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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Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

I agree with all of this. But I would say that if there is any conference that would make a difference as a line on a CV, it is an AAPT conference. The signals of teaching quality at junior level are so weak and noisy that any sign someone really cares about teaching can really stand out. And going to an AAPT event might actually improve one’s teaching too, which helps in all sorts of ways.Report

Philosophy teacher
Philosophy teacher
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
3 years ago

I also recommend the AAPT conferences for grad students! At their biennial conferences, they even have a concurrent seminar designed specifically for current grad students and new faculty. Aside from that, the culture at their conferences is very welcoming to grad students and, in my experience, a generally easy-going and fun atmosphere with a mix of all ages in attendance.Report

Philip Kremer
Philip Kremer
3 years ago

My impression from search committees I’ve been on is that people think it’s a little weird if a candidate hasn’t given any conference presentations. But if you’re still a grad student, two or three presentations should suffice. And it doesn’t really matter where.

There’s the further question of which conferences are best for feedback, networking, and the communication of results. I’d mix it up: try one specialist conference, one APA and a good grad conference.Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
Reply to  Philip Kremer
3 years ago

Let me second this comment. Fairly or unfairly, in the current job market it is just expected that strong candidates will list conference presentations (and publications) on their CVs. And it really doesn’t matter very much which conferences they are. But if nothing is listed, eyebrows will be raised … and not in a good way.Report

Rick
Rick
3 years ago

Two related questions for anyone who wants to take a stab at them:

First: what do people think of those on the job market who haven’t yet published in their AOS (i.e. their dissertation work), but have published in a different sub-discipline? Obviously it’s bad not to have published in one’s AOS yet, but my real question is this: does it hurt one’s prospects to have unrelated publications? help? has no effect?

Second: is it more valuable (for job-getting purposes) to publish in generalist journals (which everyone on a committee will have heard of) or in specialist journals (where one’s work might actually be read, and have influence)?

Thanks all.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

If you have only published one or two papers, then those are going to be taken as signals of areas that you are interested in working on – after all, those are the areas that you have already signaled that you *can* work on! If you have a publication in an area that you don’t list as a planned area for your future research or teaching, then that would raise some questions. If your writing samples and dissertation don’t already clarify what your research area is, then your paper will be taken to do so, and might distract people from your “real” research area.

Other than that sort of confusion on the part of the hiring committee about what you really are going to work on, I can’t see any problems with a publication in a secondary area of interest.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
3 years ago

Thanks Kenny, that’s helpful. I’ll make sure to be clear in my documents.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

I would disagree tentatively with Kenny Easwaran. In small to medium-sized departments, breadth is at a premium as you may well be asked to teach outside your comfort-zone. So having a good paper on some topic other than your AOS is not just unproblematic but a decided plus. However , he is probably right that you should make it clear that your non-AOS paper IS a non-AOS paper, a) because you need to be clear about what you expect your teaching specialities to be and b) because by making it clear that you can publish articles outside your AOS you will be making it clear that you are not a narrow specialist and hence more saleable to small-to-medium sized departments.Report

Julia
Julia
3 years ago

In my view, it is a smart and standard practice among philosophers to present work a few times to get feedback before sending it out for publication. It looks good for graduate students to have presented at conferences, because it shows they are engaging in this practice, which is generally seen to be beneficial. Having presented some work at very selective conferences might additionally convey that the person’s unpublished work is very good and likely to be accepted by a good journal. For example, my anecdotal evidence from the Formal Epistemology Workshop and SLACRR, which I am involved in organizing, suggests that the papers that get presented there tend to eventually get published in prestigious venues.
I also think it is important to get practice with giving talks and handling Q&A, and this can be learned at any conference.
The best advice I’ve got before is “Treat every talk like it’s a job talk.” This strikes me as good advice, because you never know who is in the audience, and it’s good to always try your best if you can.Report

Michel
Michel
3 years ago

It’s worth noting that the key to good conference networking is regular attendance at the same conferences. Contacts and networks develop much more easily (and less awkwardly!) when you see the same people over and over, and when they see you again and again. This is made considerably easier if your subfield has a national association with international counterparts–especially if that national association has both annual and divisional meetings, like the APA and the ASA. (By the way, the ASA offers funding for its student presenters, as well as competitive travel awards and a whole slew of grants.)

