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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.