How many days-spent-at-seminar talks+conferences/year is a good number for a grad student interested in a career in research? Obviously it depends on a whole bunch of factors, but just wondering what your best generalized estimate would be.This is a great question. I may even rephrase it to be, "If I want a research career, what are some good ways to spend my time as a graduate student?"
I have some colleagues who get ideas just sitting in their office, alone, reading papers and thinking. This strategy sometimes works for me, but the truth is, I get more ideas from attending seminars/workshops/conferences and from talking with other people. A recent paper I wrote came entirely from seeing something wild at a conference a few years ago coupled with a recent talk I attended given by someone in a different department at my university. Somehow, these two very different things clicked in my brain, and off I went.
Coming up with research ideas is only half of the problem, though. You also need support to turn them into reality. For this recent project, I consulted with the person from the other department for tips on how to use some specialized equipment which was new to me. I then consulted with another person in his department for ideas on how to formulate my research questions. I ended up with a really solid paper having had these consultations.
So from an idea generation and cultivation perspective, I think spending time attending talks and conferences and chatting with people is a great use of your time(*).
But attending these events are also a great use of your time if you want to get employed some day. :) As I alluded to in the last post, I think being a superstar / having a superstar advisor is rare, and even if you are a superstar, a little extra insurance doesn't hurt. So the other advantage to spending time attending talks and conferences is being able to meet other people.
In many fields, the research world is a small one. That person you chatted with at the coffee break may one day be reviewing your paper/grant proposal, or may one day be offering you a chance to come give a talk at their lab, or even could one day be on the other side of the hiring table. This doesn't mean every interaction with someone matters, it just means more doors may open for you if you put yourself out there.
The goal of attending these things is not to go up to every person you meet and say, "HI GIVE ME A JOB PLEEEEZE". It's a way to casually chat with people and show them that you are a friendly person with good ideas. You form relationships that last throughout your research career. Your advisor may be able to help start you on this path of building these connections, but at some point you need to take initiative yourself. And I think it's good to start building these connections as early on in your career as possible, not two months before you go on the job market.
This all being said, you of course don't want to spend your life on the road. I suppose I did spend a lot of time attending seminars/workshops early on in graduate school, but I was geographically selective. A few times I traveled far, but usually I just went to seminars at my university or at other local universities, or workshops/conferences that were < 5 hours away. Pretty much everything turned out to be useful in one way or another. Even one conference which was a total dud introduced me to a great collaborator who I still work with today, as well as an invitation to give a talk.
(*) I should note, some departments will only fund attendance at conferences/workshops if you have a paper accepted. And if you're a first or second year graduate student, you may not have had any time to do anything publishable yet. However, it's super easy to get a short ideas-only paper accepted at a workshop so long as you can write coherently. (e.g., a 2-4 pager like - "Here's an idea on X. Here's some background which makes us think X is true. We're going to implement and test X in the coming months"). Also, many big conferences have doctoral consortia, poster submissions, works in progress, etc. These are also definitely worth trying for, because it gets you a plane ticket. Most university accountants aren't going to realize/care that the poster acceptance rate was 99% while the conference acceptance rate was 12%. :-)