Are All Graduate Student Conferences Created Equal?
For Attendees from Other Campuses, Not Always
As faculty advisers and mentors emphasize, graduate students need to learn how to present their work as a part of professionalization. Since delivering a paper at the AHA annual meeting or other large conferences can intimidate even experienced speakers, graduate student conferences can be great places to get feedback on ideas and to practice articulating arguments. But this raises the question: What makes for a good graduate student conference?
There are many such conferences throughout the academic year. I count 33 that I know of, and most of these are in the area where I live; there are many more scattered across the country. But not all are equally helpful, at least not in the same way. Just because a school is “elite” does not mean its conference will be more useful to the beginning graduate student than that of a smaller program. The truth is, some graduate student conferences are more worthwhile to participants than others. And that might not be evident to ambitious students early in their studies.
The process of participating in a graduate student conference starts with the call for papers. CFPs typically ask for abstracts, give the date of the conference, and note that papers on a wide range of topics will be considered. But CFPs don’t always reveal key details that would help people who want to submit proposals. For example, many do not note the particular areas in which the conference will specialize or its target audience. For example, CFPs could mention that a conference encourages master’s students in particular to participate. A conference for such students is valuable since they have different needs and goals from those pursuing a PhD. Furthermore, students in doctoral programs could then contact the organizers to help them judge how appropriate it would be for them to apply, and adjust their expectations accordingly. Such early information could also enable the selection committee to save time in evaluating proposals.
Organizing a conference also includes making decisions about how many panels and sessions there should be. In my experience, a “less is more” approach generally is helpful. The more panels there are, the greater the division of the audience. If there’s only one or at most two panels per session, the rooms will be fuller. A lack of audience members diminishes the experience of presenting, since fewer questions might be asked and discussion might be limited to a few opinions. Thus, minimizing the number of panels per session, but increasing the number of sessions, could ensure a greater number of participants, improving a conference’s overall utility.
When it comes to the panels themselves, not to mention the general spirit of the conference, faculty buy-in is essential. At some graduate student conferences, professors might stop by to see an advisee speak, but functions like chairing panels or commenting on papers might be left to graduate students. This could be due to a range of issues, including time availability, departmental expectations of professors, and the way graduate students and faculty interact professionally in the program. But this absence can leave a negative impression on graduate students from outside the program, if they came expecting otherwise.
Some graduate student conferences are more worthwhile to participants than others. And that might not be evident to students.
This is not to demean the contributions of graduate students, who can provide useful and insightful feedback. But receiving comments from someone who is well advanced in their academic career and has experience with the process of writing and defending a dissertation provides added value. At graduate student conferences, many presenters cull their presentations from their own dissertations and theses, so the insights of an expert can be highly productive, whether it is related to the writing process or subject expertise. But too often, information about faculty participation is only evident after the conference-goers have committed to attending, and sometimes not until they show up. If at all possible, then, organizers should make clear to the prospective participants just who will be reading and discussing their work. In this context, a lack of faculty participation raises questions about the departmental culture of the host institution and the involvement of faculty not only in supporting their own students, but in improving the work of the academy as a whole. Unless carefully explained, absence implies a lack of interest.
Just as at large conferences, atmosphere and ambience play a large role in the participants’ overall enjoyment. Space is one concern. While classrooms make good choices for panels, proper spaces for receptions and meals take more thought. Part of what a conference does is, for better or worse, to show off the university. While this may not be a serious concern for the students who already attend the school, a conference is an opportunity to introduce the university to others. A conference provides the history department and the university itself with the prospect of attracting master’s students to their PhD program, for example, or simply leaving a positive memory. Accordingly, depending on their budgets, conference organizers should consider working with their departments to host meals in more striking locales (and department chairs and directors of graduate studies should be open to the discussion). Most schools have a connection with a hotel, faculty club, or local restaurant that can make what can be an exhausting experience one that is well-remembered.
A related concern is how students who go to schools outside the hosting university are treated. To the greatest extent possible, conference organizers should make special efforts to welcome visiting students. It is easy for students to fall back on the familiar and interact among themselves, essentially forming a clique. Too often, visiting students and hosting students are in separate groups at receptions and meals, with any professors in attendance interacting primarily with the latter group. The effort of organizers to make visitors feel at home, to get to know them, and to introduce them to other students and professors with like interests, creates a more enjoyable and welcoming experience. And not least, it also enhances professional networks as well as the skills needed to form them.
From a graduate student perspective, another element of hospitality is important. As anyone who has been to a conference knows, it’s hard to sit through an 8:00 a.m. panel without a cup of coffee and a doughnut or bagel. The same is true for the fourth panel of the day, where a little sugary pick-me-up can help galvanize and refocus the mind. Such concerns might seem like the last thing organizers should think about. After all, shouldn’t the main focus of any conference be on sharing research? Yet grumbling stomachs have a way of limiting the productivity of a panel. If the audience is hungry and thinking about food, they might ask few questions, doing a disservice to the work that panelists put in.
We need a better system to ensure that graduate students get the most out of these opportunities to present their work. Given the limited amount of funding for travel, lodging, and registration that graduate students receive, not to mention the fact that their means are limited to begin with, there needs to be more information available to allow them to make informed choices about which conferences to attend.
When it comes to the panels themselves, not to mention the general spirit of the conference, faculty buy-in is essential.
Organizers should first of all think more about the purpose of a conference, as should the faculty who support the organizers. If the goal for participants is to network and practice for a large conference, then professors need to attend and interact, not only with their own students, but also with others who are presenting. This is an opportunity to expand a network and perhaps even entice an outside reader to join one’s committee.
Programs that cannot afford to help students by subsidizing a research-oriented conference could focus on a different element of professionalization. Public speaking, for example, is a skill directly related to teaching and the world beyond academia, but it does not come easily for all graduate students. Honing public speaking skills is therefore a worthy purpose for a conference and may be as important to a particular graduate student as garnering feedback on research. Or maybe organizers envision a conference at which graduate students can establish a network for themselves, rather than trying to get the attention of tenured professors. These goals are worthy, too, so organizers should communicate them to those contemplating attending as early as possible.
It may be that conference organizers can establish a network among one another, sharing tips on writing CFPs, fundraising, and other common issues. Additionally, advisers should learn more, via their own networks, about how graduate student conferences work at other schools. They should make sure to ask students about their experiences at annual conferences, especially concerning faculty engagement and the quality of feedback received, as well as other elements of professionalization. As discussed earlier, advisers’ lack of information affects the students who do attend, who often have little idea about what they’re getting into until they see the program.
Departments and faculty should think carefully about how they support graduate student conference organizers, and organizers should articulate realistically the purpose of their conference and what they can offer attendees, starting with the CFP. If these two groups work in tandem, they can ensure an enjoyable and productive conference for all.
Paul Braff is a PhD candidate in American history at Temple University. His research focuses on African American history and public health during the 20th century. He is an AmeriCorps Education Award recipient and a former research fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.
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