The Conference Scene
Given the importance of both staying up-to-date on recent scholarship and meeting fellow researchers, attending conferences should be a priority for junior academics. In fact, their importance is so high that it will take me two columns just to scratch the surface of relevant considerations.
In this first piece, I will address why it is important to go to professional meetings and how you can think about which ones to attend. In the second segment, I will talk about the do’s and don’t’s once you have taken the plunge. (Additionally, in a future piece I will discuss financial considerations more generally speaking since it is important to acknowledge that conference attendance comes with its own set of monetary challenges for many.)
Good scholarship is important to one’s academic career. But what if you write an excellent paper that nobody knows about? If a paper is published and no one reads it, does it count? And how likely are you to write an excellent paper without feedback from colleagues in the first place? While there is always the chance that someone comes across your piece through browsing a journal, looking at your CV or doing a literature search, one of the best ways to draw attention to one’s scholarship is through presentations at conferences.
Every field has its big national (and in many cases international) meetings. These can be helpful to attend to get a sense for the discipline as a whole. However, often smaller, more focused meetings are much more useful for several reasons. As a graduate student in sociology, it was a no-brainer that at some point I would attend the American Sociological Association’s annual meetings. However, I ended up getting at least as much, if not more, out of going to the International Network for Social Network Analysis conference early on in my career. First, such events may target more specific research areas and thus increase the likelihood that there will be relevant sessions and colleagues around. Second, simply due to their smaller size, they are often friendlier and make it easier to meet people, including the hotshots of the field. Such events may also be more likely to accept submissions than larger venues, although this will not always be the case. Overall, while it is important to find a way to get to the big meetings in one’s field, the potential utility derived from smaller ones should not be dismissed.
There are two main ways to go about finding smaller meetings: by theme or by location. To find conferences closest to one’s areas of interest, it is good to look out for events organized by relevant professional associations. If you do not know what the applicable organizations are for your interests, then talk to peers and mentors about your shared areas of expertise. Additionally, look out for e-mails about conference notifications often in the form of call-for-papers – aka CFPs – that come through on mailing lists. (In a future column, I will discuss how best to keep up with the goings-on in one’s field.)
Another way to find smaller meetings is to look for regional conferences in your geographical vicinity. These may not be the best match for your interests per se, but they offer other advantages. For one, they often require less travel and thus fewer funds than national and international meetings. While your work may get less exposure, the interactions may be more meaningful. It is also helpful for building local networks. You might find peers with whom you can start to meet up regularly or potential mentors who may be easier to contact.
While e-mail makes communication across large distances possible, the benefits derived from face-to-face interactions should not be disregarded. Knowing faculty at regional schools might also help you hear about temporary teaching positions best suited for those already in the area. Additionally, getting to know people at such meetings may be especially helpful for those who need to stay in the region after graduation for personal reasons and will not be able to pursue a national or international job search.
As per the above advice, keep an eye out for conferences in your town or nearby to take advantage of meetings whose attendance would cost less since you get to save on travel. Of course, depending on your location, your mileage may vary (sorry about that pun). If you are lucky enough to live in a city that hosts meetings then be sure to put these on your calendar, as they are a great low-cost way to practice conference participation. Their attendance may even be worth it when the topic is not as closely aligned with your work as it could be, and you might want to check these out even if you are not on the program as a presenter. Whether you feel ready for prime time or not, it is best not to pass up on such local opportunities given their low cost.
When will you know if you are ready to give a presentation? You can talk to your adviser about it, but if you are working on an original research project then chances are you are good to go. Both abstract and paper submission deadlines as well as actual meeting dates can serve as good motivators for getting things done, so do not feel that you have to have something polished the moment you decide you would like to attend a meeting. While you may not feel like you are quite ready, there is nothing like an upcoming talk to help you make serious progress on a project.
It is also worth noting that many conferences have alternatives to presenting a fully polished paper, such as poster sessions and roundtable discussions where people give shorter, more informal presentations than on a regular panel. In some cases it is up to you to decide whether you submit your work to such a session; in others, the conference organizers track submissions into the various categories.
It depends on the meeting whether these are less prestigious than being on a regular panel. It would be wrong to think that by definition they yield less useful feedback or exposure than a formal presentation. Both poster sessions and roundtable discussions tend to allow for much more engaged conversations among the presenters and those who show up. One of the most useful sessions I attended during graduate school concerned a roundtable where only one other presenter – a graduate student from another program – and one additional person were present. It may not look like much, but we ended up having an extremely involved and useful conversation about our various methodological challenges in our respective projects, more food for thought than I could have hoped for from other presentation formats. In the same vein, most people can cite cases of panels where only a couple of people came to hear the talks. It is hard to say ahead of time what will yield the most useful outcome. Certainly in the early stages of one’s career, I would not discriminate against the different formats. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.
More generally regarding stages in the career process, the year before and the year of being on the job market as well as the year of going up for promotion are all especially important times to show up at professional meetings. The visibility that such venues make possible is very important both in terms of formal presentations as well as informal interactions, which is why showing up to them is so crucial at those times in particular. That said, while these are stages when you should make it a priority to go to meetings, you will definitely want to start gaining experiences earlier to make sure that by the time it really matters (on the job market, up for promotion), you are a seasoned conference goer.
But of course, everything has two sides so I must add the following caveat. While attending conferences is very important, it should not become a distraction from writing and finishing papers (and in the case of graduate students, from ultimately finishing the dissertation). Having presentations on one’s CV is important, but so is following up on these with publications. If the latter is missing, this suggests that the person is unable to follow up and complete work. This is of concern to hiring and tenure committees, because it raises questions about the candidate’s ability to get things out the door, a requisite part of building the kind of CV that will result in a favorable promotion review. (All of this may be less of an issue in fields where conferences publish proceedings after a rigorous peer-review process with low acceptance rates. Even in such instances, however, getting longer more elaborate pieces in journals can be helpful.)
So like with everything else, the best advice is to practice moderation when building conferences into one’s schedule. Do not be shy. If you are at a graduate program or beyond, you are certainly ready to go. But also do not use conferences as an excuse for missing other important milestones in your career.
In the next installment of this column, I will address what to do once you have committed to going to a meeting. Absent from the above is a detailed discussion about the importance of informal interactions at conferences and how to navigate them. As a rather crucial component of time spent at such meetings, I wanted to devote sufficient space to discussing optimal approaches to it and will do so in the following piece.
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