Why and How to Do Conferences

I was in the City of Lakes last weekend, visiting a friend, getting freaked out by the state Republican convention (bumper sticker: “Proud to be a Right Wing Extremist”), and giving a talk at a small-ish history conference.  This is the eighth (maybe ninth?) time I’ve made a conference presentation, which I think is above average for a fourth-year PhD candidate.  In fact, a few of my grad school colleagues have never given a talk, and some have never even gone to a conference.  This is a shame, because conferences can have a significant pay-off–if you play it right.  So, my top three suggestions for conferences:

  • Make a presentation–don’t just go.  Okay, maybe go to one conference just to see what it’s like.  But when you present, all the good stuff about conferences gets easier: people introduce themselves to you, they ask questions and make suggestions, you meet fellow panelists, etc.
  • Go to smallish conferences.  I’m sure presenting at the AHA is good for your CV.  But if you want to meet interested, interesting, and generally friendly people, small conferences are the way to go.  There are fewer pretensions; usually, people are actually interested in improving their (and your) work, rather than chalking up CV points.  Smaller conferences are usually easier to get into, as well.
  • Get away.  I usually don’t go to more than three panels–my own and two others.  Okay, maybe one other panel.  I’m really selective: the papers have to be directly relevant to my work and/or the presenters have to be interesting people.  Otherwise, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a stuffy hotel room in the afternoon is a waste of life.  Go hang out for a bit in the lobby or the book exhibit talking to people, but then get outside the hotel.  If you’re lucky (or just selective in choosing your conferences), you can visit friends.  In any case, enjoy the city: check out the sights, eat at some good restaurants, have fun.  The whole experience will improve, and you’ll be more likely to go to other conferences.

All that said, conferences, even the small ones, can be pretty exhausting.  Flights, hotels, being away from spouse/family–all that generally stinks.  But it could be worse.  You could have a real job.

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