Catherine's analysis

Let’s go conferencing!

It is currently conference season among the academic community in Australia.  There are a suite of different professional associations and groups hosting conferences all over the country.  Last week I attended the Australian Sociological Associations’ (TASA) annual conference in Cairns, North Queensland.  Now that the academic semester is over, academic staff and postgraduate students alike are able to travel more freely.  Even so, spending the better part of week on a single activity, setting aside the other juggling balls momentarily tossed above our heads, feels luxurious at best.  Further, we spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars to attend, more if we need to travel further afield (conference fees, flights, accommodation). If we are lucky, we can draw on departmental funding to do this, otherwise we pay out of our own pockets.  

The thing is, the phrase ‘going to a conference’ belies much of the ‘doing’ inherent in ‘conferencing’. As regular attendees can attest, these gatherings are an intensively active and involved experience.  At the end of each day, we collapse with fatigue into hotel beds from all the ‘doing’.  Why go then? Ostensibly, to disseminate research findings and outcomes.  Conferences provide opportunities for information exchange in formal as well as informal contexts.  Meetings provide opportunities to consume new ideas, attend panels or listen to keynote speakers.   I guess, this is one of the key elements in the ‘production of knowledge’ industry that we work in.  For presenters, the collection of experts in any given topics in one location is another valuable means to get exposure on your own research topic.  Meetings like these provide a way to solicit ideas, contributions and critique on your work. There may also be more formal expectations, from institutions or funding bodies, that research findings will be shopped around in these circles.  But mostly, it seems that attending conferences is just what you do when you work in academia.

Another part of ‘conferencing’ of course is precisely those seemingly serendipitous meetings, casual chats in-between sessions or during lunch breaks, or ‘networking’.  We chat to fellow students, peers, and senior members in the field at any opportunity.  These occasions are eagerly grasped by many.  In a lot of ways, postgrad life is a lonely one.  For those focussing on their PhD’s at least, there are no meetings, few opportunities to develop collegiality and generally no collaboration.  Largely, we sit in front of our computers day after day, and are lucky to harrumph to our neighbour while getting endless cups of tea. 

So events like TASA, though time consuming and expensive, are embraced by many as a means to interact with others, and to accumulate social capital. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And messages like this are driven home to postgraduate students by recently employed post-doc’s or more senior colleagues.  Success in the looming academic job market, we are emphatically told by senior academics, is a matter of ‘getting your name out there’, at events like TASA for example.  As aspiring members of the academe, an employment market notoriously stamped by insecurity and job-scarcity, we postgraduate students crave assurance. We want to know it will all be ok.  We want to be told which boxes need to be ticked to achieve the fabled pot-of-gold-employment at the end of the postgraduate-rainbow.

Eagerly anticipating the words of those treading the post-PhD path before us, we breathily ask: ‘how did you score your great research-only post-doc?’  And somewhat apologetically, many answer that it was: ‘mostly a matter of luck, I was in the right place right time…’  I have become increasingly frustrated by this answer.  While it might seem that luck played a significant role to these early-career-academics, in many ways, emphasising ‘luck’ obscures the intangible, though significant role of social capital.  At least in my experience, many of these speakers are active members of professional associations, and engage in a range of extracurricular service roles.  Invaluable opportunities are afforded at regional conferences like TASA for meeting a vast range of local academics.  Even if we are just bitching about the humid weather, or the poor coffee, we are becoming members of an academic community.  And in many ways, it is this small community that is consulted when a job vacancy needs to be filled.

So while conferences, or should I say, the act of ‘conferencing’, are ostensibly a means to disseminate research findings, a much more valuable reason to attend is developing high quality social capital.  And social capital is one of the most precious currencies with which to cultivate a future academic life.  

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