Advice for Graduate Students and Others on Attending Academic Conferences

Dan Lindley

May 17, 2004Dec 11 2013

Ver .184/d.

            People go to academic conferences for a variety of different reasons ranging from presenting papers and meeting colleagues and old friends, to trying to help themselves get a job or get their book published. Often, many of these goals are pursued simultaneously.

            This handout addresses numerous issues and questions: which conference to go to, how to get there, and the numerous things that answer the question: what to do while there?

Before the Conference

Which Conference to Go To?

            The answer lies in subfield specialization and individual circumstance. Coming from international relations, I go to APSA, ISA, and also I usually go to the Midwest. Midwest is largely Americanists, but it is close to ND, the international relations part is growing, and I’ve gotten lucky sometimes and really learned a lot (or met a potential publisher). So one has to pick based on one’s interests, one’s funding, where one is accepted, etc. APSA is the best on a general level: most competitive, best place to find most of the people you want to find, best place to do job stuff (in part b/c timing, in part b/c wide attendance, in part b/c only semi-serious job interviews), best to meet publishers (b/c more go to APSA by far than others I know of). ISA is really fun for IR types b/c it is the most international, so you can learn/meet a lot more broadly than from even APSA. Midwest is OK for IR and good for American (this is my understanding. I’m not sure which is more competitive between Midwest and ISA: fewer IR slots and fewer IR applicants, vs. the reverse, respectively).

            Part of presenting at conferences is to begin to establish your track record as an ascendant scholar. Hiring committees want to know: Will you be famous? What is your trajectory? A question that therefore arises is:

When Should You Begin to Go to Conferences?

            Sooner is better, but too soon is bad. A good part of the answer is practical: What material do you have to present? Can you get funding? Was your proposal accepted? More subtly, the answers lie in where you are in your grad school career and what you have to offer. If you are before exams, and you present, and you aren’t ready, and you make bad impressions in your courses (or failed your exams) because you prepared to present in front of the poohbah you somehow got on a panel with, well, that doesn’t seem worth it. On the other hand, some students have a number of seminar papers or dissertation chapters that are worthy of presentation, and conference deadlines often spur useful revisions (let me underscore this: a MAJOR purpose of conferences for almost everyone I know is to spur progress on papers or dissertations that are already on your hard disk in some form). Progress comes from the deadline-induced work, as well as from hopefully constructive and thorough critiques.

            If you just want to attend a conference, you might always think about attending when you are close and the opportunity costs are small. I have never seen anyone check for badges if you are in a pinch, aren’t presenting, and can’t get funding (you get a conference badge when you sign up and pay with your name and affiliation on it. The badges are key to ‘remembering’ people, etc. Badge reading is an arcane conference art....). One should support the various organizations as possible though.

Submitting a Proposal

            There is no great mystery to submitting a proposal. The online forms make things clear. You should have a paper or dissertation chapter/s in decent form (or roll the dice, and hope you can get one in shape in the time before the conference) that you can summarize in the proposal. Proposal guidelines vary by conference, but all proposals are relatively short. Section organizers have to read through many proposals, so write clearly and make sure your punchlines and contributions are clear. Do not beat around the bush; lay out your puzzle and your argument up front, and include a bit on methods and perhaps an anecdote from the evidence. Do not be goofy, loopy, or cute. Do not worry too much about hitting conference themes like “global disparities” (I think, I’m not too sure) if it bends your paper into unrecognizable shape. Write your proposal out and edit it into polished form in your wordprocessor. Do not make it up on the fly online. A collateral benefit from doing this is that you will soon have a stable of proposals on your hard disk to fling at conferences as the deadlines approach (until you finally do publish the conference paper).

Submitting an Organized Panel

            This is a more complicated endeavor. A panel can consist of friends with similar research interests, the best scholars with similar research interests, or some mix. This is a good way to gain exposure for you and your research. Sometimes I think the organizing of poohbah panels is a public (and self-interested) good provided by smaller fry. The trick is to get your ducks lined up early. Go for the easiest poohbah, and then you can approach successively harder to get poohbahs by pointing out who is already on board. If you go for the roundtable format, papers are not required, so this makes it easier to get people, but presentation quality may decline. Conventional wisdom is that a fully organized panel stands a decent shot at getting accepted because it makes the section organizer’s job easier and is likely to be a more coherent and better quality offering in the first place. In contrast, organizers have to choose and then group the best individual papers, usually into panels with vague names like “Emerging Trends in the Study of Alliance Formation, Causes of War, and Interdependence.”


