"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Take on Academic Conferences

UPDATE: Apparently, according to this IHE article, my experience is not at all uncommon. But if you're reading this blog, you probably knew that already -- probably from your own "beer and circuses" conference experiences. And then there's this, too. How timely!

A few recent posts around the blogosphere, such as here and here, have exposed academic conferences for the expensive charades they often are. While my experiences differ somewhat from what others have written, I don't really disagree with their assessment. Here are some reasons why the conference I've been invited to and will present at this spring will most likely be my last:

Conferences really are too damned expensive to be paying for out-of-pocket, most especially if you are an underpaid graduate student or adjunct, since they are, for all practical purposes, "required" for furthering your academic career.
Didn't you just throw up a little in your mouth when I said "furthering your academic career"? Of course you did! In all seriousness, the only reason I participated in as many conferences as I did as a graduate student was I had funding. My department had a policy about allotting X dollars to each graduate student for X number of years to attend conferences IF AND ONLY IF you were presenting a paper. So, I presented a bunch of papers and got funding. When this source ran dry, I applied for outside travel grants and got them.

When I think about it in retrospect, what a waste! Providing travel funds to graduate students allowed the department to pat itself on the back for "supporting" us with what must have essentially been a mere drop in their budgetary bucket, certainly MUCH less than paying us a fair wage for teaching, while at the same time, in practical terms doing absolutely NOTHING to further our "careers." But I never would have gone without that "support," so I suppose I should be grateful, right? Right.

I will be paying for this upcoming conference out-of-pocket. Not a big deal, really. I can afford my own plane ticket and room, eat decent meals, and even buy myself a few drinks without draining my bank account. But ... if I had to absorb this expense every year, more than once a year ... on an adjunct's salary? Even an assistant prof's salary?? You've got to be kidding. What would be the point, if not "furthering your career"? Intellectual development? Yeah. I just threw up in my mouth a little more ...

Conference papers can be quite good but mostly are quite bad ... and what's the point anyway?
I've heard some astonishingly good papers over the years, papers that entertained, papers that made me think in ways I'd never thought before, papers that set my brain on fire through the sheer power and play of language. Papers that just plain blew my mind. But ... a lot of papers put me to sleep, too. More often than not, conference papers are less than brilliant.

Personally, I've been on both sides of the good/bad paper divide. I know well the time and effort it takes to write a paper that puts people on the edges of their chairs, a paper praised by a leading scholar in your field, a paper that leads to a publication. All of those things have happened to me. But I've also pulled papers out of my ass the night before I left town for the conference. Those papers were terrible. No doubt I put a few people to sleep. No doubt a few sensitive souls were embarrassed on my behalf.

My point, though, is this: What's the difference? Nobody cares if you read a boring paper. They'd just as soon sleep or surreptitiously pull out their laptops and work on their own papers anyway, pretending they're taking notes. On the other hand, if you read a brilliant paper, you'll certainly feel better about yourself ... you'll receive praise and possibly publication invitations. But none of this will lead to a job in academe. Simply going to "share ideas" may leave you intellectually enriched (wait, I think I just threw up a little in my mouth again!!), but you won't be able to appreciate your intellectual enrichment properly because you'll also be just plain broke.

Social events at conferences bring out the worst in the type of socially challenged people one often finds among academics.
I usually hide out in my hotel room and avoid these things like the plague. At the last conference I attended, I made the mistake of going to one. There was an open bar. Actually several. On my third drink, I found myself in a conversation with the chair of one panel I had presented on and a fellow presenter from my other panel (yes, I presented on two panels at the same conference and was loopy with the excitement of it all ... which is why I went to the reception ...). So, I'm talking to these people, and, as the alcoholic fog begins to clear, I realize that BOTH of them are A) drunker than I am and B) hitting on me. WTF?!? And, as if that weren't awkward enough, one is a man and the other a woman, and they ARE TRYING TO GET RID OF EACH OTHER so as to have my undivided attention. And (!!?) just as this is occurring to me, to my horror, I also realize a member of my committee (this is pre-defense, mind you), possibly drunker than all of us, has been watching the entire spectacle for god only knows how long. You better believe I excused myself and got the f#$k away from there as fast as I possibly could.

Hopefully, at the upcoming conference, I will have the sense to remind myself of this travesty and avoid similar situations. But, then again, who cares? Since I am no longer under the delusion that such "networking" will further my career, why not enjoy the free booze? Lecherous colleagues and leering committee members be damned.

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In all seriousness, I will do my best to write a "good" paper rather than one that puts people to sleep, and paying my own way for once will help me better appreciate why this will likely be my last conference.
If you're still having conference envy, want a good laugh, and haven't read this book yet, I highly recommend it.


  1. hahahah! Your post describes academic conferences perfectly. In a last ditch attempt to salvage my career last month I paid to attend a god-awful conference in the name of networking. I even attended the conference dinner. After realising that none of this was going to get me a job, and that I really didn't want to network with any of the awful people at the conference (although I met some nice graduate students), I just proceeded to drink the free wine and get everyone on the dancefloor. This was quite challenging as a) everybody knows sociologists just don't dance, and b) the 'band' was in fact a ukele orchestra playing a string of very bad covers. I think I well and truly got over trying to network anymore when one of the very nice organisors (ie graduate student) told me she overheard a table of very senior staff belittling the people who were dancing and commenting on how badly they were dancing/dressed/gave papers.

  2. Oh my! This post has totally inspired me to write about my conference travel experiences at a later date. I have had a knack over the years of having the WORST conference luck. Obscure rashes? Strange weather? An assortment of "colorful" networking functions? Check to all of the above. I can't wait to share!