The Purpose of Conferences

While I was a senior at Trinity, Harry Haines took me to the Western States Communication Association (WSCA) conference in Albuquerque. I had already applied to master’s programs (and was already starting to get quick rejections), so checking out WSCA was a way for me to get my feet wet in the world of academia and, frankly, to put my face in front of some admissions committees at the schools I applied to.

I loved WSCA, and I went to WSCA every year for the five years after Albuquerque – San Francisco 2005, Palm Springs 2006, Seattle 2007, Denver 2008, and Mesa 2009. I presented my first two papers and my first roundtable panel in Palm Springs, and I still remember vividly the feedback I received from the likes of Dave Natharius and Arne G’Schwind. The feedback was especially good. It was thorough, critical, but also constructive. Natharius and G’Schwind had taken careful notes, and in their role as respondent on these two paper panels, they presented their prepared commentary in the way a teacher would respond orally to the strengths and weaknesses of a student’s paper. I watched a lot of professors in the Media Studies Interest Group and Communication & Instruction Interest Group at WSCA provide serious, thorough critique in their roles as respondents. When you presented a paper at WSCA, you were guaranteed to walk away with constructive feedback to make your paper truly ready for submission to a journal.

As a regional conference of NCA, WSCA is largely a speech communication conference, and as my research veered away from rhetoric, it was difficult to justify going to the conference anymore. I also now live on the east coast, so WSCA makes little sense for me now.

WSCA is a shining example of what an academic conference should be. Papers are strong, people actually attend panels (even the ones at weird hours), and respondents take their job seriously. It’s also a hell of a social event, and the folks at WSCA are a close-knit group. I’ve heard similar positive appraisals of other regional conferences and small, boutique conferences like COCE.

But large conferences, in my experience, fail to provide what WSCA does. I’ve attended NCA and AEJMC and have not quite seen the level of quality in the respondents’ work. NCA is especially bad. At NCA, many of the panels have fewer than 10 people in the audience (and some don’t have an audience at all), and respondents roll into the panels with scant scribbles on cocktail napkins. The feedback is very light – a lot of “I like how you did this in your paper” and other empty reflections. Presenting a paper at a conference without a respondent publicly critiquing it is a pointless exercise – why not just post the paper online and call it a day? Why spend all the money (and for a grad student it’s a lot of money) to travel to some usually very expensive city with expensive convention hotels and present a paper without feedback to an empty room? (I should note that AEJMC is better than NCA in this regard. There are frequently sizable audiences, and a lot of the time respondents do their job).

I’ve heard my colleagues say bluntly that conferences aren’t really about presenting research, but rather they are about schmoozing. Yuck, I say. But they’re kind of right. An hour at a cocktail party, especially if you’re outgoing or have your advisor present to introduce you to people, is as valuable as an hour presenting cutting edge research on a panel. It’s a shame that this is the case, as a conference could definitely be about BOTH socializing and presenting research (like WSCA).

Grad students at conferences

The purpose of conferences for grad students is to get exposure, whether that is through presenting research or schmoozing, and to observe how the industry works. Showing up to an interest group’s business meeting is important for grad students, too. Sometimes just being present can land you an officer role in an interest group (AEJMC divisions, for instance, have graduate student liaisons, and WSCA sometimes lets advanced Ph.D. students sign up to review papers for next year’s conference or, in desperate situations, to be elected as a secretary in the group).

As a grad student, it can be intimidating to approach a small group of professors having a conversation at a social hour, especially if you’re still kind of star-struck by some of the “big names” in the game. A good way to do this is to email someone ahead of time. I’m a big fan of cold-calling and cold-emailing. Shoot someone an email ahead of time and ask if you can buy them some coffee at the conference. Tell them you want to pick their brain about some things and to connect over some common research/teaching interests. Professors are generally kind people who enjoy mentoring, so the worst that will happen is you’ll get an “I’m already booked at the conference, but let’s keep in touch through email” response. This is good enough, as you’ve at least succeeded in introducing yourself.

I’ve wandered a bit in this post, but I’ll part with some quick tips for grad students thinking about breaking into the conference scene:

