In the last few months, the conferences I’ve attended have been on the extremes in terms of sizes. A few small targeted workshops (like NEGT, which I blogged about), and a few massive conferences (CDC & INFORMS). The contrast made me realize that I get very different things out of these two types of venues.
In particular, for me, there is a clear relationship between the number of talks I go to and the size of the conference.
There is a clear peak in the number of talks I attend around the size of a smallish single or double track conference… When there are 30-40 talks and 100-200 people, it seems that I end up spending most of my time actually in the talks, whereas in these massive mega-conferences like CDC and INFORMS, where there are 50+ parallel tracks, I end up spending almost no time in talks, and instead end up spending all of my time in the halls chatting/working with people. CDC this year was an extreme case for me — I ended up scheduling meetings with collaborators and prospective students/postdocs nearly all day every day, so I only managed to make it to ~1 talk per day! (Hence the lack of a “Report from CDC” blog post.)
The main driver for this behavior seems to be a combination of the fact that, given the size of conferences like INFORMS and CDC, nearly everyone is there, so it is very likely that lots of collaborators are there…and meeting up to discuss problems in person is hard to pass up (it’s certainly a higher priority for me than talks). In contrast, at a smaller conference, a few collaborators are there, but even after meeting them there’s plenty of time to attend talks.
There are clearly secondary factors too though. The search cost of figuring out where to go at mega-conferences is quite large: sifting through the talks to find one of interest and then figuring out where the room is can be time-consuming. Interestingly, this is getting easier as these conferences start to have apps… Also, there is definitely more of a cultural expectation to attend talks when the conference is smaller — you’ll definitely end up talking to the speakers, and don’t want to say “I skipped your talk.”
Anyway, I wonder how universal my behavior is in this regard. I know that as a grad student, the hump was not nearly as distinct for me as it is right now…I attended a much larger number of talks at mega-conferences. And, of course, there is at least one other mode of behavior common among faculty: Show up just before your talk, and leave just after. I’m definitely guilty of that more than I’d like now that I have kids at home, though I try hard to avoid it.