How many conferences is too many conferences?

Conference folks inside Number Man on MIT campus. Vaguely in rows, from back left to front: Joe Gunther, Frank Thorne, Ben Smith, Colin Weir, Jen Berg, Mckenzie West, Irene Bouw, David Harvey, and my forehead.

Hello from the end of my first week back to teaching! I’m teaching Linear Algebra right now, and enjoying it quite a bit. In some of the in between moments, I’m looking back on my summer and wondering where it went. I spent the last week of summer at the Arithmetic Geometry, Number Theory, and Computation Conference at MIT. This was a great conference for me for lots of reasons. I was looking for an application of a technique for a paper I am working on, and BAM one appeared before me in a talk! There were just tons of wonderful people there, both friends and people I didn’t know but whose work I admire. The conference was really well organized (thanks, Simons Collaboration on Arithmetic Geometry, Number Theory, and Computation group members!) and right in my area of interest, so it makes sense that things could go well. But a non-trivial part of everything going great was that this was my only conference of the summer. I had lots of social energy because I hadn’t already had 10 giant conference dinners this summer. It was the first time I’d seen all of the talks, and there was a really good slate of speakers, so I didn’t have any trouble staying engaged. If I had already been to 10 conferences this summer, I might have been checked out during the talk when the exciting application appeared. As it was, I felt that I took almost optimal advantage of this experience. I had the most fun, and learned the most math, possible for me.  So this brings me to ask the question: Do I usually go to too many conferences? How many conferences should a person go to in a summer?

One of the pieces of advice I have been given over and over, especially in my role writing this blog, is that early career people should get out there and talk about their work. Meet people, make connections, get a broader understanding of the field. I think this is great advice, and I followed it. I followed it hard. So did a lot of people that I know, and I/we saw all of the advertised benefits. Certainly there are still many good points to going to conferences: there are tons more people to meet and results to share/hear about. It also keeps my CV growing (third year review this fall) to go and give a lot of talks. Giving talks has a whole extra set of benefits, in that it makes me think of my work in a fresh way each time I explain it in a new setting. But even conferences (like this one) where I don’t speak can have enormous practical benefits.

However… there are costs. Costs as in literal money. Being out of graduate school for a few years, I’m not funded to go to as many conferences as I used to be. Also, there are costs in time to work or relax, lost sleep in bad flight schedules, and costs in experiences I could have connecting with people in the place where I actually live. Environmental costs visible in my ballooning carbon footprint and all the disposables that I use every time I travel. Sometimes there are costs to my students, when I travel while teaching. All these costs are payable, and sometimes really worth paying. But they add up, and I have decided that there has to be a limit. More is not always better. Sometimes I even have to say no.  

I have written about this before, and limiting my conferences was just one in a long list of ideas to better manage my environmental impact and work-life balance.  But the idea that going to fewer conferences could make those conferences I do go much more worthwhile was not prominent in my mind at the time.  This conference at MIT made me appreciate just how much I can enjoy a conference when I have the energy and mental space to take full advantage of it. I don’t think I can bring those resources to more than a couple conferences in a summer, so I want to learn how to make the resources that I do have count as much as possible in choosing my travel. Some people just thrive on the conference circuit—maybe it’s okay that I don’t. So I think that next summer I will go to a maximum of three major math events. Maybe one conference wasn’t quite enough, but two or three sounds like the sweet spot.

What is the optimum number of conferences for your math life? How do you decide when to say yes or no? Other thoughts? Let me know in the comments!

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