Other than that, I think Justin’s OP is right on the money. I’ve done a lot of conferencing, and I think the primary benefits are entirely unrelated to the CV line item. (One possible exception is when it comes to interdisciplinary grant/doctoral/post-doctoral funding competitions, where conference participation is often [reportedly] factored into the evaluation criteria.)Report

GradStudent4
GradStudent4
3 years ago

I’m a grad student, so not fully initiated. But I’m continuously skeptical of the ‘conferences are good for grad students to get feedback’ story. Conferences are really expensive, and you could get feedback just by asking people to read your paper. I’m totally open to the idea that conferences are useful in such a way which I have not appreciated, but I’m continuously worried that philosophers who say this are a bit biased in fetishizing the ‘come together and entire a dialogue’ feel-good rhetoric, where that dialogue can be had via other much-less-expensive means. In any case, written feedback is much less prone to just be faculty members championing their own position without interacting much with yours, and much better for an exchange on complex or technical objections which can’t really be resolved or best understood orally.Report

Julia
Julia
Reply to  GradStudent4
3 years ago

At a conference, you get more people to listen to your work than when you ask individual people for feedback. For what it’s worth, a crucial problem in one of my dissertation chapters that none of my supervisors had noticed was pointed out by an audience member at a (specialist) conference. I’m eternally grateful for that. I’ve also published several papers that were originally conference comments. Moreover, you can’t practice giving talks in front of strangers without giving talks in front of strangers.Report

GradStudent5
GradStudent5
Reply to  GradStudent4
3 years ago

Another grad student here!
If departments would/could fund us to travel, then we’d get those people to listen to our work. You’re right, Julia, that the practice and exposure is good. But there’s a real problem- a serious inequality- if the grad students that get to go to conferences and have their worked heard more widely are only ever the ones who can afford to go on their own dime.Report

GradStudent5
GradStudent5
Reply to  GradStudent5
3 years ago

I hope I never have any of my ‘worked’ heard but I do hope some of my work is heard. *sigh*Report

Andrew Moon
Reply to  GradStudent5
3 years ago

I’m curious how common it is for a graduate schools to not have funding for students to go to a conference once a semester, or at least once a year. My impression is that
1) There are plush schools where departments have money to provide for student travel, meals, conference fees, and lodging.
2) There are less plush schools like those in (1), but with less money.
3) There are schools where the department itself doesn’t give much money, but you have to apply for money through some graduate professional council or graduate student association. (I remember having to do this often.)
4) There are schools where there really just is no funding available.

I wonder how common (4) is. I think my situation was somewhere between (2) and (3). I do envy the students in category (1).Report

TJ
TJ
Reply to  Andrew Moon
3 years ago

At my university – grads could have, at most, 1k for conferences throughout their entire grad career – and most grads did not get even this, because their applications could be rejected. 1k might cover one national (but no way international) conference. However since one could only get $500 at a time, this funding would not even cover a conference that required a plane ride. It would only cover something within driving distance.Report

MentalEngineer
MentalEngineer
Reply to  Andrew Moon
3 years ago

My department has some funding available for grad students who are presenting at conferences, but not for attendance. The university has a bit of competitive funding for both, but the attendance amount is like $100. So I’m also a 2/3. But in practice, with what we get paid, this means I will never be able to go to a conference that’s overnight and/or is too far to drive unless I’m presenting.Report

Andrew Moon
Reply to  GradStudent5
3 years ago

Oh also, it is nice that the APA provides travel awards for students who get their papers accepted into the APA program. That was really useful for me in grad. school. It was $300 when I was in grad. school; I hear it’s $400 now.Report

GradStudent5
GradStudent5
Reply to  Andrew Moon
3 years ago

I don’t know how common (4) is, either, but I can say that that seems to be where I am and if there are ways to get money (like what you described in (3)), my department has not provided information on how to do that. I understand I could and should find out on my own (and will have to do this to be able to continue conferencing). But I’ve got to say, for those of us not at a (1) or (2) place, seems like (3) and (4) schools could at least try to teach us how to find resources.

