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01/26/2022

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Rosa

My sense is that big conferences like the APA are terrible for networking with "more prestigious" folks, but that smaller workshops where everyone is in the same session together are much better. Of course, you then need to be able to get an invite to those small conferences/workshops, but if you're able to, that's where I would focus my attention if prestige is the aim.

But like Helen and Marcus, many of my most valued "networking" outcomes have been folks at a similar career stage as me. I love their work, I love talking to them, and I consider them real friends as well as colleagues. (Some of them are fancy now, even if they weren't when we met, which I guess does have some additional perks - but is not why I value the relationships.)

anon

right in the same boat with the OP.
Avoid the big conferences has been my strategy.

Go to small intimate conferences where everyone is talking about or focused the same thing.

Those have been much better in my experience, assuming that's a possibility for you.

Its possible I am overly cynical but my general attitude towards big conferences with a bunch of concurrent sessions is that they're an outmoded tradition of academic philosophy--almost like, well we've always done conferences, so we're gonna keep doing them.

They feel like a self-important way for philosophers to dress-up and show off.

And in my experience, smaller conferences are much much better in this regard.

But take my words with a grain of salt--I am jaded.

Assistant Professor

I am so glad to see this conversation happening. As soon as I started seeing people clamor for a return to in-person conferencing and how much was "lost" in virtual conferencing, I wondered about how hard it was for people in positions of power in our field to recognize how much was gained for many in the move to online. Less concern about funding to travel. Less need to coordinate heavy teaching loads - or childcare! - to be able to leave town. Less worry for those who need physical accommodations, need access to a quiet room for mental health or to pump or whatever, and less anxiety for those who (for many possible reasons) don't feel comfortable socializing over alcohol in a hotel lobby.

I know there ARE some things lost in online conferencing, but also a lot can be gained. I know the name of everyone in my session because it appears on their Zoom square, and they know mine too, and the Q&A queue is based on the raised hand function and not who is most notable in the room. It has been refreshing! Like other commenters I appreciate smaller conferences where you can really network with people working on similar areas and will prioritize those in the future for in-person attendance. Which isn't to say I won't go to the APAs again, I am sure I will, but I don't miss them.

lover of online conferences

I am a non-native English speaker in a low-ranked program. I've been to large conferences a few times and the experiences were awful. So, I loved participating in Zoom conferences during the pandemic. I tried to approach grad students who seemed to be at a loss but it didn't go well. I turned to students who were standing alone next to me and introduced myself (in a very friendly manner). But they were like "oh, that's great" and that was it. They were just eagerly looking for a chance to talk with big names. That was really embarrassing and I was deeply hurt.

East Asian

Totally agree with the stuff mentioned. As an obviously non-white and second language speaker, I had terrible experiences with big conferences. For example, in a Q&A session, I had my hand raised while the chair kept asking "any other questions" until a well-established academic shouted, "that hand has been there the whole time" for being allowed to ask a question.

Marc

To answer Helen's question, one simple thing I like for better opportunities is Q&A management. (i) ask people to briefly introduce themselves before asking their question. This way, even if I don't know you, I might have a reason to come and talk to you after the talk (if we work on the same topic, if I am interested in the topic you work on, etc.). (ii) Prioritize questions from people who haven't yet asked a question.

I get that it's frustrating to be ignored at a conference. I guess most of us don't do it on purpose. As someone shy and self-conscious about invading someone else's bubble, I need a good reason to talk to others. Q&A management provides a good reason to engage with each others.

non-US grad

Just to add to the OP's point above, as someone in an unranked program outside the English-speaking world I've experienced much of the same. On top of that, since I received very little travel funding, I had to cover much of the conference costs myself. So, I would end up paying the bill for what I thought would be an opportunity for professional development, but turned out to be a humiliating experience. I honestly cannot think of anything as demeaning happening to me anywhere else outside academia.

I'm also on board with earlier comments about online conferences being much better in this sense. Not having to go through experiences like those mentioned above has made attending such events much less straining on my mental health.

