February 28, 2011 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Are some professional conferences scams / wastes of money?

What is a reasonable proportion of your income to pay to attend a professional conference, especially if you are a recent graduate and newly on the job market?

Should you attend if the function does not include job interviews or work that you will definitely publish?

I'm speaking of regular conferences to which university academics and professionals (lawyers, doctors, librarians, engineers, IT developers) might be invited, not Davos.

I also would rather not speak of cult-like conferences and seminars, whether Amway or a religion popular in Hollywood that shall not be named.

I'd also appreciate any discussion of the insecurity that new graduates feel that might make them feel they have to attend these, and whether the expense screens out lower-income professionals from jump-starting their careers.
posted by bad grammar to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, at least in the sciences. I get e-mails from scam conferences all the time. Maybe "scam" is the wrong word; my understanding is that the market for these conferences is academics, usually outside the US, who need to be able to document speaking at conferences, any conferences, in order to advance professionally, and who are willing to pay for the privilege.
posted by escabeche at 6:14 PM on February 28, 2011

Don't waste your money, in most cases. You would probably be better served by joining an org related to what you want to do.
posted by dejah420 at 6:37 PM on February 28, 2011

It most likely depends on the field you're in, but you can usually find conferences that run the gamut in terms of price (one that I will be attending shortly is $110 for a non-member.) I check the location, duration and who and what is on the roster before plunking down the money. Some companies will foot the bill to have employees attend if they feel a conference is worthwhile. Also, you can ask to volunteer at a conference and get a reduced price, if not a free pass in.

I've heard that new people are encouraged to attend conferences to network, but there are plenty of cheaper opportunities to make those kind of connections.
posted by Anima Mundi at 6:39 PM on February 28, 2011

As a former conference company employee, yes, some are scams. But many aren't. Good conference companies do a TON of research and have a huge number of industry contacts to ensure they're getting the best people all in one place.

In order to weed out which ones are and which aren't, take a good look at the speakers and the organizations they represent. Are they leaders in your field, doing active research, or supporting others who are? Do they have strong, cutting-edge publication records? (Unfortunately, some "good speakers" turn into "conference whores", meaning they speak at way too many conferences to have anything of value to say - watch out for those.)

Take a look also at companies/job titles of people who've attended the conference in the past. Between the speakers and attendees, are these people you want to meet? Can you network with them? Are the companies in attendance performing cutting edge work?

Also, if the conference is commercially run, take a look at the sponsoring companies. If the leading service providers for your field aren't there, that's another warning sign (this does not apply for academic/non-profit conferences).

Unfortunately, even some reputable companies occasionally have "scammy" conferences, meaning they underdeliver: speakers "cancel" at the last minute, or were never really confirmed, or they had a bad planning team who didn't do the research and get the right people. Ultimately, the company putting the conference on should have a good track record in your field. If they're known for manufacturing conferences, and this is their first biotech conference, be wary. They likely have some contacts, but not enough to put together a really good conference their first time out. You should also check past related conferences by the same company to see how much the final agenda matches the one published in the brochure or early flyers - you can ask the company to send you old brochures for recent conferences and compare to the final agendas posted on the website. There are always a few last minute changes, but as long as you don't see anything like the top five speakers mysteriously disappearing between the published brochure and the final agenda, it should be fine.

The price will depend on your field. I've seen amazing for-profit conferences run from $400 (government) all the way up to $4000 (marketing). I've seen amazing nonprofit conferences that are free. You should hopefully be able to convince your organization to pay (or at least contribute, so it shouldn't be coming out as a percentage of your salary, but as a percentage of their operating budget. (There was another askme on getting your company to pay a couple weeks ago, also.)

Generally, as long as the conference meets the above criteria, even a "bad" conference that meets the above criteria should be great for networking and building up your reputation and face time with the right people in your field.

As far as being insecure and new, it's worth getting over that. I would absolutely encourage a new graduate to go for it. The sooner you learn, the better off you'll be. As important as hard work is, the people you know and who like you and your work can make or break your career. Conferences are great places to meet mentors.

