Skip navigation
CAREER ADVICE

Academic conferences: Should I stay or should I go?

They can help propel your career.

By ADAM CHAPNICK | FEB 07 2011

For an aspiring graduate student contemplating tenure-stream employment, the number of academic conferences being held today can be overwhelming. To make informed decisions about whether to go, when to go and where to go, it is critical to be realistic about your own career goals and to understand the role of conferences in the academic world.

Conferences serve a number of purposes. Many of these support your interests as a graduate student regardless of the strength of your commitment to become an academic. That said, if none of the three points below resonate, then it’s probably best to stay home and pursue other priorities:

  1. Conferences celebrate the best and latest academic research. So if you’re interested in where your field is going, or what some of the leading experts have been thinking about, then attendance should be worth your while.
  2. Conferences provide semi-organized networking opportunities. If you want to establish connections with other academics, share your ideas with people who have similar scholarly interests, or create a stronger peer support network, attending the right conference is an excellent idea.
  3. Conferences enhance academic profiles. Conference presentations are included on your CV. In some fields, peer-reviewed conference presentations are important additions to your scholarly record.

Many graduate students wonder whether they should attend a conference if they’re not presenting. If reasons 1 and 2 are important to you, then simply attending the right conference could be worthwhile. But keep in mind that simple attendance – or chairing or commenting on a panel – does not enhance your CV.

What about attending graduate student conferences?

Again, the answer is maybe. The quality of scholarship at these conferences probably won’t be as high, nor  will the network opportunities be the same, but if you lack a social network of supportive peers, a graduate student conference is one way to expand your list of contacts. And, while a presentation at a graduate student conference does relatively little for your CV, it does provide you with experience, which should lessen your nerves when it comes time to present in a more prestigious setting.

Each academic discipline has its own, largely unstated, culture when it comes to conferences. It’s possible that your mentor will insist on you attending a certain conference even if you aren’t presenting. In other cases, you could be advised to avoid a conference because participating would implicate you in a culture war within the field.

Some conferences accept virtually any proposal that comes their way; others pride themselves on their selectivity. Some favour joint submissions; others do not. Some adhere to their conference themes rigidly; others virtually ignore them.

When in doubt, submit a proposal. Strong graduate students often underestimate the originality of their work and fail to apply to conferences to which they would almost certainly be accepted. Moreover, you can submit a proposal more than once and to more than one conference, so putting together a proposal is worth the time and effort.

With your supervisor’s blessing, having built a proposal that follows the conference’s call for papers religiously, consider the following factors when making your final conference decisions:

  1. Is the conference significant in my field? If it is, the leading scholars will be there, as will potential collaborators. The major conferences also tend to offer professional development workshops for graduate students, which can be extremely helpful.
  2. Does the conference publish any portion of its proceedings? On a CV, publications generally trump conference presentations, so presenting at a conference that will publish your paper – especially if there is peer review involved – is an efficient use of your time.
  3. Does the conference offer awards to the best paper? Again, awards do wonders for CVs, so look for conferences where you have a chance to win one.
  4. Does the conference offer funding for graduate students travelling from afar? Conferences outside of your institution are never cheap, and departmental support – if it exists – is rarely sufficient to cover all of your costs. All other things being equal, it makes sense to factor cost into your decision-making process.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

COMMENTS
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Leave a Reply to ReadyWriting Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. ReadyWriting / February 7, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    While I appreciate the importance and relevance of keeping the C.V. as the priority at all times, especially in these times of little to no resources, I think that you missed an important reason why graduate students should attend conferences:personal or intellectual networking. Many times, a graduate student does underestimate his or her research or interests, but also feels alone and isolated. Building an intellectual community is important in order to be able to not only pad one’s C.V. but also to develop new ideas, here different perspectives, and also perhaps re-energize his or her research and writing. There is nothing more valuable than a few kind words or supportive pieces of feedback to a graduate student’s psyche (except more money, of course).

    The conferences that stuck with me are the ones that helped shaped who I am as an academic. That confidence I think will ultimately lead to a better C.V., and not the other way around. But that’s just me.

  2. dr.doinglittle / February 8, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    My answer to the question in the title – Stay.

    Academic conferences are fun and a great way to meet new people but one cannot seriously claim that they will “propel your career,” especially in landing a tenture track job. An advertised TT job at a major univerity nowadays (when they ever rarely come up) can easily get over a hundred applicants, and well-established people with books, teaching experience, and numerous professional publications and credentials. A conference talk is hardly going to make any difference at that stage in the game.

    That said, getting a few conference talks on your CV might up your chances at getting into a graduate program or an award like a SSHRC, but that’s about it. And I’d never recommend anyone go to a conference on their own dime.

  3. Elijah Dann / March 1, 2011 at 1:22 am

    You’ve got to be joking. If you think that going to a conference will do anything to help you get a job I’m not sure how many job interviews you’ve participated in. With applicants being turned down for jobs when they’ve had numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and even a few published book to boot, how would giving a paper or two at a conference make a difference? (Most of the applicants such as the above did have a number of conference papers anyways, so that only strengthens my point.)

  4. Doug Mann / March 1, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    This article is full of empirical falsehoods, and shows a shocking naivete about the purpose of academic conferences. I strongly advise all graduate students to ignore it.

    1. Conferences celebrate the best and latest academic research.

    No they don’t. I’ve submitted at least a half dozen articles to both major and minor conferences over the years that were rejected, only to have exactly the same article accepted at an academic publication with a lower acceptance rate than the conference itself. Most papers presented at conferences in the arts and social sciences are simply regurgitations of the ideas of other thinkers and researchers, with perhaps a bit of critique offered near the end.

    2. Conferences provide semi-organized networking opportunities. If you want to establish connections with other academics, share your ideas with people who have similar scholarly interests, or create a stronger peer support network, attending the right conference is an excellent idea.

    In a manner of speaking this is true, but there is remarkably little “sharing of ideas” or constructive debate at academic conferences, in part due to time constraints. A 45 minute paper is typically followed by 5 or 10 minutes of questions, many of which are softballs. Graduate students are typically afraid to take on regular faculty in such forums.

    3. Conferences enhance academic profiles. Conference presentations are included on your CV. In some fields, peer-reviewed conference presentations are important additions to your scholarly record.

    Once again, only slightly true. I went to at least two dozen conferences while I was a graduate student and immediately afterward, and it didn’t result in a full-time job. Then I stopped going to them entirely for several years, and it made no difference: I actually got more contract work. Teaching experience and publications are what count. Conferences are just schmooze-fests. Unless you want to go on a fun trip to somewhere you’ve never visited, avoid them.

  5. Kim / March 7, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    As I read these comments I think there’s truth there, conferences are not the be all end all, but nor are they something to thumb the nose at, either.

    I have been accepted to speak at a high profile conference in the States and applied on a whim to do so. It was to my delight that I was accepted, and the idea that we as grad students underestimate our own work and originality really resonated. Additionally, since I’m not actually graduated yet, it provides a fantastic opportunity to incorporate response and feedback into my final reflexive accounts.

    I’m not so naive to think that conferences will carve my future, but nor am I so jaded to find them worthless. Like anything, it is what you make it.

« »
--ph--