What to Do At the Conference

Present Your Paper

            The first task is to present your paper, and not screw up. For general advice on presentations, see: . Hopefully, your chair has emailed in advance and told you how much time to plan on (usually between 10-15 minutes). If not, feel free to email the chair and ask. Send your paper to the chair and discussant per the guidelines, or email to see when you should. When I chair, I never read anything until pretty soon before the conference. So I do not mind anything arriving a week before the conference, but I did recently refuse to read a paper that arrived the day I left. If, as a panelist, you want to be super diligent, go beyond normal practice and expectation and read the other panelists’ papers and write down a few constructive comments, and give them their papers at the end of the panel. This can be endearing, but it is time consuming and quite rare.

            Go to a panel in advance if it is your first conference and see how it’s done. Practice your paper in advance. Present at a regional conference before APSA, if you want to practice with live but less dangerous fire. Make sure you do not go over time. A good and responsible chair will and should cut you off, so take care. You may expect an overhead projector, but nothing more unless specified. Handouts may help (see link above).

            Prepare for criticism. Good discussants will be constructive and thorough, and anything can come from the audience. I always think that presenters are “victorious” when they get the bulk of questions/criticism. If you can’t take it, rethink the profession. This is nothing compared to a job talk, though it is good practice for job talks. It is very disappointing when the discussant has nothing useful to say, and audience (if there is one and there may not be at the 9am Sunday panel at a regional conference....). Criticism means people care; it is far worse to be ignored (think about that in other circumstances, like comments from your diss committee). Criticism often means people have hope for you and your project. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t take so much time....

            In responding to criticism, respect the critique. Do not be overly defensive, or overly aggressive (sometimes the same thing). Do not mumble. If you can, reject the critique in a substantive way. Second (or tied for first) best, is to jujitsu the critique by acknowledging its strengths, but also saying you dealt with it in the full paper by doing x,y,z and turning the critique into a debate. Or just say: “I hadn’t thought of that, thank you, I like to talk to you more about how I could incorporate that insight into my work.” If you are knocked flat by a question, catch your breath by restating the question, then responding. If your argument is wrong, or you missed a major work that already answers your puzzle (and refutes your argument), well then, you screwed up, and better to learn now than later.

            I am paranoid; I pack my presentation and slides in my take on baggage, in my checked baggage, and I email my presentation and slides to myself, so Kinkos can bail me out as a last resort.

How to Be a Good Chair

Your first task is to ride herd on the panelists before the conference and make sure they get their papers in on time to the discussant (which might well be you). Second, call the panel to order, and you announce the papers/papergivers. You may have a few seconds of prefatory remarks as and if called for. Typically, the order of presentation is the order listed in the conference book. You can give all the presenters names, and paper titles all at once up front, or as each one is to present. Some people also give affiliations, but why bother? Get on with the show. Third and most importantly, you have to make sure each panelist sticks to the allotted time. Don’t get run over. Stick to it. Give people notes when they have 2 minutes left, 1 minute, and zero minutes. This may take some backbone, but the consequences can be horrible when there is a sloppy chair. There may not be time for many questions or even for the discussant if you blow this task. Finally, it is your job to call on the audience questioners (you may also give presenters a brief minute or two to respond to each other if the papers attack each other – much fun when that happens!). Being chair is the easiest job at a conference, and thus the easiest way to justify funding. But do not screw up, because a good chair can really help a panel.

How to Be a Good Discussant

            This is a key assignment and good discussants really shine (perhaps because they are fairly rare). The worst discussants have no critiques, give their own semi-papers/op-eds, or artificially try to create a common theme for all the disparate papers. Sometimes, when the panel is well organized, the common theme approach works in the same way a synthetic book review of several books on a near common theme works. However, the basic task is to take care of each individual paper: to recognize an element or two of promise or potential, and mostly to offer constructive and politely-put critiques. If you believe my argument above that you should present stuff you want to improve, then you should assume that others will appreciate constructive criticism. A panel is no place for a lovefest or a wimpfest where intellectual fermentation is absent. You must offer serious, well thought-out critiques, because discussants often set the tone for further questions, and are the only ones professionally tasked to critique. As discussant, I try to hand back each presenter’s paper with some marginalia comments and a typed set of remarks (time permitting).  Once, it was so appreciated, I found a colleague for life, and was invited to contribute a chapter to his edited volume. I don’t mean this to be self-congratulatory, but a lesson that doing a thorough professional job may pay off at random times. General rule: treat these proceedings and your colleagues with respect. More on this below.