You will likely not have the chance to set up one on one interviews in advance (unless they're with companies paying for the privilege of meeting you and YMMV as far as how useful they are -- they'll usually want to sell you something if they want to meet you). But there will be lots of happy hours and cocktail breaks where you can make a beeline to the right people; that's what they're expecting, and that's why they're there with nametags on. Of course, you should be someone with something to offer as well, but that's more of a "how to network" issue and probably beyond the scope of this question/answer. This does not necessarily mean you should have a published paper, or an implemented process, but you should have good ideas and some sort of track record in your field so that you're not wasting their time.
posted by lesli212 at 6:42 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, and if you're a student, or not employed, you likely can get a discount. 25% discounts are fairly common in conferences. Just keep pestering people (by phone, don't register online), and you'll probably get some sort of discount.
posted by lesli212 at 6:46 PM on February 28, 2011

A useful resource: check Lanyrd. Not definitive, but if you see a lot of people saying "I'm attending this conference," that's a good sign.
posted by brainwane at 6:50 PM on February 28, 2011

I was reading a piece recently, maybe on the BBC News web site, about a climate change conference that was basically a scam. They'd take your registration money but there was no actual conference. Clearly someone thought researchers in climate change related fields had money to spare. So yes, such scams do exist. I have no idea how common they are, and don't personally know of anyone who has been so scammed.

Generally, however, it depends on your field. As an academic type myself, there are a few professional associations I'm either a member of, or are otherwise aware of, who run (usually annual) conferences. They're often well worth it if you're in the field, because everyone goes and they're good networking opportunities. They're also prime venues for people to talk about the new things they're working on.

There are also fields that peripherally intersect my interests that advertise conferences that are horrendously expensive, and whilst not scams, are not likely to be of any interest to me. Sometimes these seem like they're mostly designed to be junkets for people whose employers are happy to pay. They may have one or two big name professional speakers, but you're unlikely to actually learn anything new. They may be good for networking, but that's about it.

If you tell us what field you're in, or are interested in, people might be able to provide more relevant answers.
posted by damonism at 7:31 PM on February 28, 2011

Absolutely. Google the name of the conference (in quotes) along with the word 'scam' and read what results. Also, The Chronicle of Higher Education's forums are a great place to suss out what's legit.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:52 PM on February 28, 2011

You seem to have two related questions here--are there scam conferences, and are conferences worth the investment.

There are definitely quite a number of dubious conferences out there. (I'd be more spcific but don't want to get sued.) Be wary of conferences that promote themselves with spam emails, conferences in warm locations during the winter that advertise the beaches, etc.

Are legitimate conferences worth the cost for a graduate student? Mostly no (at least in the humanities). It is important to get a few conference experiences along the way but these might as well be at a regional conference or a national one not too far from where you are. And presenting a paper at one of the big conferences is a good thing to have on your cv. But sitting on folding chairs for three days and listening to bores read their pretentious dreck out loud? Not a good value.

The networking you hear about at conferences mostly happens among folks who already know one another from other collaborations. Nowadays a good professional blog, a Twitter feed, and disciplinary email lists are all better ways to get your name out there and to meet other scholars.
posted by LarryC at 9:18 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

My boyfriend, a criminal defense lawyer, absolutely loves going to local legal conferences if they relate specifically to his interests.

I'm a funeral director and I also enjoy going to my profession's conferences as well. I'd say look at the organization throwing it, look at the speakers, and look at the subjects covered. Google the organization. If it has a good rep, if the subjects look interesting or relate to your area of expertise or if the speakers are respected in the field, then go, it's probably going to be a fun time if you're really into your career. It's also a great opportunity to meet others locally in your profession who might recognize your face on a job interview in the future, or a good place to pick up a mentor if you're a beginner in your field.

also, if your job will pay for you to go to the conference, you don't really lose anything but your weekend by going.

Just don't pay more than you can afford, opt out of anything that costs too much or seems sketchy after asking the people in your field. When you are working more and know more people, you'll hear what is worth going to and what's a bust from your co-workers and other members of your profession.
posted by RampantFerret at 9:23 PM on February 28, 2011

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