I had a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of conferences when I was a graduate student. I thought – not wrongly – that they were about presenting research, sharing ideas, meeting scholarly colleagues. And yes, they are. Presenting a paper is an opportunity to get feedback on work in progress, too, and to add a line to your academic CV.
What I didn’t get was that conferences were also and perhaps more importantly about networking. Scholars you meet at conferences might invite you to present your research at other events, or urge you to submit an article to a special edition of a journal they are editing. You could meet future hiring committee members, or learn insider information about departments where you might apply for jobs… or decide not to.
Graduate Student Me also had little concept of the world beyond scholarship and teaching within the world of higher education. I knew university presses, government funding agencies, and scholarly associations existed, of course. I didn’t know much about them as places of employment. I only learned about Mitacs toward the very end of my PhD program. I’d never heard of the Conference Board of Canada. I received a copies of University Affairs issues in my department file folder and never thought about the people who wrote, produced, or managed it.
As someone now adjacent to higher education and academia, I attended Congress in Regina, Sasakatchewan, to represent University Affairs and Beyond the Professoriate, the small business I run with Maren Wood. UA had a booth in the expo space, and I spent a few hours there over three days, talking with folks who stopped by to pick up a copy of the magazine or grab a branded wobble light.
It was enormously fun.
One of my concerns when I was contemplating a career beyond the Ivory Tower was that I wouldn’t be around smart people anymore. I cannot emphasize enough how wrong I was. I love speaking with graduate students, postdocs, faculty members, university staff, publisher representatives, folks who work at non-profits such as Mitacs and the Conference Board, and everyone else I met at Congress.
I learned a bit about what a business development specialist at Mitacs does. (This is a great job for PhDs, including just-graduated folks.) I spoke with faculty members who’d made difficult – and ultimately good – career decisions. I visited a book publisher’s display that didn’t include any books! Concordia University Press is new and looking for authors, FYI. I learned about early plans for next year’s Congress at UBC; it sounds like some innovative programming is in the works. I was also glad for an update on the doctoral internship program in the English department at UBC. (“I’m so proud of our students,” one professor told me. Yes!) I heard from graduate students facing a tough academic job market while balancing family and life needs. I shook Federal Minster of Science Kirsty Duncan’s hand.
My time at Congress confirmed for me, once again, that there really is life after the PhD, even if that life doesn’t include a career in academia. Smart, interesting, engaged people work everywhere. Learning continues.