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I am an MA student who will be applying to PhD programs this fall. I have been told that I MUST attend conferences to be competitive in my application. But there is a cynic in me who yawns at professionalization. I will likely present at a Graduate conference before I submit my application and I am also presenting a paper at a department symposium. 

Must I really try to get into and present at a professional conference in order to be taken seriously? I know that there are different expectations for BA and MA applicants. Yet, I would rather focus on developing a formidable statement of purpose and writing a paper. 

 

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Conferences are important because they show that you're actively involved in research. Attending and presenting can also help articulate your points and give you new ideas for research. Also, the networking is real. I attended a comic arts conference, got a panelist's contact info, and was invited to attend a more in depth panel about utilizing comics in the classroom. 
 

I haven't yet presented at one during my MA, but I know I am prepared because of the ones I've been to so far. 

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I don't think it's true that you MUST attend them for your PhD application, but it can't hurt, especially as an MA student. Your graduate conference should be just fine. 

That said, I don't think conference presentations, strong personal statements, and a good writing sample are mutually exclusive.  When you're a PhD student you'll be expected to be preparing conference papers, writing your papers/dissertation, working on fellowship/job applications, and potentially teaching all at once; and you'll be expected to do all of those things well!

I would also recommend to suppress your "cynical" skepticism of professionalization, as that is not going to look good either in your applications or when you actually show up to begin your program. Academia is definitely a profession, if your goal is to pursue a fiercely independent life of the mind in my experience academia is probably not a good place to do it.  In any case, going to conferences isn't just a matter of getting a CV line, conferences are where you go to connect with other like-minded scholars and figure out what's going on in your field/subfield. The CV line at least demonstrates the possibility that you're interested in being a part of a broader intellectual community, and not just someone who wants to hole up in a dimly lit room and write a dissertation.

Edited by jrockford27

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Just my $0.02 - take what works for you.

There is an advantage to attending a professional conference in your field (and not just A Professional Conference). Bring part of your WS as the conference paper and get feedback from people who are already familiar with that intellectual terrain - you might get some good suggestions about your higher level arguments.

And attending professional conferences in your field will allow you to see POIs and leading scholars speak about their projects, which could help you get a sense of where the field is going. Knowing these things will help you both short-term (with the SOP) and long-term (with knowing who to follow as you move forward).

There is also an advantage to attending a more general professional conference (like a regional MLA). Bring part of your WS and get feedback from scholars who aren't so familiar with your area of study - if they can't understand how you're laying out your arguments, the adcom might not either. 

It seems to me that best SOPs and WS strike a balance between the exploration of intricate ideas and the maintaining of accessibility (in the way that good journal articles do). Learning from other people via conferences on how to do that is good prep for PhD applications.

Also, like @jrockford27 says, you're going to have to go to conferences as a PhD student and future academic. I think it looks good to show adcoms that, yes, you are aware of the important conferences in your field and, yes, you have been to one (so you're not green to the whole process). While you'll certainly get support as a doctoral student re: conferences, you want to show that you are already familiarizing yourself and engaging with conferences because they're necessary.

Edited by a_sort_of_fractious_angel

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I think if you are in an MA and interested in PhD, the expectation is that you've got a couple conferences under your belt. Conferences are cheaper for grad students, sometimes have awards for grad students, and can be a good environment to verify that you are actually interested in a life of research. They're also good prep for your being able to present your research, something that you'll likely have to do when going through both hiring and tenure processes.

Edited by CulturalCriminal

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I want to second that if you're getting your MA, conference participation is more important than if you were applying with just a BA. Presenting at conferences is a pretty low-stakes but high-return investment in showing a doctoral program that you are serious about your work and that you have enough intellectual clarity to be able to share it with others. Scholarship is not meant to be written in isolation; you have to present your ideas and have them vetted. Plus, it only makes your work stronger!

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Thanks all for your great insights. I don't mean to shit on conferences. I do think that a tangential critique of professionalization is valid though. Some of us may prefer other modes of working and creating research but that hardly means that we desire a dimly lit room or that we are abjectly solipsistic. 

Given all of your advice though, I shall urgently apply to some additional conferences. I have no doubt that they will be fulfilling experiences.  

