What makes for a successful conference?

23 September 2022, 1132 EDT

Like many, I’ve finally gotten back on schedule after the American Political Science Association conference last week. The travel was easier for me than most others; the site, Montreal, is only two miles from home so I didn’t have to deal with any airline mishaps. But I still, as always, wonder if the trip was worth it. Even though it’s covered by my research budget, do I get enough out of these conferences to justify the time away from my family and all the coursework I have to catch up on? How would I even know?

Shifting views of conference success

I had unreasonable expectations for my first few conferences as a grad student. I expected intense debates over the nature of international relations, with impassioned speeches on both sides. Or something like the part of “Call of Cthulhu” when an investigator brings a strange alien statue to a scientific conference for help; maybe we’d solve the intractable problems of the world.

Now that I’m tenured, I’m thinking harder about conference attendance. Why do I keep applying?

Obviously those are not the norm for academic conferences. So my expectations shifted. I considered it a success when I connected with one or two other grad students, or had a meeting with a senior scholar whose work I enjoyed. This led to several important mentoring relationships I maintain today. I also counted as success the conferences in which I managed to eat and drink for free every night thanks to strategic reception visits.

As I became a professor, these expectations shifted again. I looked forward to seeing some friends from grad school, or friends at other institutions I’d met through conferences. I tried to connect with co-authors and potential co-authors. I made sure to have a polished paper in case the discussant actually read it. This helped keep my research productivity going. I still hoped to provoke major debate with my work, but that never seemed to happen.

Now that I’m tenured, I’m thinking harder about conference attendance. This is especially so after two years of not attending conferences thanks to the pandemic. I realized I can connect with friends over the phone, and feel bad using University money for that. I have been able to set deadlines for myself on new research even without a conference. I enjoy the peace and quiet away from my kids for the first night, but begin to miss my family after that. So why do I keep applying?

We all need to figure this out

This should be a question of major concern to our professional associations. With tightening academic budgets and the viability of online conferencing and collaboration, there’s pressure on these organizations to justify the expense of conferences. I’ve noticed they’re trying; APSA asks about what motivated us to attend and has organized numerous events beyond the paper panels.

So after a week of post-APSA reflection, here’s what I’ve come to:

  • I wanted at least one piece of interesting feedback on my paper, even if it doesn’t lead to enthralled conversations with audience members.
  • I’d like to attend at least one other panel with an interesting paper that leads me to connect with its author.
  • I’d like to move at least one collaboration–either institutional or scholarly–forward.

Obviously the social elements–seeing old friends, chatting at receptions–are important (especially ina solitary field like ours). But the more concrete elements of conference attendance are how I justify it.

I can honestly say that I would not have gotten where I am today without my conference attendance.

This APSA meeting actually fulfilled these criteria. I got helpful comments on the paper from both the discussant and an audience member. I attended two panels that had interesting papers; I chatted with the authors afterwards and exchanged information. And I talked with several scholars about a new religion-related IR initiative (more details to come…). So I’d say that was a successful conference.

How to make sure a conference is successful

The trick, of course, is to make sure this isn’t up to chance. That is, we need to find a way to make conferences consistently successful for everyone.

It’s a little hard to predict the quality of engagement with your paper. Obviously the more polished the paper is the better feedback you’ll get. Presenting on a panel someone submitted, rather than one the organizers put together, also helps. These discussants agreed to be part of the panel, so assumedly will put work into it. Not everyone can get on such a panel, though. Sections really need to emphasize the importance of good discussanting, especially with grad student presenters.

Connecting with new research via panels involves…attending panels. But we all know there’s a limit to how many panels you can take in each day. It may help to look for names you recognize, but this biases you towards more established scholars and overlooks the potential of connecting with newer voices. One thing conference organizers can do is push all submitted panels to have good, informative titles and come up with such titles for those panels they put together.

Finally, moving collaboration forward involves a bit of prep work but is easily done. Figure out what you want to do with your academic career besides get/keep a job and publish something. Do you want to break into a new research area? Start a new roundtable for discussion? Help your research program progress into something more coherent and rigorous? You can then use conferences as a way to make concrete progress on this goal.

I can honestly say that I would not have gotten where I am today without my conference attendance. I hope we can make sure others benefit from these events moving forward.