October 5, 2022

Who Should Attend an Academic Conference and How to Find One

Written by Holly Eva Allen. PFF Fellow. Student in English. School of Arts & Humanities.

As a first-generation college student who took four years off after receiving her bachelor’s degree, I was overjoyed to be accepted in a graduate institution. I was excited to go back to doing research, writing papers, and having meaningful conversations with educators and learners in an academic environment. I had a great deal of enthusiasm for learning and for what I saw to be academic culture. What I didn’t have, however, was the necessary knowledge to excel with a research profession or academic career in mind. One specific area of information that I lacked was everything to do with conferences. 

Academic conferences are a vital part of the academic process for those who hope to work in research, higher education, publishing, writing, or academic leadership. They are large events where scholars present their work or research findings to peers. Often, there are opportunities to take follow-up questions and further discuss their ideas.  

Academic conferences exist for every discipline, from computer science to museum studies. But why should you care? Maybe you have stage fright. Maybe you feel that your graduate school experience has been just fine so far, and you don’t see why you should have to attend a conference. For a brief list of reasons that you might want to present at a conference, consider the following: 

  • You can get a general idea of the trending topics in your discipline at the moment. What subjects seem to be getting a lot of attention? What subjects are so thoroughly covered as to be virtually impossible to write on and stand out? 
  • Conversely, you might find that an idea for a paper or project you’ve been mulling over isn’t touched on whatsoever. This may give you the needed incentive to begin writing or finalize your work, as it may fill a much-needed niche in either academic publishing or as a presentation at an academic conference. 
  • Academic conferences permit academics to find other scholars with similar interests or aims who might be good candidates for joint paper writing or group research. 
  • Conference experiences are often sought out by hiring parties at academic institutions when browsing the CVs of applicants for a position. 
  • If you’re finding it difficult to make friends or find fellow academics with similar interests as yourself, then an academic conference might be a good place to meet others. 
  • Academic publishers and literary agents often attend conferences, or art agents may attend conferences associated with the arts. For this reason, presenting your work at a conference might open up significant opportunities. 

Academic conferences are typically hosted by an academic institution or research entity of some kind. For example, higher education students everywhere may be familiar with the concept of an “MLA style” paper. MLA stands for “Modern Language Association”. That is, the MLA is actually the name of the English and linguistics group that sets the guidelines for the titular essay writing style. The MLA also hosts many academic conferences on the topics of language and literature, some of which allow presentations on any paper tangentially related to the aforementioned topics while others may focus on more specific areas of research. This is only one organization that is associated with conferences. Examples of others in varied disciplines include the APA (American Psychological Association), AAS (American Astronomical Society), PCA (Popular Culture Association), and many, many more. 

Before delving into how one might find a conference that best suits them, it should be noted that presenting at conferences typically incurs a monetary cost of some kind. This came as quite a shock to me, given that I had never heard of conferences before entering graduate school. At first it seemed unfathomable that I ought to pay a fee in order to present my work or research. However, these conferences, as previously touched on, provide a great networking opportunity. Furthermore, paying costs often times ensures that the event can take place on ground by paying hotel or conference hall fees. Or, when an event takes place virtually, fees may partially be used to cover the cost of premium Zoom accounts, Microsoft Teams fees, or similar host costs. The cost of presenting at a conference typically comes from the organization hosting the event requiring that all presenters be active members of their organization. Often these organizations offer discounted member rates for graduate students, lowering the overall cost. Some conferences also charge a registration free, regardless of whether or not the participant is a member. If the event takes place in person, then travel fees and associated costs must also be considered. Some institutions and organizations will offer awards that cover all or part of the cost of presenting at a conference, though this is not always the case.  

Let’s say you have a paper or project that you would like to present at an academic conference. You may have no idea how to find an appropriate conference for your work. There are a few notable resources that list calls for papers in various disciplines. While some of these calls are expressly aimed at papers to be published in a book or journal, often times calls for conference proposals are mixed in. There are even a few websites that only list upcoming conferences and omit calls for standard papers completely. Perhaps one of the most well-known sites is known simply as the WikiCFP. WikiCFP lists upcoming conferences in computer science and associated fields. One of the largest resources for finding humanities conferences is the UPenn listserv. This massive, everchanging list of calls is hosted by the English department at the University of Pennsylvania. For those looking for conferences in the sciences, the Yale undergraduate page for Science & Quantitative Reasoning lists a plethora of conferences. While some of these, as the page name suggests, are primarily aimed at undergraduate students, a majority of them permit more graduate students by number. Below this paragraph, a list of resources compiling conferences is included. If you still struggle to find a conference that suits you, it is best to reach out to your department, other students and colleagues, or to check the website of an academic research organization within your field. 

A final word of caution: beware of predatory conferences, also known as scam conferences. These events are not backed by a legitimate academic organization or institution. Typically, such events will make ridiculous claims, flaunting advertisements announcing that some of the top scholars in a particular field will be attending. These predatory conferences are often listed on websites that have no school or organization affiliation. Sometimes notice of such conferences is even emailed en masse to student email addresses or any email address with a “.edu” ending. You can often times determine whether or not a given conference is reputable by doing a simple search online. If you are still uncertain, it may be best to contact your academic advisor or department for advice. Be wary, but don’t let the existence of predatory conferences deter you from taking part or giving a presentation at a legitimate event. Conferences are often wonderful experiences that open up many doors for students and established academics alike.