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07/06/2013

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Michel X.

Several senior (and very successful) people have said much the same to me, by way of advice. I've only tried it a few times, but seems like a very solid strategy, especially for those of us who need deadlines to motivate them!

Michael J. Augustin

One of my first conference presentations was along this route. I'll never forget how hard I worked to get the paper done before the event. I was even working on the flight out! It was, among other things, a great learning experience.

Fritz Allhoff

Idk, this seems to suggest that a way to do philosophy is to, in lieu of a sustained research program, scribble something on a napkin some afternoon and call it good. And then what? Conference accepts it--because many conferences accept most things, particularly the ones that take abstract submissions--and you show up and then what? Your napkin doesn't hold up under pressure, you realize you didn't really have an idea in the first place, and you're on your way to a bad professional reputation.

Maybe the better idea would be to scribble it on the napkin, then throw the napkin away. Certainly drafting ideas can't be bad, but my recommendation would be to reserve conference submissions for work you can't casually do in an afternoon. Rather, only go public with something you've spent a long time working really hard at.

Finally, many graduate students spend too much time trying to get line items on their CVs--*any* line items--without thinking critically about what those things are and how they paint them. I'd respectfully submit that few conferences that would take a graduate student on the basis of a short abstract are worth having on a CV in the first place. An empty CV is better than a bad one (by a lot).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Fritz: thanks for your comment. I just wrote a really long comment which then disappeared thanks to a bad internet connection, so I'm going to have to be shorter this time around.

Anyway, I didn't mean to advocate the philosophical equivalent of "scribbling on a napkin", so perhaps I should clarify a few things.

First, most of the time when I do these things, the CFP in question is related to things I *have* thought about for a very long time -- so it's not like I'm writing up abstracts on things I don't understand. In other words, although I haven't thought about the topic of the CFP *per se*, it is easy for me to see, on the basis of things I have thought about for a long time (and in some cases have already published on), that I *can* write up a good paper on the topic. Ultimately, whether or not I send in the abstract comes down to my confidence on whether, in fact, I think I can write a good paper. I most certainly do *not* suggest writing and sending off abstracts willy-nilly on things unrelated to issues and arguments that one has thought about a great deal over a long period of time.

This brings me to a second point, which I thank you for drawing attention to: namely, that grad students in particular should proceed with caution. Given where they are at in their careers, I agree that it is prudent to not write and send out abstracts cavalierly. That being said, I think that the further one gets along in the profession -- once one is, say, out of grad school, published, etc. -- one can be in a much better (epistemic) position to evaluate whether an abstract one writes up is one that you can write a good paper on.

Does that make sense? Does it sound right?

Roman

Echoing Marcus's last comment, I want to add a bit about how I've done this. I saw CFAs for very interesting looking conferences on topics I'd thought about but hadn't researched. I then spent a day or so skimming the literature to pick out main points, and scribbled my thoughts (the prior thoughts I'd had, now shaped by my scribbling) on a napkin that I then sent in. Once I was accepted, I spent two months (each time) furiously reading through as much of the literature as I could find on the topic, then writing my paper at the last moment to incorporate the relevant bits of that literature while developing my original thought.

Warning: both times I felt completely insane at the last moment, and although the papers were very well received both times, that may have just been beginners' luck.

Let me suggest a few advantages of this method, though:

(1) You may end up with a great paper you otherwise wouldn't have written. (Or you may end up with an embarrassing clunker--which probably won't kill or damage your reputation; if your paper is just mediocre, people will forget it. If it's truly awful, you'll have to be extremely charming over dinner to leave a positive impression.)

(2) This gives you a sense of how good you are at reading through a new field and identifying what the participants in that conversation take to be the key topics. And it gives you an exercise in doing this.

(3) You get to go to a conference where a bunch of people are working on a similar topic, which is a really nice change from huge gatherings like the APA or even general conferences on an area (for example, just because a conference is on ethics doesn't mean there are common themes to all the participants' presentations). There are nice things about those huge conferences, but there are different nice things about entering into a group of people working on related themes.

But, of course, quality matters. Some conferences are really elite--say, the Workshops that get published in Oxford Studies. They tend to reject napkins (especially since they're usually not blind review). And some conferences have no standards, so if you get in you really won't get advantages (2) and (3); even (1) is undermined, since you won't really know from feedback if your paper is any good. But there are plenty of conferences in between, especially on areas that are interesting but not quite mainstream.

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