Conferences and PhD student professional development

A plenary panel at the Contesting Canada's Future conference, Trent University, May 2015.
A plenary panel at the Contesting Canada’s Future conference, Trent University, May 2015.

Having just returned from a great experience at the Contesting Canada’s Future conference at Trent University, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my experiences at conferences, and the roll that they can and should play in the professional development of PhD students. I think a partial, but s

ignificant, list would include these three contributions:

1) Reducing Power Differentials

PhD programs are, at least in part, about the process of going from student to scholar, both in practice and in terms of our own self-perception. And while conferences certainly don’t erase the power differentials between professors and graduate students, they can go some way toward evening them out a little.

I’ve been lucky to attend a number of different conferences where I presented on panels with scholars at a variety of career stages. Most scholars I’ve met have been genuinely interested in engaging with me as a colleague both inside and outside panel sessions. Since both course work and the dissertation process have stronger elements of hierarchy, conferences are helpful in the transition of seeing professors as eventual peers.

2) Increasing Perceptions of Competence

Further to the previous point, I suspect conferences can promote perceptions of competence for PhD students. A blog post was making the rounds a few weeks ago about some recent research on PhD persistence. The researchers had found that “Perceived competence appears to be the cornerstone of doctoral studies persistence. This determinant was the strongest distinguisher between completers and non-completers….” While other factors, such as one’s relationship with one’s advisor, were relevant to persistence as well, the researchers suggest that they contribute to outcomes by affecting a student’s perception of their own competence.

Successfully participating in a conference is an immediate source of feedback on one’s own competence. It can be a particularly important one since, as the post author notes, “PhD training requires more autonomy and involves less structured indicators of progression….”

3) Reducing Isolation and Expanding Networks (or “Comforting the Extroverts”)

Particularly for those of us with moderate to significant extrovert tendencies, dissertation writing can be an isolating experience. As I said to a few people during this most recent conference, I often feel like I need to store up all the energy I get from the spring conference season and store it for winter.

So since I spend most of my waking time at conferences delightedly talking with fascinating people, I find conferences somewhat exhausting. But they’re ultimately nourishing, in a meaningful way. And thanks to some of the great conference connections I’ve made over the last few years, many of which have continued in person or online between conferences, they’ve also helped me to get through the scarcity of contact at some other times of the year.

Of course, not all conferences do these things, and they don’t always do them evenly. Issues of class, race, and gender can come into play, and even beyond those factors, not all conferences are positive experiences for graduate students, for a variety of reasons. Yet I think a few good conferences can help us get through graduate programs and feel better about our experience while doing so.

What has your experience as a graduate student at conferences been like? Have you found that they make a meaningful contribution to your professional development?