Should I Go To Graduate Student Conferences?

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Andy, and many other readers, who have asked, “Should I go to a graduate student conference?”

The answer is, yes, once.  And after that, no.

The lines that “count” on your cv for tenure track jobs are lines that show significant peer review and competitiveness.  The acceptance process for major national disciplinary conferences is peer reviewed and competitive.

It is not so for most graduate student conferences.

Graduate student conferences make it easy for graduate students to present, which certainly is a major part of their appeal.  But the low barrier to entry also means that they fall under the “Costco” model of CV-building—cheap and low-value.

Secondarily, at the major national disciplinary conferences you will encounter and perhaps meet large numbers of successful and influential scholars in your field.  Few such scholars will be in attendance at a graduate student conference.   While meeting other graduate students from programs around the country does have value, as some of them will be successful and influential scholars one day as well,  at these conferences you will not have the intensive professionalization experience– of seeing senior scholars present, interact, pitch their books to editors, and so on –that socializes you for your own next career stage.

[Add:  Thirdly, as mentioned in the comment stream, graduate student conferences are not perceived as competitive in most cases.  This is a separate issue from whether x or y conference actually IS competitive.  I realize there may be one or another field-specific exceptions to this rule, but in general, search committees will not be familiar with any given graduate student conference on your campus.  They will most likely lump all grad student conferences together in a single category that they perceive to be not-rigorous and not-competitive.].

Nevertheless I do recommend that you go to a graduate student conference once or so, if the opportunity arises and costs you nothing, because you need formal presentation experience.

And if you have the discipline to submit annually to the major national conferences in your field while attending graduate student conferences on your campus or in your immediate area (ie, that cost you nothing), then the additional presentation experience  will be of benefit, and there is no harm in attending more than one.

The problem arises when you view the graduate student conference as an acceptable substitute for the hard and scary work of composing competitive submissions to, and actually attending and presenting at, the big national conferences.  Because then, at the end of your Ph.D., you will have a long list of conferences, to be sure, but not a list that serves you as a competitive tenure track job candidate.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Should I Go To Graduate Student Conferences? — 23 Comments

  1. I initially attended a few graduate conferences, but I’ve since found that the repeated experience let me experiment with my presentation style and refine it, which helped me quite a lot with lecturing. There is definitely a point, a deadline, where you have to stop presenting at anything that won’t have an impact. I’d say that you can do a few if a)they don’t cost anything extra that your wouldn’t pay for a holiday and b) they don’t take a huge amount of work. I’m an Australian student and a lot of my grad conferences were in the uk when I was there on a trip, so I used them as a way of practicing new ideas and testing out my thesis chapters.

  2. I agree completely — grad student conferences are a great way to get some experience, especially if you are nervous about presenting, but it’s important to move on quickly to full-strength professional conferences. They’re also a good opportunity to practice your networking skills with the people who will one day be your colleagues, but again, step up to the pro level quickly.

  3. Graduate student conferences are low risk, low reward endeavors. As long as the costs (both financial and opportunity) are acceptably low, however, I don’t see any reason to limit participation to one. I agree that a graduate student conference does little for a CV, but in this case the line is not the primary value. Like seminars, they are good places to practice a certain set of skills in a situation where you can make and learn from mistakes.

  4. I would question this issue of the non-competitiveness of grad student conferences. Yes, some of them definitely are not competitive, but others are. At least in my field, the departmentally-selected ones can be fiercely competitive, and the at-large ones can sometimes receive 100+ submissions for 6-10 paper slots. Whether they are perceived as competitive, however, is an entirely different question.

    • anonm, this is actually a very good point, and worth mentioning in the post itself. It is not simply an issue of whether or not the acceptance process is competitive….but whether or not it is perceived as competitive. And I suspect that random search comm members simply won’t know or take the time to find out whether x or y grad student conference on a cv was competitive or not. They’ll just assume they were not.

