be favourably inclined towards you and your ideas.

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From my math experience, it is perfectly normal to attend conferences without presenting anything, especially for young researchers. Phd students and postdocs benefit more in some sense from conferences by networking and get a feel for the field, while some (one, actually) more established professors I have spoken with, thinks conferences takes time from research, and mostly attend only when presenting something.

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