Which Conferences Should Philosophy Grad Students Attend?

A graduate student writes in with a question about conferences.

I was wondering if there could be a post asking faculty which conference presentations look best on a job candidate’s CV? I have been given varying advice about which conferences to submit to. I’ve been told it is good to have conference presentations, but I have been told to ignore graduate conferences, for they do not make one look good (unless the grad conference is at a top program). I have been told also to give preference to submitting to regularly occurring “big name” conferences like MadMeta, etc., instead of, say, state philosophical association conferences, etc., for hiring committees would rather see one presentation at something like MadMeta than three presentations at the so-and-so state philosophical association. I would like to hear what others, especially those who have served on search committees, have to say about this advice. 

I think there could be a helpful discussion of this topic, but it might first be good to broaden the question a little. Presumably, the student wants to know which conference presentations look best on a candidate’s CV because the goal is to improve one’s employment prospects. But a conference presentation’s appearance as a line on your CV is just one way in which it may improve your employment prospects. So the better question to ask, I think, is, “which conferences would it be best for me to present at, given my goal of improving my chances of getting a job?”

The first thing to say is that, as lines on a candidate’s CV, conference presentations don’t do all that much to improve one’s chances. Candidates will want to have a couple of conference presentations to list just to show that they are capable of giving talks and are engaged with the profession, and for that it is useful to have presented at a major conference, such as a meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA). But beyond that, especially in this very competitive job market, it is hard to imagine an employment decision coming down to which conferences are listed on the candidate’s CVs.

However, conference presentations may aid one’s job prospects in other ways: skill development, networking, and improving the quality of one’s work.

Being able to give a substantively interesting, well-argued, and stylistically engaging talk, and being able to competently and gracefully handle challenges and questions in the ensuing discussion, are skills that require practice to develop. For many people, it helps to practice in low-key environments, and graduate conferences or state philosophy association meetings are often perfect for that. With such practice, you’ll do better in more high-stakes environments, such as more prestigious conferences or job talks.

Conferences are also opportunities for others to assess whether you’re an interesting thinker, a person they want to hear from or talk to, a person who is pleasant to be around. You get to make an impression and get your name in the heads of others, and a positive impression and some name recognition can make it the case that your dossier gets a decent look, at least. For networking, specialized conferences may be better, as you’ll be interacting with others who may be in a position to provide you with further opportunities (events, publications) in your research area. But again, depending on what types of jobs your graduate program typically places people in, state association meetings may put you in contact with more of the people who work in the kinds of departments you are likely to be a strong candidate for.

Lastly, not to be overlooked is the way in which presenting your ideas in front of different audiences improves your work. Arguably the most important function of conferences is that they can provide an environment especially conducive to useful philosophical conversation that makes your work better. (Relatedly, your talk should never go over the time limits to use up the portion of your session reserved for questions and discussion. It sends a message to the audience members that you do not respect them or value their input.) If your work is better, that itself may help improve your job prospects, and it might also mean more impressive publications, or better letters from those recommending you, which again should improve your job prospects. High quality specialty conferences are obviously good for this, and even better, within that category, are read-ahead conferences.

That’s my two cents on the relationship between conferences and getting a job. Comments from others are encouraged. Thanks.

Craig Allen, “09”

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