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Honestly, the people deciding whether to let you into grad school will be interested in the quality of your writing sample, not whether it has been presented. I presented at two conferences as a master's student, and I can honestly say it did diddly for me when I was applying to get into the PhD. And I did know at the time, and wouldn't know until later, that the conferences I presented at were unimportant "vanity" conferences. (One was a teaching conference at my university, and the other was at a regional conference, on a panel organized by my professor and stocked with my own classmates.) Graduate conferences are not considered important conferences, though they do serve a specific purpose (helping you learn how to present). Regional conferences are also not that important.

Typically, when you are farther along in your PhD, you will begin presenting at the major conferences in your field. These are the important conferences that actually "count" when you are going on the job market. At that point conferences are a must. If you don't have any on your CV, you might be in trouble.

That's not to say you shouldn't do it at your stage, though. The reasons others have cited are also valid--you'll get the experience, and you might get some feedback. But it's not going to impact your application one way or another. 

Edited by Bumblebea

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Fwiw: I directly asked one of the PhD programs I was admitted to this year if my conferences helped me get in. The DGS told me that, sure, it looked good, but what REALLY got me in was the quality of my writing sample, letters of rec, and personal statement. 

So, from my experience at least, it's good to go to a few, but it does not necessarily make or break an application. I had fun going to conferences during my MA, and I met a lot of people through the PhD students who were also at the conferences, as well as my profs. I even ran into profs from the schools I was considering for the PhD during a major conference in March, which was kinda awk and nerve-wracking but generative nonetheless. 

But in my experience, I think you should really only go to a conference if you WANT to and if you have something you really want to present. My most stressful conference experiences were ones I applied to bc I felt like I HAD to go, and where I presented brand new papers I wrote specifically for them (and on top of everything else I was doing). The best conferences are ones where I'm really excited about attending and whose calls/themes/my presentation fits nicely with stuff I've already been working on. 

Just my $0.02!

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On 5/17/2018 at 5:31 PM, FugitiveSahib said:

Thanks all for your great insights. I don't mean to shit on conferences. I do think that a tangential critique of professionalization is valid though. Some of us may prefer other modes of working and creating research but that hardly means that we desire a dimly lit room or that we are abjectly solipsistic. 

Given all of your advice though, I shall urgently apply to some additional conferences. I have no doubt that they will be fulfilling experiences.  

Sure. But you might need to play the game to some extent if you want to make progress in academia. I don't think (graduate) conferences are the worst part of professionalization in our domain... 

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10 hours ago, Yanaka said:

Sure. But you might need to play the game to some extent if you want to make progress in academia. I don't think (graduate) conferences are the worst part of professionalization in our domain... 

Yes, I see that. I just presented at a department symposium and I feel kind of great about it. It was nice (and utterly petrifying) to share my work. But it was well received and people said nice things. 

 

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So, I love going to conferences and think they can be very useful. If you can go somewhere and present an idea you're considering for grad school, it can serve a s a good way to test it out (but also exposes you to academic theft). You can also meet people in your field who can make for good contacts or even friends, and if someone in a prospective school is presenting, this is the perfect way to meet them and see if they'd be interested in your work (go to their talk, ask a (good) question, and go up to them and say it was very interesting and introduce yourself and your work (but don't do this when asking your question)). As others have said, it is also a good way to see what academics are focusing on. On the flipside, I've found that often faculty who you might work with don't tend to go to conferences unless they're keynote speakers (less true for smaller schools, but usually established academics don't present at CFPed panels in my experience), though some specialized conferences might prove the opposite.

Last year when I applied I had 1 poster presentation, 11 panel presentations, 2 roundtable presentations,  and 8 panels/roundtables/workshops that I organized and/or chaired (in small and very large conferences), which from talking to other applicants seems to be a lot more than the norm, and I still got shut out. I don't think conferences, looked at as achievements, count for much. Conferences as the experiences they are and the opportunities they might present are worth more, assuming one can actually make the most of them (and I have gone to conferences that I have gained nothing from). Ultimately, if your school has funding to go to conferences, I would say use it up but spend nothing more. Don't go out of your way to attend a conference but if you can go without paying out of pocket, I'd recommend it.

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I would think beyond the WS about reasons to attend conferences. Here are the main reasons, imo.

