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.