Halfway through Conference Season

Half of the year has passed, so we’re also halfway through Conference Season. For my part, I hope I am actually through with it for this year. I’ve been presenting three different papers in four different locations, and this experience made me want to share a few thoughts and impressions. Sometimes, the choices of which conference to attend can be tough, especially if the budget is small and the options many, so I will give you a short overview about pro’s and con’s of some of the typical features. They’re probably not exhaustive, so feel free to add others in the comment section!

The Annual/Biannual/etc. Association’s Conference: Even though depending on the association, this one is likely to be the biggest in terms of numbers of people attending and papers presented. Panels are 100% sure to be parallel, with you having to choose between all the interesting topics, because (Murphy’s Law for Conferences:) they’re most likely going to happen at the same time. Also, Networking can be difficult and exhausting here, because of the sheer number of people to engage with. But the upside is that nowhere else will you have the opportunity to attend a great variety of different topics in such a short time, and you get a good idea of what people are currently doing in your field. Also, using this one to the full capacity, it offers you the possibilty of attending sessions on topics that are underrepresented at your home institution, or things you always wanted to have a closer look at, but didn’t have the time to read into on your own.

The Exotic Destination: There’s a conference on something related to your research focus in [fill in your dream destination]? If you have the possibility to get funding for that, well “Hell, yeah!” Make sure to apply on time, and make use of your trip by extending your stay as much as possible. Be aware: People who come to conferences like that and only show up to present their own paper, suck! You don’t want to be one of those, so make sure you do spend some time with your peers. Some of the most enjoyable stays can result from exploring the destination together with others who think the same, but also attended a good deal of the conference, so you can gossip together while enjoying a sunset somewhere you might never have had the budget to go to by yourself.

The National Discipline-Focussed Conference: This is where Nerd Meets Nerd. Even though a lot like the Association’s Annual Conference, the one with the disciplinary focus differs in size, and is way less international. If you’re eyeing with good discussions about your field without having to explain the very basic approaches and concepts, and if you can live with an often only national audience, this one might be your choice. Depending on your language skills, this might be a convenient option, because you can present and discuss in one language only, for the most part. Of course, networking in your mothertongue might also be an advantage.

The Small, Local Conference: Lord knows it’s not a fancy destination, and you might even know a third of the attendees already, but there is something special and often underrated about the small, local (often also young scholars-specific) conferences. You attend all panels together with everybody who came, and can actually build on the discussions. This one is likely to remind you of some highschool summer camp, because even though you’re obviously there to learn, there will also be a good deal of gossip, drinking, and the occasional romance. The (more) academic friendships that sometimes result from these encounters can last a lifetime, and might get you the needed couch on your next conference-on-a-shoestring.

The Prestigious University/Department: This is the one for the CV. While of course all others go there as well, adding a paper presented in one of those is like catching a rare Pokemón on the very first attempt! The nervousness will be bigger, als will your own expectations. You might be disillusioned by the place, atmosphere, quality of papers and/or discussions, or even the catering. But if this one works well, it migt be your entrance to a whole new level of academic experience.

Off-Topic: You have never seen or done anything like this before. It’s not astrophysics for sociologists, but maybe something like Initiation-Rituals in Polynesia, when your research focuses on Memory Pratices in Post-Socialist Socities. If it caught your attention anyway (Exotic destination? Fancy keynote?), and you can get funding, why not take your interest seriously?! Sometimes the most innovative turns in your work and thinking are the results of such chance encounters.

The Fancy Keynote Speaker: Actually you just want to go to see this one person in action. Maybe you imagine yourself engaged in a stimulating discussion with one of the key figures of your field, or just want to see how that person performs outside of an academic monograph or paper. While that sure is a good reason to attend a conference, be aware that the impression you get there might influence the way you continue reading that person’s work. As with the prestigious host, the fancy keynote may deceive you, when you see one of your heros deliver a boring speech, fail to engage the audience, or simply don’t bother about them at all.

Everything Screams “Me!”: This one’s the jackpot! You like everything about it (topic, location, keynote, format), and the topic is closely related to what you’re doing, but also sufficiently broad to give you inputs you haven’t already thought of on your own. What are you waiting for? Apply, and Fingers crossed!


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