I hope that this post finds you all in good health. Having returned from a graduate conference about a week ago, I have been reflecting on just what it is that I love about them. I have spoken to some graduates who have been told by their supervisors not to go to grad conferences, that they are a waste of time. This attitude, to my mind, reveals both a lack of perspective on the part of certain tenured professors, and something of a disjoint between what a PhD is about and the way we are expected to act as PhD students.
Many academics say that a PhD is preparation and training, not an academic achievement in itself. If this is the case, surely we should be learning how to be a graduate (learning how to learn, perhaps?) rather than learning how to be a full blown academic 100% of the time? To this end, I am going to present a list of the five things I like the most about graduate conferences:
- Practice in giving Papers – One of the reasons I really love graduate conferences (something of a truism) is the experience gained in confident presentation of papers. If the graduate student does not get a chance to hone their public speaking in an informal environment, then what happens when they have to give a paper at a big scary conference? Thus, I see the graduate paper presentation as essential training.
- Variety – Rather than focusing on very narrow topics, graduate conferences are more likely to feature a theme that draws in a wide variety of grads from many disciplines. We are expected to learn how to inhabit a discipline and learn how to be faithful to it, but this takes practice. Being placed in a situation with students at a similar level to oneself from a variety of backgrounds allows one to expand one’s repertoire, and become more aware of one’s background. Like the traveler away from home, the graduate outside of their discipline becomes aware of how they do it over there, but we don’t do it here (ooh ohh fashion?). This then allows us to become more confident that we understand how we do things differently, and what we can bring to the table.
- Making Friends – I distinguish this clearly from networking, because the two are not synonymous. As a graduate (especially a young graduate), one needs the opportunity to meet the people who will be the colleagues and friends of the future. International grad conferences are particularly fun, since you meet students from all over the world.
- Keynote Speakers – As graduate students, we learn by mimesis, and by example (like the babies of the academic world that we are, we have the ability to learn and discover, but lack the framework of a fully mature academic). Watching the plenary/keynote talks at a graduate conference takes on a new meaning, because the professors attending are inspirational as well as interesting. Students can talk to experienced and often well known figures of academia, and have a chance to chat to them formally and informally. Better still, graduate conferences are a great chance to compare notes with other graduates about what was good/bad about the presentation style of the speaker.
- Benchmarking – Although this sounds mercenary, going to graduate conferences gives one a good chance to see where other students at a similar level stand. I generally discover that I admire my peers and think that they are all smart, charismatic and capable. At the same time, talking to others at your level and swapping stories helps to teach that every PhD student has the same problems to deal with, and wants to get out and talk shop. It is fun, perspective building and educational.
Feel free to disagree, but I love graduate conferences! Well…I love all conferences, but graduate conferences in particular. Naturally it is politic to be present at some big name conferences and get noticed within your discipline, but there is a lot to be said for balance.