And, those people at (1) and (2) places have something like the advantage that I started off mentioning– people with money, a.k.a., people at plush schools, get the exposure. Those of us at (3) and (4) places have, I think, less of an opportunity to go to big/international conferences, conferences that are an expensive flight away, or conferences that are in expensive cities. I’m in so much debt that I kind of don’t care and will keep putting travel on credit cards because conferencing is a good thing but it’s unfortunate that this is how things are for some of us. And professors really should keep this stuff in mind when they’re telling us how to develop professionally.

The APA award is a very good thing!Report

Julia
Julia
Reply to  GradStudent5
3 years ago

Andrew said some of the things I was going to mention. Additionally, if you’re at a school where it’s hard to get money for travel, you can sometimes get conferences or workshops to pitch in a little, even if they don’t have an official travel budget for students. It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask politely if there is any travel support for graduate students available who don’t get anything from their home institution. (But of course this should actually be true – definitely find out if you can apply for travel grants from the university or the graduate school.) Also, if you’re traveling to a conference in an expensive city, you can try to reach out to local grad students to see whether they might allow you to crash o their couch for a couple of nights.Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
Reply to  Julia
3 years ago

As a person who has been involved in (and is still involved in) the organization of a number of conferences, I just wanted to second what Julia said. Please do ask conferences—especially conferences that have already accepted your paper!—if they might have a little extra money that could help make your attendance possible. Conference organizers often have a bit of extra slush in their budget, or the possibility of reallocating funds. But you never know until you ask!Report

Andrew Moon
Reply to  GradStudent5
3 years ago

Dear GradStudent5,
I hear you. There is an inequality. I spent time in grad. school applying for funding external to my department and only later, well after my ph.d., did I learn of the generous funding some other schools’ phil. depts. provided for them. Those grad. students seemed to not realize how fortunate they were and to take it for granted. So, I’m glad you said what you said, and maybe some of them will read this and not take it for granted.

I hope that you can find those funding opportunities and still go to conferences without adding to your debt! Try googling words like “graduate student association” or “graduate professional council” along with your school name and see what comes up. Hopefully, there are funding opportunities at your school.Report

GradStudent5
GradStudent5
Reply to  Andrew Moon
3 years ago

Thanks, Andrew. That’s helpful and I’m going to ask some of my faculty if they’d be interested in putting on a workshop (at least once a year) to help us with this stuff. Also, I really appreciate your recognition of the problem.Report

T
T
Reply to  Andrew Moon
3 years ago

That’s true, though I do wonder if that is also a constraint. I had applied to Central and identified myself as applying for those funds and was rejected. I then applied the same paper for Pacific without identifying the need and was accepted (and went on my own dime). It’s two completely separate committees accepting papers, but I would have to think that if, say, there were 15 grad student papers accepted and only budget for 10, those other five would be rejected. But I don’t personally know how it works.Report

Julia
Julia
Reply to  T
3 years ago

People should correct me if I am wrong about this, but I always assumed that acceptance of a paper by the APA was independent of the funding considerations.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  GradStudent4
3 years ago

