Making Head or Tail of Academic Conferences

For any doctoral student or senior professor, conferences are an important part of academic life. They give you an opportunity to market your work and carve out a niche for yourself among your peers, get feedback on work in progress, build networks with potential employers or collaborators – basically put your name and profile out there. They also enable you identify what is at the cutting edge research now: what questions people are focusing on, what methods are popular, what theories are used rhetorically.

The intense conference season in Europe is coming to an end as we transition into autumn, and I have only now just begun to understand the academic conference cycle. I would like to share some lessons I’ve been learning. I hope this helps someone somewhere.

In most cases, young scholars know that they need to participate in conferences (for the reasons above), but have to figure out the whens, hows and whethers on their own. Questions like:

  • Which conferences should I take part in? How do I find out about the best places to present my work? Which conferences are considered top-tier?
  • How many conferences, given my limited financial resources?
  • How should I write abstracts? How do I align my work to the main themes of the conference(s)?
  • Is it OK to present the same paper to several conferences?
  • How do I structure my conference presentations? Etc

If you happen to be in a highly disciplinary programme, such questions get answered quickly purely by observing how senior students organise their academic schedules, from discussions with professors, from internal mailing lists that circulate Calls for Papers, from visiting scholars who promote conferences they are affiliated to, etc. Things might be different for those who are either conducting highly multidisciplinary work, or are on a traditional independent doctoral research track where they rarely mingle with colleagues, or are part of an unstructured doctoral programme. So how does one navigate the murky waters of conference participation?

First, a Google search is one way to go, if one doesn’t know where to start (in the case of having no useful networks, having an uninformed supervisor, being completely solo in research pursuits). Search for upcoming conferences in your field or sub-field (as simple as typing the following search terms: “[discipline or sub-discipline] AND conference AND 2015 AND [some key words]”). NB: There are many unscrupulous people out there using academic conferences to make money, so one has to be careful when selecting events off a Google-search. Just ask a senior academic what they think of the conference before wasting your paper and funds in such places! Another way to find relevant conferences is to check journal article reference lists for papers published in conference proceedings that seem relevant to your work. Sometimes authors state that they presented an earlier version of that work in such and such conference or workshop, and you can then check out if it’s a regular meeting.

Secondly, it goes without saying that one must plug into a network of scholars pursuing similar interests. A connection to just one such scholars (your supervisor, for instance) provides an opportunity to ask such questions. One must be proactive about building networks, be it joining discipline-specific or topic-specific Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Google Groups mailing lists, cold-emailing a few people with overlapping research interests, among others. Check which professional bodies exist for your field, e.g. ACM for computer science people, INFORMS for management science people, INOMICS for economists, etc. These bodies generally organise or disseminate alerts about serious conferences. Enrol or sign up for their mailing lists. Information flows through networks.

Thirdly, participation in just one major conference in your field is enough to get started, as it already opens up opportunities to network, collect more information about upcoming relevant conferences, and plug into conference-specific or disciplinary mailing lists where such information gets circulated regularly. Most major conferences are annual or biennial, so one can already prepare to participate in the next conference. I must note here that sometimes attending a conference without presenting a paper (just pay the conference fees and show up!) is very useful, as you get the benefits of being in the conference without the pressure of preparing and presenting a paper and impressing people. You can then network completely unrestrained and garner a mountain of information for the future.

Fourth, a conference participation strategy is important. As you get more plugged in and more informed, the number of potential conferences for your research increase. It is impossible to take part in everything. Strategic planning therefore becomes very important. I have learnt that conference cycles (from the call for papers, submission, peer review, final submission, presentation, and maybe further peer review and publication in proceedings) can last anywhere from 3 months to one year or more. Thus, it’s impractical or inefficient to act spontaneously to conference calls especially if one is targeting top-tier conferences. It then becomes useful to look at the array of conferences; look at your work; make decisions about which work will be presented where, and when; whether abstracts or full papers are required (which determine how you organise your preparation time); whether the audiences in these conferences are similar of different (which helps decide whether to present a paper multiple times); etc. This year I had a list of 9 potentially good conferences for my work, but I only managed to successfully submit abstracts and papers to 4 of them, due to poor planning on one part, and not knowing about the conference calls in time on the other. (NB: I wasn’t intending to participate in all of them, but I missed two very good opportunities to present my work, that I highly regret, but consider a lesson for the next year).

Many top-tier conferences, in my field(s) at least, happen to be in Europe or the US. Most of these conferences are scheduled during the warmer spring/summer/autumn months between May and October. As a consequence, most submission deadlines fall between December and May. This means that between October and January, I must already be making decisions about which conferences I will participate in, whether my funding will be sufficient and if not, how to raise additional funds. At the same time, I must be packaging my research into decent papers that can be accepted into these conferences. It’s a question of working backwards to ensure that my next academic year is as productive as possible. These lessons are learnt on the job, hopefully during doctoral training so that by the time one joins the ‘real world’, they have gotten the hang of it.

I should also comment about aligning abstracts and papers to conference themes. Ideally, one should select conferences whose themes overlap with one’s research. However, even within conferences, one must make decisions about which conference tracks to submit to despite the overarching homogenous theme. This might require some tweaking (ethical tweaking!!) of the narrative of the paper or abstract to resonate with the relevant track, to reduce chances of rejection. I have realised that this is an art that comes with time as you learn how to pick up the sometimes subtle agendas of conferences. For instance, if it’s a conference focusing on policy influences of the scholarly work in the given discipline, then it bodes well for you if you emphasise the policy implications of your work. If the conference is focusing on empirics and methodology, then it bodes well if you highlight the methodological novelties in your work, etc. The same applies to the type of audience likely to be present at the conference. If your work in multidisciplinary, as mine is, presenting in disciplinary conferences may require that you highlight the novelties of your work relating to that specific discipline. For instance, when presenting to economists, I should emphasise this angle of my work, but when presenting to management people, or sociologists, then I should emphasise a different part of my work without compromising the authenticity of my contribution across the disciplines. It’s quite political as you can see, and no one really teaches you the politics of surviving academia unless you have an exceptionally charitable supervisor.

All in all, my research has heavily been influenced by the things I’ve heard at conferences, and by the networks I’ve built in the places I’ve been. Conferences are the places where you find people who share your research interests, almost to the letter, and it’s very exciting to talk about your work with people like that, and forge long-term relationships. These people keep you in the loop of what’s up in the discipline, be it job vacancies, information about research grants, journal special issue calls, etc. In addition, the global friendships built ice the conference-participation cake!

Check out this PhD Comic about failed conference presentations 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Making Head or Tail of Academic Conferences

  1. hey Elsie, nice blog, very informative for someone like me, as I just started my PhD, and I indeed have to start thinking about the whereabouts of presenting at / attending conferences in 2015…

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