  • Find a conference that suits you. Write a good paper and figure out where it belongs. Regional and boutique conferences tend to be a bit easier to get into than national conferences, but it also depends on the interest group. Ask around to see where your paper might fit in terms of conference and interest group. Also, if you’re more interested in good feedback but feel like you have to go to XYZ conference for the networking opportunities, you can always circulate your paper around to your peers for additional feedback.
  • Figure out funding. Will your department pay for your travel and your registration at a given conference? Do you know if there are matching funds available through different offices on campus to fill any gaps in funding? Can you truly afford to fill the gaps? Conferences can be enormously expensive, so be prepared. A conference in San Francisco costs a lot more than a conference in Albuquerque, and if the conference hotel is overpriced, are you able to walk or take a cab from a cheaper hotel? There’s also the cost of materials. If you submit a paper to AEJMC, for instance, you could be slotted into a poster session instead of a paper panel. Poster sessions are just as legitimate as a paper panel (and in many ways a lot more fun, relaxing, and networking-friendly), but the cost of producing a respectable poster can run anywhere from $20 to $200, not to mention the burden of lugging a poster tube on a plane and to the conference the day you present. There are a lot of things to think about in terms of cost.
  • Submit your work. This can’t be emphasized enough. If you don’t submit a paper, you can’t get a paper accepted to present at the conference, and this will likely mean that your department will not fund your travel. Write a paper you’re proud of. This will make it much easier to present without being nervous and insecure about your work. Or, team up with some colleagues and submit a panel proposal, a roundtable talk, or a workshop.
  • Dress the part. Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues what the attire at a given conference looks like. WSCA is pretty casual, AEJMC is a bit more formal, and I hear ECA is quite formal. That being said, you can never really go wrong with a good pair of slacks and a jacket (for men), and if you’re presenting a paper you may want to dress up just a bit more the day you present. It depends on the conference whether a tie will be necessary, and you’ll be fine in jeans at some conferences. Be sure to iron your clothes when you unpack. Ask around about attire.
  • Prepare your materials. Many conferences say to bring 25 copies of your full paper with you to give to people in the audience who ask for it. Don’t do this – it is ridiculous and wasteful and it adds about 20 pounds to your luggage. You’ll end up handing out one or two copies. Instead, have a few copies (2-3) on hand and connect with those interested in your paper in other ways. If someone asks for a copy of your paper, exchange business cards (or email addresses) and send your paper after the conference. This is better anyway, as you can provide your paper AND make a connection. That being said, you also need some business cards. Even if your title is just “master’s student,” you still need business cards. Ideally, these cards will have your university’s branding on them (check with your campus’ printing office to order these), and ideally you’ll also include a link to your website. Prepare a website to act as your virtual resume ahead of time and keep it up to date (more on building an online presence in a future post). Also have a pen on you at the conference.
  • Set up appointments. When the conference program becomes available online, build your personal schedule for the panels you want to see, and, of course, build in some meal time. Don’t just attend the panels you have a topical interest in. Also attend panels where people you admire are presenting. Observe these folks and learn the practice of good research from their performance. And, of course, walk up and say hi at the end of their panel. In your free time slots, try to set up some coffee meetings with people. Email them ahead of time and try to schedule a time to hang out at the conference. Bring your business cards.
  • Wining and dining. Have some cash on you at the conference. Always be prepared to split a check or pick up someone’s meal, and having cash on hand makes that process easier. Odds are, if you’re a grad student, some professor you’re eating with will try to buy your meal (because you’re poor and professors pity you), but you should at least attempt to pay your way. If you drink, then have a drink at the conference, but conferences are not the place to get drunk. That is, of course, unless you’re at WSCA, which prides itself on its parties. Even then, use good judgment. Cash bars are expensive, too, so have cash on hand. If you didn’t pay for the special lunch/awards dinner/banquet, don’t worry. If you linger around the entrance to the ballroom around the time the meal starts, you might just get handed some free tickets. A lot of folks opt out of these meals last minute, and you could find yourself waltzing in to a free meal and another opportunity to network and meet new people. Sometimes there are even fishbowls by the doors to these ballrooms full of tickets people are donating to starving grad students. Don’t be shy. Grab a ticket.
  • Know yourself, be yourself, ask questions, and relax. Figure out what exactly you’re into, as people may ask you many times over what you’re interested in researching. Then, be honest and true to yourself. People don’t like it when you’re nervous, so just try to relax and enjoy yourself. Professors aren’t stiff, generally, so don’t feel like you have to be quiet, stand at attention, and act like you’re in a job interview all the time. Don’t try to perform some alternate (better) version of yourself; it’s fake and off-putting, and people don’t like that stuff. And ask people a lot of questions about their interests and career path. You can learn a lot if you just talk to people.
  • After the conference. Shoot some thank you notes or emails to people who agreed to meet with you, bought you drinks, or gave you some great feedback on your paper. Continue the conversation with these folks into the future and link up with them at next year’s conference. If you were not able to make it to a particular panel to hear a specific paper, email the presenter and ask for a copy of the paper anyway. Connecting with people can lead to a lot of opportunities and some great friendships. You can find mentors, publication opportunities, friends, co-authors, jobs, etc. at these conferences, and it all comes from the human interaction you pursue. Also, after a conference, carry your research to the next level. Incorporate the feedback you receive and send that paper to a journal! And remember that you don’t have to present a paper first in order to publish it.

I’m curious to know if anyone else has some tips to add to this list. Feel free to comment.

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