For the past three years, spring has been my big conference season. I just presented at the first of this semester’s lineup last weekend and I have three more to go between now and June. I happen to love presenting at conferences, even though I have some deep-seated ambiguities about conferences themselves. The part where I get to stand in front of a room and talk passionately about my research is great. The part where I have to stand around eating hors d’oeuvres and working up the courage to talk to intimidating and impressive strangers is less great. Conferences can also end up being insidious time-sucks that deviously detract from actual dissertation writing. Under the guise of productivity, I find myself ruthlessly formatting my slides, checking the resolution quality of my images, and listlessly cutting individual words to shorten the talk. In addition, planning for conference travel, applying for travel funding, and other attendant logistics always seem to eat up more time than I originally budgeted. But the allure of getting one’s unpublished work out there and receiving professional feedback is strong. Plus, especially at graduate symposia, there’s a chance to practice talking about one’s work in a relatively low-stakes and supportive environment. So conferences have become a fact of my graduate school career and I’ve developed a few strategies (through trial and error) for coping with the conference circuit. Please note that these ideas represent my own experiences and opinions - practices vary between fields and conference norms change rapidly.
Strategy 1: Apply to Nearby, Well-Organized, Interesting Conferences
I’ve talked to other graduate students who tend to wait around for topics that perfectly align with their dissertation topics. While there is certainly something to be said for looking for a good match and not applying to a conference on medieval Chinese art if you work on American modern architecture, I have increasingly developed an open mind towards CFPs (that’s Calls for Papers) that get sent my way. Many symposia, especially ones organized by graduate students, are organized around broad themes that can accommodate a variety of subject areas and materials. Instead of waiting for perfectly tailored topics to come up, I use the following set of criteria to judge a CFP:
Is it interesting? In other words, does the CFP articulate an original and provocative theme? How does your research address that theme? I have often found that writing abstracts for topics that are not exactly parallel to my work forces me to think about my research in new and interesting ways. Writing the abstract for the conference that I just presented at, which addressed the theme of “spectacle,” helped me to frame a part of my dissertation that I had not yet written in a theoretically rigorous way (more on that below).
Does the conference seem well-organized? This can sometimes be hard to tell from just the CFP, but a few indicators are A) the professionalism of the CFP both in terms of prose and graphic design and B) that the conference is well-established. For example, Boston University’s Art History department has held an annual graduate symposium for over 30 years now and that showed at the conference, which was flawlessly organized and executed. Applying to high-quality conferences can mean that competition might be fierce, but the payoff will likely be high. Especially at big professional conferences, you will often be rewarded with good attendance, admirable co-panelists, and interesting Q&As.
Is the conference nearby? This is not a deal-breaker, but working with limited conference funding (as most graduate students are) means that sometimes it’s best to conserve financial resources to attend big professional conferences that are farther afield. I keep a particularly close eye on graduate conferences in Boston and New York since travel to those locations is cheap for me and I have friends I can stay with.
Strategy 2: Use the Conference Paper as a Chapter Jumpstart
I tried writing a conference paper over winter break based on a dissertation chapter that I had just finished drafting. It was painful and frankly not very interesting to try to cut 50 pages down to 10. Once I stopped thinking of this paper as a 20-minute summary of a dissertation chapter, and instead as a separate entity that could have its own argument and trajectory, things flowed more smoothly and the paper eventually came together.
A better tactic, I’ve found, is to write a conference paper on a dissertation chapter that has yet to be written. Thinking about the paper as a kind of proposal allows for a more open-ended kind of writing. The paper I presented last weekend will become the seed for the second half of a dissertation chapter I have yet to write. Putting it together not only forced me to marshall my evidence and get a preliminary argument down on paper, but helped me think about how this part will fit in with what I already have written. This jumpstart strategy has another benefit: it is much easier to incorporate feedback from peers, faculty, or the conference Q&A into something that is not yet drafted.
As an addendum: In my experience, using a conference to start a non-dissertation-related project is significantly less fruitful. I gave a talk on something that I had neither taken a class on nor had much prior experience with last year and it was HARD. Much of my time was spent reading and researching something that had very little relation to my dissertation. While I was satisfied with the final product, I am still unsure if it was worth the sheer amount of time that I put into it.
Strategy 3: A Conference Paper is a Job Talk
After the first big conference paper I gave, I had several faculty approach me afterwards and compliment my presentation. An upcoming job ad was mentioned. Obviously, I wasn’t anywhere near being on the market, but I remember thinking, “I’m glad I didn’t just phone that in.” Even with graduate symposia, it’s impossible to know who is going to be in the audience and whether they might remember you when application season rolls around. Your presentation should be your best work, even if it is still a work in progress or a speculative argument that you’re just trying out. There’s an adage in academia that “grants beget more grants” and I think this logic also applies to conferences. A good talk that people remember can help secure future speaking gigs or even bigger opportunities.
Strategy 4: A Conference Paper is NOT a Job Talk
That being said, a conference paper is not actually a job talk or a keynote speech. You are usually presenting alongside other panelists and thus part of a kind of impromptu team. So be a team player. You are not in the spotlight. Don’t run significantly over the time limit or monopolize the Q&A. Be classy and thank the organizers and your co-panelists before you give your talk.
Conferences are a great chance to hear what other scholars are working on as well. I often feel that I don’t have any good questions to ask during the Q&A or that I don’t know what to say (other than “Great paper”) during the inevitable post-panel mingle session. A strategy that I have seen others use and would like to adopt more frequently is to share a source or idea that I think another speaker might find useful. That act can often lead naturally to more conversation. This past weekend, I learned about a New Deal theater project that relates to my topic and a museum that I now want to visit through those kinds of interactions. The classic, “I enjoyed your paper. Is it part of a larger project?” also works to start conversation when you don’t know what else to ask.
Strategy 5: Keep it Crisp
People are probably giving up their workdays or weekends to hear your talk. Be mindful of this fact and keep it crisp. This applies across the board.
Prose style? Crisp. Keep your language approachable, stick to the time limit, and avoid getting overly technical. It should be written for the ear and not the eye. Your thesis should be lucid and memorable. I usually like to give my talks for someone outside my field to make sure that what I’m trying to communicate comes across clearly to non-specialists.
Graphics? Crisp. Legible illustrations and photographs, not too much text, no busy backgrounds, no crazy Powerpoint animations.
Dress? Crisp. Though formality varies significantly by field, clean lines and classic style are never out of place. I feel more comfortable when my audience is looking at my slides rather than at my outfit.
Q&A? Crisp. If an audience member asks a question that would require a five minute expository statement, give a quick summary and promise to talk to him or her more after the panel. If someone asks a question for all of the panelists, be respectful of time and give a concise answer, even if your co-panelists all gave long, rambling answers.
The art of the conference is certainly one that I’m still practicing, but it’s definitely a skill that is worthwhile developing as a graduate student.