  5. you really have to stop calling it the costco model. costco is bulk, low cost, but pretty much everything is high quality. the more proper phrasing, though still not completely adequate, would be the walmart model. and yeah, a graduate conference as your very first conference to present very early on is a nice way to get your toes wet. it’s the training wheel model of conferencing.

  6. Can someone give an example of a graduate student conference? I’m only familiar with professional organization conferences like ASHE, AERA, etc.

    • StephanieMZ: In my experience, graduate student conferences seem more common in the humanities and certain social sciences. (Actually, I’ve heard of a couple in the physical sciences and engineering as well.) In education, which I presume is your field, a grad student conference that may actually appear to be somewhat “competitive” (due to the trickle-down effect of prestige imparted by the host institution) is the Student Research Conference put on each spring by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (It’s open to grad students from anywhere, but there’s no funding for attendees, so most come from the Cambridge-Boston area.) The College of Education at the University of Illinois started a similar conference in 2011, also held in the spring and open to graduate students from anywhere. I presume more such conferences are out there; perhaps it helps to ask around. (The grad students you meet at ASHE or AERA would be great people to ask about these matters. In my experience, though, graduate students in education tend to be more parochial than those in most other fields–meaning their professional networks do not reach across the country [as they should]. There’s a reason, of course, and it has to do with the “professional,” almost instrumental nature of the degrees qua credentials.)

      • P.S. I see I answered a question that you didn’t directly ask, StephanieMZ, presuming you wanted to know about grad student conferences in education. For general examples of grad student conferences in, say, Asian studies (a field I also know something about), Google any of the following conferences:
        — Harvard East Asia Society Conference
        — Columbia Graduate Student Conference on East Asia
        — University of Toronto East Asian Studies Graduate Student Conference
        These are all lovely affairs, complete with lovely food and drink–and opportunities to schmooze, at least occasionally, with star faculty from the host institutions (plus, if your not from such exciting places, the opportunity to hang out in Cambridge, NYC, and Toronto). I’m still in touch with folks I met *years* ago at these conferences. Dr. Karen is right that conferences are all about meeting people and networking, so you want to go to the conferences where could-be-beneficial-to-meet folks will be in attendance (and then you want to make a point of meeting with them).

  7. Excellent insight. I was wondering, as a graduate student, if too many conferences on a CV can be detrimental. Is there a proper limit to these grad. conferences even if I am presenting at the national conferences as well?

    • In theory there is no such thing as too many conferences. But in practice, in my work with clients (and also my asst profs when I was department head), I notice that sometimes a person will just get overly invested in conference-going to the exclusion of actual publishing. conferences are fun and gratifying and you get to drink. Writing adn publishing are excruciating, slow, and painful. So, sometimes a person will slip into the habit of too much time spent at conferences, too little in the room in front of the computer screen. But if you maintain a long and dynamic list of refereed journal articles, then no, there is no such thing as too many conferences.

  8. A comment and a question: In my department, we get reimbursed once a year for conference attendance, so up until this year I have used this allowance to visit graduate school conferences. Both trips were to places I wanted or needed to go, including a trip to NY for a conference that then allowed me to go on an archival trip to a nearby facility for next to nothing in cost. This year I will present at my first major national conference, and now that I am ABD and nearly finished with my research I have stopped applying to and attending graduate school conferences. So here is my question: should I not even bother listing most of the previous conferences I went to on my C.V., and list only the national conference and maybe one other graduate school conference? If so, on what basis should I select it? I coauthored a paper at an interdisciplinary conference at Columbia, but I also gave individual paper presentations at two field-specific conferences elsewhere. Would listing three graduate school conferences drown out the national conference I will be attending this year, or will it be obvious that I am moving up in the conference circuit? Sorry, that was more than one question . . . thank you for all of your advice!

    • Yikes, no! list all conferences, including graduate student ones! Now, years from now when you’re well established and approaching tenure, then you can consider removing the grad student conferences from years back. But for all your grad school and first job search years, leave them on. They do not count AGAINST you. They just are limited in the degree to which they count FOR you.