See Poohbahs and Bigwigs at Panels.

            This is always really fun: to see the leaders in a field present their thoughts and/or current research. Even more fun is to see big-wig debates. Highlights in my experience was Grieco vs. Keohane on relative gains, and Walt go after Huntington on the Clash of Civilizations. In any case, as I scan through the huge book listing all the panels, a major determinant of whether I go to a panel or not is the presence of field leaders. This allows you to see some of the best minds at work, and to see what is often cutting edge (some leaders are so powerful that they define the cutting edge).

            Once you follow the leaders, you will see many of the same people at panels, and this can open up avenues of discussion, points of contacts. This is in some sense obvious: people who follow the same the subjects go to the same panels. People who follow the leaders in the same subjects are even more tightly constricted.

            Sometimes poohbah panels are scheduled for rooms that are too small. If you are not there early, you may not get a seat.

Asking Questions at Panels.

            There are always some people who try to ask long-winded, literature-rooted, personally motivated questions at panels in order to impress. And guess what, they are obviously people who “ask long-winded, literature-rooted, personally motivated questions at panels in order to impress.” I think there are two reasons to ask questions: one is serious dispute. In this case, efficiently and respectfully go for the jugular. The second is curiosity, to learn more about the subject. So just cut to the chase and ask. And there is a nice continuum between dispute and curiosity. In the end, the real reason to ask a question is sincerity: do you care about the answer? If you care more about the question than the answer, stop playing games and shut up.

            So much for the pure advice on poohbahs. If you want to ask a question, always be the first and most obvious to raise your hand. For some reason, there is often hesitation to ask the first question, but once the dam is broken, the whole room opens up. So figure out your penetrating, intelligent question in time to ask it first.

            Also, conferences are a time to go to breakfast, lunch, drinks, dinner, etc., with poohbahs. Some poohbahs even jog, etc., with their acolytes. I have no advice on how to arrange such things, other than to say that such things happen, and to be alert to them and not say “I can’t make it to dinner with poohbah b/c I have to feed the parking meter.” Risk the ticket, and have the dinner. Conferences are a seriously social occasion. The presentation is only part of it, perhaps the sine qua non. But if you miss the contacts/social aspect, esp when poohbahs are involved, you have missed out.

            You should make sure your advisors and diss committee members are out spreading the good word, esp. as you near or are on the job market. They should help you connect with poohbahs, as relevant. Try to get you in on relevant edited volumes, etc.

Learn of Cutting-edge Work at Panels

            This happens in three ways. First, you go to a poohbah panel on a fairly new subject. Due to their power and influence, poohbah’s can define the cutting edge. If a field leader is working on ideas, offense/defense theory, or sovereignty, well then, this subject is open for play. Second, there is tons of cutting edge work done by scholars across disciplines on lots of topics. If a panel in any discipline sounds fun, and is better than what is offered in your field for that slot, give a thought to going. You might learn something. Finally, you should always go to panels on your dissertation topic (or even near it, to help you thing broadly and realize how much of an impact your may have), regardless of whether you have heard of them or not. Anybody working on your topic may be reviewing your article, book, or job application down the line. Behave accordingly. That doesn’t mean sycophant, b/c that is a major turnoff for anyone you should respect.

            You should try to go to a fair number of panels, especially earlier in your career. Later, the more people you know, the more you need to use the bookroom, etc., the less time you will have for panels. Four panels a day is near heroism; it’s hard work. Three is earning your pay. Two is beginning to slack. One: the show at the museum must have been really good.

            Sometimes poster sessions can be quite informative because there is usually a chance to talk at length with the presenter.

            If you work for a journal or are organizing a conference of your own, then you should go to many panels, and try to identify good work of people you might want to invite to publish or present. You can approach with non-committal enthusiasm: “your paper sounds very interesting, and is the sort of thing we publish. Why don’t you send it to us so we can look it over?” Of course, you’ll need to send a few comments if you don’t accept it, but this technique might allow lesser journals to preempt better journals. I’ve seen this at work in my field, of the two leading journals, the lesser is hungrier and scouts conferences much more actively - and does a great job of finding good material to publish.


