Monday, October 3, 2011

Conferences: How Many? How Often?

In the last thirty-six hours I've flown from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Edmonton, Alberta and back. The trip out took me twelve hours (thanks to a four hour layover in Pearson Airport) and the trip back took eight hours. I left Alberta Saturday night and arrived home at 6am on Sunday. I'm jet lagged, a little behind on my work, and still have a lecture to write, but if you're asking yourself 'was it worth it?' I can say that for me, this time, the answer is yes! 

The topic of conferences has cropped up here multiple times. We've considered why conferences are so bad and offered examples for how to make them better. There have been posts and responses that discuss the ethics and practicality of recycling conference papers. We've also written about the joys and complications of conference season. Lately, I have been wondering how many is too many? And, when you're not on the tenure track and don't have access to conference travel funds, how often should you pay out of pocket to attend a conference?

Like the author of this article and the author of this one I am of the mind that conferences are a great way to get a sense of your field, especially as a graduate student. I started attending conferences as a Masters student and throughout my degrees I went to LOTS. This was made possible both by my mentors who build conference travel funding into their RA budgets, as well as my choice to attend association conferences like ACCUTE which offer travel support for graduate students. But, if I really wanted to attend a conference and felt like it was going to be useful for my professional development I paid for it myself. Yes, even when I couldn't really afford it (which was most of the time). Wise? I'm not sure, but I can say that attending conferences has been integral to building my confidence in my own work. Then again, it takes a looong time to pay off conference travel if you couldn't really afford it in the first place.

I'm lucky right now. Though I am still in a contract position I am qualified to apply for some conference travel support through my university. This year all of my conference energy is focussed on the same project, meaning that unlike previous years when I've written papers that are conceived of specifically for the conference I want to attend, this year I am only submitting abstracts that come from or will turn into chapters in my manuscript project. This seems like an obvious tactic for the busy academic, but it has taken me years to realize that conferences can function as self-imposed writing deadlines for projects that extend beyond the twenty-minute presentation!

But not everyone is in a position to apply for travel funding, and in a job climate that seems to demand bigger! better! more! the pressure to attend as many conferences as possible and achieve Maximum Networking Time can be, well, daunting. While I'm no authority on the matter my feeling is that when funds and time are tight it is best to focus your energies on one significant conference in your field per year. Significant might mean big (lots of other interesting papers!) or small (no concurrent panels! sustained discussion over days!). That decision is ultimately up to you, you should decide what is best for you at this stage of your career and wallet. When you do choose a conference, ensure that you'll make the best of your time and money by preparing a paper you're proud to present

When they are well-curated and moderated conferences can be a wonderful way to network, to get a sense of your field, and to encounter emergent topics of study. Be realistic, do what is feasible for your schedule and your budget. 

What are your thoughts? How many conferences do you attend in a year?


  1. I aim for two, and I've done well with that goal. I've also aimed to slowly ramp up to the big leagues--I presented at two of the regional MLAs last year, and I'm presenting at the MLA this year (my fourth year of the PhD), and I'm putting together a panel for the MSA. It's going to be an intense spring, as it'll be DHSI and ACCUTE back-to-back and hopefully the EMiC conference in Paris right after, but that'll be it for the year, I think.

    It is hard to afford conferences, especially as a grad student; if I scrabble together all of the funding available at my institution, I can get back about $500, which in the case of the MLA might pay for my flight to Seattle if I schlep down to Buffalo from Toronto. I do make the effort to afford them, though. I need the practice. I need to get more comfortable sharing ideas, answering questions, taking criticism, networking, acting like a professor and not a grad student. And frankly, as a Canadianist my research travel is pretty limited (my dissertation research takes me to Winnipeg, London, Kingston, and Ottawa, but that's about it), so the chance to travel is appealing. 2012 may see me at conferences in Seattle, Paris, and Vegas. Pretty good for someone who writes exclusively about Toronto!

    I'm also pretty selective (now) about what I present; it either has to be about the edition I'm working on, or be part of my dissertation. One conference has already led to a publication and will get adapted into the introduction of the edition, and papers from two others are in my dissertation, so conferencing is multiply productive in that way. Some friends and I put together a panel proposal for the EMiC conference about grad students in the digital humanities, and one of the concerns we're aiming to talk about is the pressure for hyper-professionalization among grad students. I feel that pressure all the time, and in some ways, conferencing is just another way to stay a step ahead of my peers in terms of professional development and CV building. I don't know if it'll work in the end, but I'm giving it the ol' college try.

  2. One or two!

    I went maybe three years with no conferences, and that was too long: I felt like I was out of the loop networking-wise and thinking-wise. However, I still find many conferences extremely frustrating (bad venues, lousy papers, no social time, rotten coffee, too damn much traveling).

  3. I generally only go to one conference a year. Conference travel funding at my university is tied to applying to the tri-council (ha! I first wrote "try-council") funding agencies: if you don't apply for a SSHRC you don't get to apply for internal funding. Yeah, yeah, I know that getting external funding can be great. It can also be crucial to your research program. But so far, not for mine. And I resent the compulsion to apply for money.

    So, I choose my conferences carefully. They are based on two questions I ask myself: 1) will my intellectual tribe be there? 2) is the conference in a place I want to visit? 'Cos I pretty much always tag a holiday onto a conference. Don't you?

  4. I attend 2-3 every year (and sometimes an extra one where I'm not presenting). As a pre-tenure faculty member in an interdisciplinary program, I don't have a lot of opportunities to engage with others in my area of research. So, conferences are very important for me in terms of getting feedback on my work, networking, and finding out about what others are up to (and how their work is received by others in the audience).

    However, I'm in a good position to go a-conferencing: I have very good funding, I'm single with no children, and I often piggyback a short vacation onto one of my conference visits. In the summer of 2013, there two conferences that I'm planning to attend, both in the South of France and about 3 weeks apart. I foresee a nice vacation in there...

  5. Last year when I was doing my MA (full course load plus TAship) I did 4 or 5 (including Grad conferences and colloquiums). This year I haven't done any so far (too busy) but I have started applying again. 2-3 seems reasonable, but if something really great comes along I say go for it, if you can make the time! :)


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