  9. In my eyes if the conference is within reasonable driving distance, the paper you present is already written, and these are people that may do you favors in the future, these sort of things are worthwhile-ish.

  10. I agree with Dr. Karen’s advice. It can be quite beneficial to attend a graduate student conference early in one’s graduate student career. I attended my one and only graduate student conference at the end of my grad student career because I liked the topic, the location, and the key note speakers. I must say my discussant was excellent and offered the best feedback I have ever received (and I have presented at my major association conference). Also, I noticed that the grad students in their first and second years presented sketches of the literature they were dealing with and plans for future research. This is something I never knew could happen. I always thought that I needed to be presenting my own research findings from research I had already done.

  11. I think this is great advice. I was AT my third graduate student conference when I realized that I was basically using them as a crutch — I felt comfortable in those settings and was using them to feel like I was participating in conference culture without doing anything too “scary.” And the truth was, I had doubts about my ability to even get an abstract ACCEPTED at the big conferences. I forced myself to quit the grad student conference thing, though, and apply for the big stuff, and it totally paid off — I presented at two major “real” conferences this past year, and next year I’m doing the two biggest ones in my field, plus the biggest one in a related field. Sometimes I think grad students aren’t even made aware of the fact that they CAN be real contenders for those conferences. Certainly no one told me to apply for them.

    That said, those grad students conferences WERE valuable, to some extent. I met lots of great people, honed my presentation skills, and got to make a lot of observations about what works and what doesn’t work in a conference setting.

  12. Karen’s right: the graduate conference is a great tool to use ONCE. Also, they can be a blast (in the bar, after you’ve given your paper!). After doing one, the best thing is to get a solo paper admitted to a regular academic meeting or to join a pre-formed panel, so if you’re submission is still rough around the edges or in the early stages of development you can ride in with the others. I’ve put together a few panels that had a combination of seasoned academics and grad students on them together. They always turn out well and grad students learn a lot from the other presenters. Also, there’s no shame in going to conferences that are close to you – no one will notice how much money you spent to get there!

    • At my most recent conference experience, senior scholars could have learned a lot from the grad students, as the grad student papers were, on the whole, far superior to those given by senior scholars. In this particular case, only grad students who had achieved candidacy were eligible to give papers, and they took their task seriously. (As did junior and most mid-career scholars.) Some of the mid-career and many of the senior scholars, however, apparently forgot what a tight, interesting conference paper is. They blabbed on without an argument and generally bored the audience. But the grad students, they displayed some fine work.

  13. This is exactly right. I always tell grad students that presenting at one grad conference is a good idea if it will help them build the confidence to begin presenting at regular conferences. It’s useful exactly to the extent that it’s a means to that end. It’s like training wheels: there’s nothing wrong with them as long as they help you graduate to a regular bike. But if you stick with training wheels too long, you look weird and pathetic–or maybe it’s a sign that biking is just not your sport.

  14. Ironically, this post arrived just as I was preparing to go to a graduate conference. But there were many reasons why I wanted to go, primarily because the conference was in Berlin, and I very much wanted to go to Berlin, partly as I was also able to tack on going to Ireland to visit friends in the bargain. And I met some lovely people, including senior scholars who came to do keynotes. And I got to practice the art of giving an academic presentation again, something which still seems to elude my grasp because I usually can’t stop my voice from shaking. Will anyone care that I went? My supervisor seems to think that it was good for me, perhaps because it was in Europe rather than North America. The university very kindly paid most of the costs and the conference organizers were extremely good to us, giving us transit tickets, paying most of the hotel, feeding us most meals, waiving any conference fees, touring us around Berlin, etc. I would say that the main point of this conference for me was just to remind me that there is a broader context to my work than keeping my nose to the thesis grindstone. When you take a few minutes to look up and look around, you can forge your own lasting network of equals without the stress of having to impress the “important” people.

    • As I said, as long as you don’t pay your own money to go, and as long as they never substitute for national conferences and the writing work you have to do, and as long as they don’t become a habit, you can certainly consider going to conferences like this.

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