Lunches, Drinks, Dinners, Organized Receptions, Business Meetings, etc.

            These are the prime opportunities for “quality time” with old friends and new friends. If you are skillful, you can end up socializing with people who can be useful to your research and/or career. Careers are partly social sports, and knowing lots of people can be fun, and rewarding. That said, I always feel a twinge of suspicion when I talk to people and they focus on gossip, and it’s hard to get them to talk about substance in research or current events. That said, it is useful, and substantive to learn about trends and circumstances in other departments and across the fields. It can take a bit of chutzpah to venture into another university’s reception, but if you have business to conduct or people to meet, go right on in. Receptions are often a good place to meet old profs and friends from your own university.

            And if you want to get a little notice or serve a subfield, go to a section business meeting or two (especially if you are a member of the section! - I’m not sure on non-member attendance, but I’d bet voting on issues as a non-member is not kosher). You can learn how they are run, and before you know you’ll be on an awards committee, treasurer, or even section organizer.

The Book Room

            The book room where publishers display their wares serves two main purposes: the first is to get a snapshot view of new textbooks or scholarly books of interest. You can survey a far greater swath of books of interest here than any book store I know of, and the scanning is far more efficient than searching via Amazon/the internet.

            Publishers and editors make the book room crucial for a second reason. This is where you can hawk your book prospectus, entice publishers to review your book, follow up on submissions, etc. Depending on where you are in your career, the editors/publishers can be the most powerful people on earth. So be nice to them. Also, do not annoy them or waste their time, because once you realize how hard it is to talk to them, you will also realize how busy they are. Email before the conference to set up a time to talk with select publishers (do your homework first - do they publish anything related to what you are writing about?), or get to their booth/s early in the conference to set up an appointment. Prepare to summarize your work/argument/contribution in a few sentences.

            You should have copies of your CV, book prospectus, and maybe even a bound copy of the MS (not that they will want the copy, but if you are lucky, they may thumb it.). Indeed, early in your career, you should always carry copies of your CV, conference paper, prospectus, and business card, at least and especially during business hours. I ‘m paranoid, and always like to be prepared, but why not be prepared? Someone may just be interested. At least being prepared implies hope, and capability to do something about it.

The Job Interview Room

            Here is where you offer your CV, and potential employers decide if they want to interview you. You should practice your interview skills, and try to ignore the tense atmosphere that pervades this area. Be ready to: Sum up your diss quickly and clearly. Talk about your teaching philosophy. Talk about your next research project. See the previous paragraph on what to bring to the interview.

            Many snobbish schools and people do not use the interview room. I think that if you are a candidate in a tough job market, you should leave no stone unturned. You just might make a good impression that will cause the search committee to smile at your application folder and put you on the long short list.

Other Details

            The dress at conferences is business fairly-formal. Some men wear suits, which seem a bit much. I always wear a coat and tie, nice pants, and nice shirt. I take off the coat or do not wear the coat if I am the least bit hot. I can not speak to equivalents for women.

            Always be nice to people you meet, and constructive and polite when you criticize. You never know who you are facing: a person who will review your article or book, someone on a future job search committee, etc.

            Staying at the conference hotel has many advantages: it is convenient to be able to run to your room, wash up, change, dump stuff, pick up stuff at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, you have to be “on” all the time. You may be able to get cheaper rates at nearby hotels, but conference deals are sometimes really quite good. In the end, you have to calculate how you feel about convenience, privacy, money, etc.


            Occasionally, you may realize too late that you should have applied for a conference.  You may have accidentally made great progress on an article or dissertation.  Sometimes conferences have needs for panelists, chairs, and discussants at the last minute to fill out panels, make up for cancellations, etc.  So it may pay (or it may be a PITA) to contact section chairs and see if they have any slots open.

            While it is not the point of going to conferences, do not forget that you may be in a great city with much to see. If you are free and able to do so, a particularly good thing to do is go for extra days on either side of the conference.

            Conferences often offer some sort of email access. But there are often long lines. Hotels increasingly offer access in their rooms, and / or through wi-fi. So one reason to bring your laptop is if email is crucial to your existence....  Update: Smartphones have lessened the lines considerably.

            In the end, there is much to be learned at conferences, so go, work hard, and have fun.