Going to conferences takes a LOT of time, and let’s be honest, sometimes it is not worth all of the trouble! I prefer to present at every conference I attend, except under 3 conditions. I will go as a pure consumer of knowledge if 1) it is local, 2) there is something or someone there that I cannot access otherwise and 3) I can get funding to go there without presenting. As a grad student it is hard to find funding to attend conferences, so unless your funding will disappear at the end of a school year or you are in the land of milk and funding honey, save it for conferences where you are presenting your own work.
I also like a mix of major conferences in the field and smaller niche conferences. The major conferences are good because you have a wider potential audience for your own talks. They are also a good place to get outside of your speciality and learn more about what the rest of your area is doing. I am a multi-disciplinary scholar so the major conferences started to add up. I found that it was best to rotate the major conferences with a preference for location. Association 1 gets a visit when they are in Miami, Association 2 gets a visit the following year when they are in San Francisco.
Small niche conferences are by far my favorite. While you can lose the breadth of larger conferences, you get so much more depth! You rarely have to worry about finding an interesting talk. These smaller conferences are also more intimate, so you find yourself in an elevator with someone you’ve been wanting to talk to. You also find that some of the bigger names will actually come to your talks! At one conference a major scholar in my field walked in and sat in the front row. As nerve-racking as that was, it was also very cool. I also pick small niche conferences carefully. Location is important to me, as well as direct relevance to my current projects and frequency that the conference is held. I am more likely to go to a small niche conference if it is bi-annual or annual and local.
One last thing! Conferences are a great place to accomplish mentoring and mentorship! Many conventions and associations are even providing formal mentoring programs that you can take advantage of as a graduate student or early career scholar. You can also ask someone to coffee or speak briefly after a talk. Never underestimate how quickly good mentoring can happen. I’ve gotten much wisdom from senior faculty through a 5-10 minute conversation in a hallway.
So bottom-line conference, but not too much!