This is to Grad student 4.
Here are four other reasons for going to conferences.
1) They are good places to learn and to broaden your education (do not make the mistake of only attending papers on your own AOS!)I’ve learned an enormous amount from attending the AAP and NZAP conferences over the years,
2) They are good places to meet interesting people and to make friends
3) They are good places to get yourself known. This is important not so much in getting published as in making it more likely that your publications are read. The papers I published in the first ten years of my career are now well cited but nearly 75% of those citations date from 2006, that is from the third decade of my career. Why were they unread and uncited way back when, given that lots of people think them worth reading and worth citing now? Why were they ‘sleepers for so long? I attribute the years of undercited slumber to the fact that although I was personally well-known within Australasia, in the 80s and the 90s hardly anybody in Europe or North America knew me from a bar of soap. So although I published in reasonably prestigious venues such as the AJP, and Phil Quarterly, nobody said to themselves “Here’s an article by that young fellow Pigden that I met at the Joint Session/ Eastern Division. I wonder what he has to say about Anscombe/Geach/Is-Ought/Conspiracy theories? . Instead they said “Pigden? Never heard of him” and proceeded to the next article. If you are ambitious for your work to be read and to make a difference you don’t want that kind thing to happen to you. So, so long as you have a reasonably attractive personality (perhaps an important qualification), it is a good idea to get out there and to put yourself about. Networking is important and you can do it without being either an obnoxious braggart or a slimy suck-up. (I endorse Andrew Moon’s comments below: also David Wallace’s)
4) Conferences can be enormous fun and can give you good ideas for future work. In thirty-five years I have only been to one or two that were not an enormous buzz.Report

Andrew Moon
Reply to  Charles Pigden
3 years ago

Good points! Yes, I do think that going to conferences will help you get cited. More people will know your work. Even if those people themselves don’t cite your work, they might have a friend or a dissertation student or whomever who is working on what you are working on, and will say, “Ah, you should see Pigden’s paper on that topic.”

This is also a reason (albeit defeasible) to be active on social media. I do learn about various philosophy papers by way of my FB friends posting, “Glad to share that my paper X has been published in Y! Here’s a link to a penultimate draft!” This is also a way to let people know about your work, which is a necessary condition for it being read. A nice thing about social media is that it helps with those who cannot travel as easily. (On the other hand, the best way to connect with people via social media is via meeting them at a conference first.)Report

Andrew Moon
3 years ago

With all the professional stuff about making your CV look better, making connections, and so on, I think it’s valuable to remember the following distinction:

1) Talking philosophy with someone solely because you want to impress the person because they might be a good connection that will help you get a job later or further your career.
2) Talking philosophy with someone solely because you enjoy talking philosophy and you want to gain understanding and “figure things out” and “get to the truth” about some issue.

Call the reasons mentioned in (1) “career-related reasons” and the reasons mentioned in (2) “philosophy-related reasons”. You can combine these to get:

3) Talking philosophy with someone for both career-related reasons and philosophy-related reasons.

(1) leads to shallowness. When I’m at conferences, I feel its temptation and consciously take actions to avoid it. Although I’d be tempted to say that (2) is the only way of pure philosophy, I think that (3) is fine. However, since I know my penchant toward (1), I aim for (2), and I hopefully end up with (3).Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Andrew Moon
3 years ago

As I advance in my career, I realize that I need to spend more time doing the flip side of 1 – I need to spend more time talking philosophy with people solely because *they* are new to the field and need to get to know some people and get integrated into the community.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Andrew Moon
3 years ago

Let’s assume that you have no interest at all in talking philosophy, figuring things out, or getting to the truth, and the only reason you want to talk to people is to impress them and further their career.

The most effective way you can do this is by hypnotizing yourself into being interested in these things for their own sake.

