On Conferencing

I had an opportunity to present at a conference recently that was organized by my department.  The theme of the conference wasn’t especially close to my dissertation topic (we were talking about literary history in East Asia), but it was my first chance to present material from the dissertation chapter I’d been writing all year in Japan, and I had a fun time.

In talking with a few of my colleagues, however, I learned that I had presented at conferences many more times than most of the other grad students in my department.  They seemed to feel like it was a bad idea to do conferences too early in one’s graduate career, and while I can see where they were coming from, I disagree, and I’d like to spend a bit of time in this post talking about why.  Indeed, I think some of the best advice I got as a soon-to-be grad student was to try to present at a conference every year.  Read on to see why I think this has helped me more than most other habits I’ve maintained in grad school. 

First, let’s address why my friends felt it was best to wait until late in their PhDs to start presenting their work at conferences.  The long and short of it is that they want to present a polished, marketable version of their work to the people that might be deciding whether or not to give them a job based on that work.  In effect, they think of conferences as marketing for their own scholarship, and so of course it makes perfect sense that they’d want to advertise the most refined version of that scholarship possible – the version with the most cutting edge argument and the fewest holes that could be attacked.

This is totally understandable if you agree that the purpose of conferences is to market your work, but I’d argue that we can just as easily think of them as ways to market yourself, in a sense.  In my mind, the more important function that conferences serve is networking.  And while proponents of the above view would surely say that networking with senior hiring scholars in your field is the point of presenting a good-looking version of your work, the crucial difference is that I don’t think of senior scholars as my audience for the most part.  It’s great if they’re there, and it’s great if I can give them my card and have a conversation, but I’m much more interested in the other grad students at conferences.

This brings me to the important qualification I’d put on the “present at conferences early and often” maxim: I agree that it’s a bad idea to present at large, national conferences that draw the entire field together.  Instead, I think the best conferences to participate in are graduate student conferences.  I’ve found it much more valuable to build a peer network of other graduate students than to talk to faculty speakers.  When I’ve been apartment-hunting in Japan, looking for sources on a particular topic, or in need of commiseration about the stresses of grad school, it’s always been fellow grad students that step up, and very frequently, they’re grad students that I’ve met at conferences.  That network has brought me a few different professional opportunities, as well, like when an acquaintance recommended me to review a book for a journal, giving me my first publication credit.

Beyond making friends and meeting colleagues, I’ve also found that graduate student conferences tend to give me much better feedback and food for thought.  I think there’s an understanding that we’re all presenting work in progress, work that’s more open to revision and rethinking than a presentation based on research a faculty member has been doing for a decade or more.  As a result, I think there’s more of a sense that our feedback as audience members will make a significant difference, which fosters more earnest engagement with the presentations.

This isn’t to say that using conferences as a means to a job isn’t valid or necessary.  I’m starting to consider how I might be able to present at AAS or AJLS in the upcoming year as I start putting myself out on the job market, as a matter of fact.  But those big, professional association conferences are impersonally huge, for one thing, and very expensive for another.  The multiple hundreds of dollars needed to participate are surely better spent elsewhere until you’re within a year or two of finishing and trying to get a job.  The CV line is important, perhaps, but I don’t think you can expect to get too much attention from scholars who are mainly there just to catch up with old friends.

In short, I think conferencing is an extremely important element of grad school, but distinctions need to be made about what kinds of conferences are important when, and for what reasons.  Presenting seminar papers, even ones that aren’t necessarily related to the dissertation you want to write, is something you can do from your first year of graduate school, and I think presenting that sort of work at small, graduate student-organized conferences is useful and important as a way to begin building a community of colleagues.  Once you’re thinking about the job market and you have some dissertation (or dissertation-adjacent) work to present, national conferences can be more productive.

A few miscellaneous points to add.  All this emphasis on grad student conferences means I think it’s also important to organize them as a grad student!  Some institutions have yearly traditions of grad student conferences, with each year’s cohort taking turns organizing, but others (like mine) don’t.  Organizing a conference is a very positive thing to have under your belt when you look toward the job market, in my mind, and it’s something I personally would really love to do.  I think we need to try to remember, though, that conferences can represent a prohibitive financial burden for some folks, and therefore securing funding for travel and lodging subsidies is a critical part of organizing a conference if we’re serious about creating a diverse community with all of our graduate student counterparts.  Go forth!  Present your work in all its stages and share in collaborative thinking with all the other awesome scholars out there!


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