Sam Duncan

I think the people who've recommended small conferences are completely correct. Now I'm not going to completely bash the APA meetings or big conferences more generally. The last APA I went to had some really good aspects. I particularly liked the teaching panels, and I heard some really cool papers on political philosophy. But if you're presenting work, the APA conferences tend not to be great for anyone who's lower down in the academic caste system. There are exceptions but from what I've seen the comments aren't super helpful and are sometimes even flat out abusive. I've found this generally true but much worse for folks who are seen as less prestigious. (I do believe this is getting better but that might be wishful thinking). I've never been able to network either. Even when I've had friendly conversations with people like I did during the last APA's teaching panels, the whole thing is just too big. I find you talk to someone for 15 minutes and then don't see them again and can't remember their name two days later. There's also the fact that the APA requires you to submit full papers and full papers of an utterly bizarre length. Smaller conferences are much better for presenting your work both the to network and to get decent comments. The comments tend to be better since the guy commenting on your paper today knows you'll get a crack at commenting on his in a few hours or the next day. Because they know they will see you and everyone else again people are also less inclined to prestige based jerkery, or indeed other forms of jerkery. And since you see the same people over and over they are just much better for networking and worthwhile conversations. Plus small conferences generally only require a proposal. You only need to write a conference paper, or cut your paper down to presentation length, if it's actually accepted. I feel like a lot of junior people get the advice to present at the APA and ignore other conferences since the APA conference is "prestigious". That's certainly the advice I got as a grad student. However, to me that seems to completely misunderstand what conferences are for. Conferences are best for networking and sometimes getting decent comments. The APA conferences and other big academic conferences aren't completely worthless in that respect, but small ones are much better.

Greg Stoutenburg

I agree that smaller conferences are better for networking.

My own experience with career-focused networking at APA meetings has been much the same as with any other meeting or conference that I've gone to, though.

The main thing is knowing how to start a conversation with a stranger that appeals to their interests. A lot of the comments above seem to come from the perspective that more senior folks are obligated to find graduate students and people from lower-ranked institutions (how? should they read all the name tags?). But that's just not how conversations work.

Find something you have in common with the person you want to talk to, and lead with that. It needs to be relatively specific, though. I've seen some painful attempts at networking that begin with an opener like, "Hey, how 'bout that categorical imperative?" Bad. But if you've, say, read a paper that you know is relevant to someone's work--extra points if the someone is the author--you can certainly approach and offer your idea about the piece and start a conversation that way.

Networking at philosophy events is just starting polite friendships, and you have to learn to do it no matter what your goals are. That includes aiming for non-academic positions, as I described here:
https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2021/08/how-to-leave-philosophy-guest-post-by-greg-stoutenburg.html

The Buddy System

I find it helpful to use something of a 'Buddy System' at larger conferences to make everything a little more managed. Basically, I find someone who is similarly ranked as me and we spend most of the conference hanging out together. Obviously, I ask if they want to be my conference buddy first. I don't just randomly follow them everywhere. But for often than not, people like the idea because they are also desperately looking for someone to talk with.

It's to the point now where a know a few people who are similarly ranked to me who now naturally want to hang out when we're at the same conference. It might not be the same as networking with big names, but having a buddy does make conferencing a lot easier for me. It gives me support if a question I ask goes poorly and makes it easier to talk to a senior scholar because I've got someone with me to help clarify points. Plus, it means making new friends which is also always nice.

historygrrrl

Like others, I prefer small conferences.

While I've been smoked at the Smoker, accumulated debt trying to fund conference travel, and had my attempts to ask questions ignored, I've also had some very positive experiences at conferences of various sizes.

Here are a few nice things that seem to promote inclusion:

1. A few times, chairs and/or speakers at APA sessions have put together after-talk meals or drinks, open to anybody. With a smaller session, this can be a great way to welcome some of the newer folks to the conversation. One time, a senior person even offered to pay for my meal!

2. TT and established people can step it up by introducing their own grad students to other folks (grad students or otherwise) that they have interests in common with. I met some nice people at the APA thanks to the suggestions of my mentors.

3. On a few occasions, I managed - through blind peer review - to get papers accepted to smaller conferences that paid for part of the travel costs (e.g. several meals, hotel). For folks on tight budgets due to low salary and/or lack of department funding, this is so helpful. This will not work for the APA, but people at fancy-pants schools might want to think of organizing smaller conferences that offer grants for folks without travel funding.

The Q&A issue is always going to be tough. Even if one leaves time for grad student questions, this practice still excludes other members of the profession. It would be super cool to find a way of leveraging technology to have something like the hand-raise function of Zoom to create queues in an in-person setting.

K

To shift the dialogue a little, because of how common these experiences are, I’ve actually had a lot of success meeting people in the same boat as me. When I was an MA or early PhD student who knows very few people at a conference, I would initiate conversations with other people who look to be on the same boat. Of course sometimes I misjudge or sometimes the other person is looking to talk to fancier people than me, but sometimes I get to find conference buddies to sit together for meals and such. It’s really challenging for people who are more introverted or who hate cold introductions, but when it works you will have saved more than one lonely soul. Just an idea. (Relatedly, for people who are in this situation, please remember to be polite when someone who’s just as not-fancy as yourself talk to you, and don’t ditch them at the first chance of talking to a big shot.)

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