Put another way, the only really effective way to do (1) is to do (2).Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

(Further *your* career, sorry.)Report

PhilSciGrad
PhilSciGrad
3 years ago

A point in favor of going to conferences as a grad student: They’re really fun and you learn a lot!Report

Sam Baron
Sam Baron
3 years ago

I’d like to put in a plug for the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference. Part of improving your employment prospects is finding the stamina to go on in an increasingly crunchy job market. So going to a conference with loads of super smart people and talking about awesome stuff in a really friendly atmosphere is important. Doing so gives one the strength to keep at it. It certainly did that for me.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
3 years ago

I enjoyed conferences quite a bit as a grad student, and I recommend them if you have travel funding to offset costs. In the U.S., state philosophical association conferences are a good way to get your feet wet – not overwhelming, travel issues aren’t as extreme, etc.

If you want good feedback however, avoid large international conferences. In general, I find the quality of papers staggering poor. And you might find that the audience has no idea what you’re talking about, even with regard to what seem like mainstream topics. (I once gave a paper at the World Congress conference, and no one in the audience had even heard of feminist ethics, or the ethics of care). The APA conferences that have assigned commentators will be much more productive (perhaps that’s true of the Australian conference as well). It’s also not a terrible idea to volunteer to be a commentator or session chair – they are usually in high demand, and you can get funding without having a paper to present.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  ajkreider
3 years ago

To ajkreider
Actually it is not true of the Australasian conference. Assigned commentators are very rare. So as I completely agree with Sam Baron about the excellence of the Australasian conferences, I am inclined to say that although assigned commentators may be a sufficient condition for good papers or good feedback, they are not necessary.Report

worried
worried
3 years ago

I’m surprised no one has addressed the possibility that presenting one’s work at a specialist conference might undermine blind review of that work once it’s submitted to a journal. This could especially be an issue for someone who does controversial work in a niche area for which there are a limited number of specialists (and thus a limited number of potential referees). In this case, trying to improve one’s list of conference presentations might actually work against one’s attempt to improve one’s list of publications.Report

Adam
Adam
3 years ago

Suppose that a hiring commitee is down to two candiates. Suppose that their CVs are idential except for where their work has been presented. What kind of conference presentations would the hiring committee favor and look for in order to pick who to hire?Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  Adam
3 years ago

Adam,
This is the kind of question it is not profitable to ask . I’ve participated in lots of threads about hiring committees and how they make their decisions on Daily Nous, NewApps and Leiter and what has emerged is that hiring committees are not sufficiently uniform in in their responses for this kind of question to have a determinate answer. Some hiring committees will go one way under the specified circumstances and some will go another. I can understand the anxieties that provoke this kind of question (I’ve been there myself, though it was a long time ago) but I really think it is a waste of time (or worse) to torture yourself with these kinds of hypotheticals.

More generally I would like to reinforce a message suggested by David Wallace and Andrew Moon (both highly successful and both relatively young *as philosophers* with philosophy doctorates completed in 2010) : *Even from a careerist point of view* it is probably a mistake to allow these kinds of decisions – decisions about what conferences to go to or what papers to attend or which of your papers to give at a conference – to be driven by careerist considerations. This is partly because there is often no discernible fact of the matter about what would be best from a careerist point of view. And it is partly because in so far as there *is* a discernible fact about the best careerist strategy, the best strategy is not to worry too much about your career but to let yourself be guided by considerations about what will be fun or interesting or what will enhance your education or self-development as philosopher . Other things being equal, the philosopher who is happy in his or her work is more likely to be productive as a researcher and successful as a teacher (since if you do not feel the joie de philosophie yourself you cannot communicate it to others). And the best way to make yourself saleable to hiring committees is to make yourself productive as a researcher and successful as a teacher.

This is not to say of course that you should forget about careerist considerations altogether. But if they are continually at the forefront your mind this probably isn’t going to be good for your career. So don’t ask yourself which venue for a presentation is most likely to impress a hiring committee (a question which does not have a discernible determinate answer and may not have a determinate answer PERIOD). Ask yourself which venue is going to give you the best feedback or which venue will be the most fun or at which venue are you likely to learn the most. *These* are the kinds of questions that ought to be driving your choices.

Please forgive me if this sounds too much like a sermon, but I guess the old get the privilege of preaching to the young.Report