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How to include students in your conference

TL;DR: if we really care about the future of our field, we need to let all students register for the student rate, and allow them to attend the banquet.

RecSys2009 was my very first conference, and it was an amazing experience. I was not even a PhD student yet, but the European project I was working on had some funding, and they decided to let me attend. I felt welcomed and included in this small and vocal community. Sure, talking to the bigwigs like Pearl, Joe and John was still a bit scary, but I loved how friendly and open everyone was. I presented a poster there, and the experience to "sell" my work to like-minded professionals was extremely useful... it got me excited about doing more research and contributing to this wonderful field.

To put my money where my mouth is, next year I organized my own workshop (UCERSTI), and it was amazing to see that these famous senior researchers attended it, and liked it. By now, I started to feel like a regular myself, inviting new members into the community that is recsys.

Over time my conference attendance has steadily increased; this year I am attending 8 of them! But I always seem to come back to recsys... even though my research is not central to the topic, I still regard it as my home conference. Why? Because it is a small community that is very accessible to students like me. Despite my hyperactive demeanor and the occasional vitriol on twitter, I feel like people accept me. In fact, the recsys regulars respect and include all students.

But this year there were two things that put students at a disadvantage. It's not to say that students suddenly didn't feel welcome anymore, but these developments do endanger student inclusion and should therefore, in my opinion, be discontinued. These two things are 1) the (reversed) decision to make authors pay the full non-student rate, and 2) the exclusion of students from the banquet.

Why charging students a lower rate is a good idea Let's face it: conferences, especially in computing, are expensive. Half the time you have to fly to a different continent, stay at a hotel, pay a registration fee... and someone has to pay for this. Universities typically have a limited budget, so anything that makes it cheaper for students to attend helps enormously. In fact, I've talked to a number of professors, and they tell me that they probably wouldn't let their students attend if they'd have to pay the full rate. This year the recsys organizers decided that all authors (even students) would have to pay the full conference rate. This leads to the weird situation that presenting students pay a higher rate than non-presenting students. If that sounds backwards to you it's because it is. If anything presenters should pay less: they contribute to the conference by having a paper; they make the conference happen. After some angry emails and tweets, the organization decided to revert this decision. This is a relief... I am afraid that if this hadn't happened, most student papers would have been presented by their advisors instead, and these students would have missed out on this extremely useful opportunity to learn how to present their work.

Why not allowing students to the banquet is a bad idea Only last night I found out that the "all inclusive" student registration was a lie: contrary to virtually every other conference, students were not invited to the banquet. I was stopped at the door, and I was about to throw a tantrum, but instead I just brazenly bluffed myself in (how else would I have been able to give the Foster City presentation?) The absence of students became painfully clear when none of the runners-up for the best paper award (all students) were not there to accept their recognition. For those (and all other) students this is a missed opportunity to network for industry or post-doctoral positions. But the problem I have with this policy runs deeper. The conference chair in his presentation highlighted how important students are to the community, but excluding students from things like the banquet makes an implicit statement that students are a separate, less important part of it. If students are really that important, they deserve the same (or an even better) treatment as professors and practitioners.

Funding and moderation The most obvious response to my argument is of course "there is not enough money". But we have to think about where the money comes from and where it goes to. I feel that this year the funding was lower than previous years, and that's understandable with the financial crisis, but we have to be very careful with putting these burdens on the community equally, not just on the students. Maybe we don't need a catered lunch. Maybe the banquet doesn't need unlimited wine. Maybe we don't need fancy cakes at every coffee break. These things are all unnecessary luxuries that we've gotten used to, but should easily be able to do without. I'm sure the profs will give up their cake in return for more student involvement.

How to make it even better So I want to make a plea for next year: let all students register for the student rate, and make sure that they are allowed to attend every part of the conference. Beyond that, I think we can make it even better for students, especially for new attendees. Lately I've been to some business school conferences, and they typically have a "new member orientation" session during the first coffee break. This session shows new attendees what the conference is about, explains some of the traditions, and encourages them to actively participate. I think we should do something like that at recsys as well.

Because we rely on students to keep this wonderful community growing!