  • You get to meet with potential advisors in person and discuss your interests with them. This also gives you a chance to learn about their personality and get some insight into whether that personality is compatible with yours. 
  • At the graduate level, your class papers can be the background for your conference papers. The conference papers, in turn, can form the early stage of your publications. Thus, the feedback you get in a conference presentation can help you refine your ideas for future publications, which will make them stronger. You might also learn the names of people who you can suggest as referees when you do send it out.
  • If you have any interest in becoming someone who does co-authored publications, going to conferences is a great way to meet others with similar interests who you might be able to write or organize panels with in the future.
  • It's a great way to stay current on what's going on in your field and subfield. It'll help you learn what is up and coming and where the field is headed. 
  • The way you become a better presenter is by presenting. And ultimately you'll have to present your work to finish your degree and get your work out there.

Sure, you can hate the term "professionalization". But, if you aren't willing to engage in some, then you may want to reconsider your plans.

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On 6/7/2018 at 4:05 PM, rising_star said:
  • You get to meet with potential advisors in person and discuss your interests with them. This also gives you a chance to learn about their personality and get some insight into whether that personality is compatible with yours. 
  • At the graduate level, your class papers can be the background for your conference papers. The conference papers, in turn, can form the early stage of your publications. Thus, the feedback you get in a conference presentation can help you refine your ideas for future publications, which will make them stronger. You might also learn the names of people who you can suggest as referees when you do send it out.
  • If you have any interest in becoming someone who does co-authored publications, going to conferences is a great way to meet others with similar interests who you might be able to write or organize panels with in the future.
  • It's a great way to stay current on what's going on in your field and subfield. It'll help you learn what is up and coming and where the field is headed. 
  • The way you become a better presenter is by presenting. And ultimately you'll have to present your work to finish your degree and get your work out there.

A couple of field-specific points:

Bullets 2, 4, and 5 are absolutely true. Presenting at conferences really allows you to get your feet wet and refine your ideas. However, as with everything academic, I often receive opposing recommendations, or questions that are more about the person showing off his or her knowledge. Also, not every participant in the discussion may be acting in good faith. Some people are awful, and they will use any excuse to tear into a budding scholar as a way to build themselves up. Luckily this is rare; I've seen it happen only once in my life, when a panel respondent used a graduate student's paper to go on a diatribe about how we needed to declare a moratorium on the subject she had just spoken on because it was just so, well, in his words "self-evident.: These things rarely happen, but they do happen once in a while. 

Having said that, I'm glad I presented at those two dinky conferences (and then two other dinky conferences during coursework) before I started at presenting at the "big time" conferences, which were indeed stressful. You really do need the practice. You don't want your first conference to be when you're a third-year PhD student at the biggest and most important conference in your field. But, as a master's student, going to conferences in and of itself will have little to no effect on your application.

As for bullet point 3--people in English rarely coauthor papers. And coathored papers do not "count" as much on one's CV. But it is indeed a good way to meet people so that you can organize panels in the future. 

As for bullet point 1--I would say it's rare that you'd meet a famous scholar who would then want to work with you on the basis of your conference paper. My friend did get approached one time when she was a master's student and invited to apply to this professor's program, but we discovered later that he had a difficult time getting and keeping advisees. He was also looking to recruit more minorities to what was nearly an all-white program. 

But something else can and often does happen at a conference--if your paper is good and a journal editor is in the audience, they may come up to you and invite you to submit it to their journal. And that's exciting (though obviously it's no guarantee of publication). 

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Another interesting thought I just came to: conferences, as my professors have told me, are really valuable after you leave coursework, because it serves as a way for you to a) most practically get feedback on your dissertation/book manuscript or what have you, but also b) learn new stuff in a way that's harder after you stop taking courses. 

My profs say that going to conferences is the closest they get to just learning and studying new things, so that's always cool. 

And, it's a great way to meet up with people from your previous programs, see alumni of your program (if there are reunion parties), or hang with people you met in different contexts. And, it's cool to unwind a bit! I like to treat conferences as mini-vacays and explore whatever city I'm in. 

ETA: my phone auto-corrected "previous programs" to "precious programs" and I almost kept it because that it great, hahaha

Edited by klader

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2 hours ago, Bumblebea said:

As for bullet point 1--I would say it's rare that you'd meet a famous scholar who would then want to work with you on the basis of your conference paper.

