If you are interested in an academic career, welcome to the world of conferences. For all their weaknesses, these are one of the main heartbeats of the academy. Over two posts, I will do my best to pass along what I have learned, thus speeding up the learning curve.
The Cost of (Not) Attending
You may not be rolling in dough, and conferences aren’t cheap. Even with cramming three or four to a room, you still have conference registration fees and food. It’s not cheap. But there is a huge cost to not attending. Conferences are a long game, an investment over decades that in long run bears a great deal of fruit. Think of them more like a 401k retirement plan, than an emergency measure to get a job at the last minute.
A Brief Evolution: From Papers to Paperless
Your first conference is likely to be an intimidating experience. Hundreds or thousands of academics milling about, talking about their books, presentations and other exploits, all seeming to know and be known by each
other—you’re crashing someone else’s family reunion, and you may not know a soul there, other than friends and professors from your own school.
As a result, you will tend to do two things: spend lots of time with the people you already know, and go to lots of papers. That’s fine, of course, for the papers can be quite good. You can hear famous authors speak, and get a feel for them not only as words on a page, but as people. You can hear PhD students give papers that will shortly be published as dissertations and journal articles… and you can hear plenty of last-minute papers, quickly whipped up on a flight across the country.
But this is just the beginning. Over the years, you get to know more and more people, and the conferences become your own family reunions—a chance to reconnect with friends, colleagues, professors, collaborators, publishers… and the longer you go, the fewer papers you go to, not because they aren’t good, but because you are to busy with the even better things that are discussed below.
Eventually, it is a great experience to present papers. My own experience that this is quite intimidating at first—you imagine that every person in the room is an expert and you will be ripped to shreds. And of course this can happen. But more often, if you have done your work well, you have a great opportunity to explore a thesis in a group setting, and receive substantial feedback in a way that can push your project forward.
My first paper probably had seven or eight folks in attendance, I didn’t sleep well the night before I presented, but it went off without a hitch. The questions were good but didn’t push me, and I subsequently published the paper as an article—so presumably, it was half decent work. But over the years, I have found little or no correlation between the quality of the work, and the number of folks present to listen to the paper. Don’t be discouraged if you have only one or two in attendance.
Entering the Monolith
The real goal of conferences, as I understand them, is relational. From the outside, a guild or conference seems monolithic: a mass of individuals walking around, most of seem to be right where they belong. You are the outsider, and they are the insiders. As it turns out, a conference is a world unto itself, with all sorts of people present for you to relate to.
First, friends. As you make your way through the ranks of your discipline, attending grad schools and securing teaching positions, your circle of friends within the discipline gets larger and larger, as they also move through the ranks, but in different directions. Conferences are an exceptionally valuable time to connect and reconnect with these friends, as you encourage, rejoice and build each other up. Friendship is one of the most valuable things we have in life, and conferences are one of the best ways of helping you to maintain those friendships.
Second, colleagues. This is a loose distinction with friendship, of course, but as you move through these ranks, there will be a growing number of people with whom you enjoy working and collaborating. Conferences are a breeding ground for collaborative projects in your discipline, whether that take the form of publications or otherwise.
Third, authors. It’s easy to think of authors whose books you’ve read as rock-stars. But your discipline is a pretty small world, and a lot fewer people are excited to hear that you met so-and-so, the author of the authoritative book on X, than that you met Eddie Vedder, lead singer for Pearl Jam, or Russell Wilson, quarterback for the Seahawks. Some authors do have something of a celebrity status and are hard to get time to talk to, but for the most part, scholars are genuinely excited to talk to younger and aspiring scholars, who have read their work, and want to talk to them (as a bonus, this is a great opportunity for developing a relationship that might lead to studying under this person, if they teach in a PhD program).
Finally, though this list is not exhaustive: publishers. Publishers get paid the big bucks for the work they do at conferences, much like salmon fishers during the few days of the fishing season in Alaska. They can have dozens or even hundreds of appointments in the course of a week, and this is a great time to talk with them. Publishing isn’t always about a manuscript and a contract. Publishers are looking for a relationship that in the long run will be the fruit of good books, so look at the publishers as people (some of them even have feelings!) with whom to build a genuine relationship.
The Long Game
The long and the short of it: conferences are a long game, a relational investment over the years, which bears a great deal of relational, intellectual and professional fruit. I commend them to you as a place to seek rich and genuine relationships, without allowing professional benefits (jobs, publishing contracts, reputation…) to get in the way. These things may happen, but they are best seen as fruit that may come when you focus on the better things.