I think you misunderstood what I meant or I wasn't clear. What I meant is that going to conferences gives you a chance to have coffee/tea with a prospective advisor and discuss your interests in person rather than over email. I highly doubt that person would even hear your paper (my PhD advisor certainly didn't bother with that). Still, you can learn a lot in person that you can't learn via email about a person's personality and you can ask them if they think your interests are a good fit and gauge their reaction. I found that to be really valuable when I was applying to PhD programs (granted, I got lucky and several of my POIs were actually speaking at department colloquiums so I was able to arrange brief meetings with them). YMMV obviously.

2 hours ago, Bumblebea said:

As for bullet point 3--people in English rarely coauthor papers. And coathored papers do not "count" as much on one's CV. But it is indeed a good way to meet people so that you can organize panels in the future. 

There are ample articles being published in the humanities about how problematic the lack of co-authorship is, which it would behoove anyone headed to a PhD program to pay attention to.* There's also edited book volumes that one could be invited to (which again have varying value based on career aims). 

OP, in terms of future collaboration, you want your name and work to be one that people recognize when they think of people working on that topic or in that subfield. The only way to do that is to publish your work. Your publications will be stronger the more feedback you get, even if some of that feedback is self-serving as people ask questions to show off their own intelligence. It's also worth thinking about those you serve on a panel with as people with whom you could form a writing group to get feedback on your work before you submit it for publication or to your PhD advisor as part of your dissertation. Building such networks as a grad student will give you a base of support if you begin a TT position and need to publish more without an advisor and committee to always run your ideas and work past.

*I work for an institution where the P&T committee does value co-authored pubs in English, philosophy, and religion (among other fields), so I wouldn't make a blanket statement that they don't count much. The P&T guidelines were actually revised two or three years ago to value collaboration in all disciplines, not just in the sciences and social sciences.

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11 hours ago, rising_star said:

There are ample articles being published in the humanities about how problematic the lack of co-authorship is, which it would behoove anyone headed to a PhD program to pay attention to.* 

That's a different matter altogether and neither here nor there. As a graduate student, your aim needs to be to write articles that can get published in peer-reviewed journals, not to unsettle the assumption that only single-authored publications are the goal. As a graduate student, you have limited time and resources. You need to make the most of that time so you can put yourself in a good position for the job market.

 

11 hours ago, rising_star said:

There's also edited book volumes that one could be invited to (which again have varying value based on career aims). 

Again, same idea applies. Edited book volumes are nice, but they do not carry the same weight as an article in a peer-reviewed journal when one is on the job market. 

 

11 hours ago, rising_star said:

*I work for an institution where the P&T committee does value co-authored pubs in English, philosophy, and religion (among other fields), so I wouldn't make a blanket statement that they don't count much. The P&T guidelines were actually revised two or three years ago to value collaboration in all disciplines, not just in the sciences and social sciences

But this is your institution. And again, we're not talking about the field in general but about what will help a particular graduate student maximize their time in graduate school, and it's still widely accepted in English that a graduate student should not "throw a publication away" on an edited collection or to try to co-author an article.

FTR, I *do* encourage attending conferences. If nothing else, they get you ready for a very crucial part of your career. They also prepare you for job talks. I just think that some of the information being thrown around here is not useful for a beginning-level English graduate student, and by "some" I mean just a small portion. 

Edited by Bumblebea

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On 6/9/2018 at 7:29 AM, Bumblebea said:

But this is your institution. And again, we're not talking about the field in general but about what will help a particular graduate student maximize their time in graduate school, and it's still widely accepted in English that a graduate student should not "throw a publication away" on an edited collection or to try to co-author an article.

Institutions don't just make up P&T guidelines out of thin air... So I'll just say that we borrowed heavily from what our peers from a standard comparison group of 150+ similar institutions were doing. But sure, if folks just starting a PhD want to discount what some potential employers might want, by all means they should. It'll improve the odds for others, which can't be a bad thing for those folks.

More broadly, I think you're assuming that I have zero familiarity with English PhD students or English PhDs on the market. *shrug* Let's just hope for the sake of everyone reading this that you're always right and I'm mostly wrong. 

Also, if co-authoring helps someone see and understand the process and build their confidence to publish, then I'd say that it's more than valuable even if not all R1 institutions will recognize it as such when on the market. FWIW, I've seen a lot of students be hesitant about putting their work out there but be much less so when given the chance to write or publish with someone more familiar with the process. In the sciences (social, natural, physical), this is common and part of one's training. In the humanities, it isn't, which may affect publication rates. I know there are other factors affecting publication rates but, from successful* CVs I've seen, there are many folks who have one co-authored pub early in the PhD and then several solo authored ones later. 

*Successful = got on the long list for Skype/phone interview and/or made the campus visit list

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2 hours ago, rising_star said:

Institutions don't just make up P&T guidelines out of thin air... So I'll just say that we borrowed heavily from what our peers from a standard comparison group of 150+ similar institutions were doing. But sure, if folks just starting a PhD want to discount what some potential employers might want, by all means they should. It'll improve the odds for others, which can't be a bad thing for those folks.

@rising_star, I'm not quite sure why you're replying in such a defensive and condescending manner here. I agreed with most of what you said and just had a few nitpicks. But we're talking about conference presentations here, not the virtues of collaborative scholarship. If you want to talk about collaborative scholarship, I'm guessing the research forum would be a better place? But here we're discussing the value of conferences for early career grad students. I don't doubt that you're very good at what you do. But you represent just one institution (or class of institutions, I suppose), and you're not in English, and you're not on every hiring committee. If we're going to go to qualifications, I was on several search committees as a graduate student, and I too am currently a faculty member at a much different type of institution from the one where I received my degree, and I've been on the job market very recently and have gotten a TT job. I'm familiar with P&T guidelines (as someone striving to fulfill them currently), and your recommendation just doesn't apply to the situation we're discussing here. Like, it's great that your institution encourages collaboration. It's certainly not the case everywhere. In fact, English faculty at all kinds of institutions these days are striving to publish a book for tenure--even when a book is not required. It's quickly becoming the standard, though, because the discipline is so talent-rich (you have people working at teaching-focused institutions who in the past would have easily been hired at an R1). This has changed the topography of English scholarly expectation quite a bit.

But this conversation isn't about scholarly collaboration and people getting tenure. It's about people trying to get into graduate school and wondering what conferences will do for them.  As I said previously, graduate students in English have only a limited time to get through a program. Publishing a solo article is A MUST. You have to get your name out there before hitting the job market, and a co-authored essay probably won't do that for you. Are there exceptions? Probably. Do I know people who have co-authored papers and gotten jobs? Of course. Was the co-authored article the only thing they produced? Absolutely not. Can a co-authored article help you if it's your second or third article rather than your first or only, and you already have a scholarly footprint? Probably, but it depends on its quality and the level of your involvement. However, it still does not carry the weight on the job market that a solo project does, and this is why many DGSs and advisors discourage it. When you only have five years of funding to get through, you need to prioritize your time to get that solo article out, because that is what will get you an interview. That's the thing: writing articles takes time, even co-authored articles. They are an incredible time suck. And I recommend that graduate students try to get the maximum return on their investment by publishing two peer-reviewed articles (usually one that's published or about to be published when one is on the job market and then one that appears soon after one gets hired--that's still ideal, even if the hiring crunch has made it more difficult to have a job by the time that second article comes out).

If you've already published your two articles and now want to co-author a third, why not. It's another notch in the belt. It probably isn't going to light the world on fire, but it's a line on a CV. But this conversation should not be about co-authorship. It's about conferences. And this is still my advice about conferences: If a scholar approaches you at a conference and wants to co-author a paper with you, great! Flattering! But is this article something you're already doing on your own? Do you already have an article in the pipeline and another one under review or soon to be under review? How much funded time do you have left? How much more of your dissertation do you have to write? How much time do you think this project will take? Depending on the answers to these questions, co-authoring a paper might or might not be a great idea. Get that information together and take it to your advisor to see what they say. 

(And anecdotally, and somewhat related to this conversation: I was approached at a conference five years ago by a famous scholar who wanted me to turn my conference paper into a book chapter for a collection. I passed on the offer, submitted the article to a journal, and later won a prize for that article, which was instrumental in my success on the job market. Turning down the edited book collection actually paid off well.) 

2 hours ago, rising_star said:

FWIW, I've seen a lot of students be hesitant about putting their work out there but be much less so when given the chance to write or publish with someone more familiar with the process.

They need to just put it out there. In the social sciences you consider co-authoring papers to be part of one's training? Well okay, there's a difference in disciplines here. In English programs we still believe that a valuable part of one's training is to tell someone to finish the article, attach it to an email, and send the damn thing.  

Edited by Bumblebea

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