Dr Catherine Oliver is a geographer currently working with urban chickens and keepers in London at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. She published her first book, Veganism, Archives and Animals, with Routledge in 2021. Since 2018, she has been leading a project exploring academic conferences as sites of identity formation, exclusion, and power that shape higher education. Her work on the production of “dis-belonging bodies” has been published in Gender, Place and Culture, 2020 and new work on “academic circle jerks” is forthcoming in the British Journal of Sociology of Education. Catherine’s first ever conference was the PGF Mid-Term in 2016 at Newcastle University!
Catherine shares with us an honest appraisal of academic conferences, which has a deep thread of care running through it. As well as a clear desire to shift conferences away from being home to difficult experiences, to spaces which are inclusive, accessible, equitable and open, providing friendship over competition. Catherine also weaves throughout some top tips for navigating conferences. This article accompanies a workshop on Navigating Conferences and Networking as part of the Postgraduate Forum Mid-Term Conference 2022. If you wish to share your experiences of academic conferences and your tips, please do so via twitter using #PGFMT2022.
Academic conferences are an exciting – and daunting – part of academic life. When PhD students and early career researchers begin attending conferences, they are often unsure of the purpose of these events, what to expect, how to behave, even what to wear! At least, that’s how I felt when I first began attending academic conferences and after talking with my friend (and co-author) Amelia, I realised that I was far from alone. Since 2018, we have together been writing about academic conferences, interviewing academics, and reflecting on our experiences of conferences. In this blog, I convert what we have found out into five things you can expect of academic conferences, in the hopes of preparing new PhD students for this strange – and often scary – space.
However, you won’t be finding tips on how to prepare a PowerPoint or time your talk (although the PGF does have great blogs to help). Instead, I’ll be talking about the darker side of academic conferences that is usually confined to whisper networks and our own private moments of imposter syndrome. But it’s not all despairing… I’ll also share how our PhDs and early careers can be a vital time to resist some of these harmful patterns for a new generation of geographers!
1. Navigating Conferences in the Neoliberal University
Academic conferences are often thought of as separate from the everyday work of the university, but they are an increasingly central and routine part of an academic career. Conferences should be where we meet to share ideas, communicate, and learn about developments in the field. However, they also reproduce many of the exclusions of the university across intersectional issues of race, gender, disability, and class, which can make them hostile spaces.
For some time, academics have been commenting on the impact of neoliberal education policies on higher education. One of the most visible impacts is a hyper-individualised culture of competition in universities for research funding, publications, prizes, attention, an ideology which can be instilled in us from the very start of our academic careers. The academic conference is one of the most visible sites that this competition plays out: who gets to give a presentation? How big is their audience? Who is surrounded by people at coffee breaks? And who is left in the side-lines?
In the neoliberal university, conferences become a space where hierarchies are not challenged, but solidified. “Big names” and “celebrity academics” take up space in the centre while people lower in the rungs are often left to feel “outside” or that they are “losing” in the competition of the conference. Rather than avoiding this elephant in the room, it is important for early career scholars to be aware that conferences aren’t always easy spaces to be.
Fortunately, some conferences and organisers are trying hard to combat the exclusionary dynamics of conferences and online conferences have also changed these hierarchies (although not always for the better). For example, the postgraduate forum has sponsored sessions fostering supportive atmospheres and organise meetups at the main RGS conference in the summer. So, if you feel out of place or your first conference isn’t what you expected, don’t blame yourself or be shy to reach out to the postgraduate community!
2. Feeling Out-of-Place
When we interviewed academics about their experiences of conferences, one common theme across every career stage (even professors!) was that people felt out of place in these events. From hours spent agonising over outfits, to careful curation of the perfect slides, to hiding in the toilets for a cry, academic conferences are not comfortable spaces for many people. Thinking about the history of the academic conference as a “male, pale, and stale” format, it’s perhaps little surprise that these events don’t work for many of us.
Over the past few years of researching academic conferences, it has become clear that conferences serve as spaces that mark out who “belongs” in the university more broadly, drawing the boundaries of an academic community. For some people, the atmosphere of conferences has made them feel as if they are “on show,” leading to practices of policing and self-surveillance. The academic conference isn’t just about turning up and giving a paper. Our participants reported a wide range of pre- and post-conference practices – from organising carers to dealing with spiralling anxiety – that are largely hidden from advice on how to navigate conferences.
Importantly, it’s good to remember that these encounters aren’t down to an individual experience. Rather, they are part of larger structural problems in academia that exclude along lines of gender, race, and class, for example. The conference isn’t just a one-off event but has longer temporalities that can serve to reinforce or challenge our sense of belonging in these spaces. If you feel like you don’t belong at a conference, that feeling is normal, even if we wish it weren’t. Acknowledging this and talking about it can feel important in challenging – and hopefully changing – conferences for the better.
3. Networking or Gate-keeping?
Academic conferences can be terrifying not only because we have to stand up and talk about our research to an audience – possibly for the first time – but also because there are all sorts of unspoken rules and informal spaces to navigate. In a forthcoming paper in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Amelia and I look at the networks of conferences: those of powerful networks, who are usually established scholars and for whom the conference is comfortable; and those of precarious and excluded scholars, for whom the conference can be hostile.
In a precarious job market, and in a sector where professional networks are often touted as key to success, the conference can quickly become a tense space for people without a permanent post. Our early experiences of conferences were often as hostile spaces where we felt actively ignored and separate from the “real” spaces of the conference: the conference wasn’t an escape from the university but a reproduction of it!
At conferences, junior scholars and PhD students are expected to attend and present to bolster their CV, as well as to network and collaborate with similar researchers and potential advisors for the future. At the conference, social hierarchies informed by financial and cultural barriers are important to “successfully” navigating the conference. The inequities in accessing and navigating conferences play out in the extra-academic spaces of the conference, such as dinners and bars. “Networking” at expensive dinners and alcohol-fuelled evenings are not only exclusionary, they can be incredibly risky, with imbalanced power dynamics.
While these issues are beyond the responsibility of PhD students to address, it is important to know that conferences aren’t safe spaces and be prepared. There can be bad behaviour and conference organisers find this hard to tackle, sadly making slow progress on changing conference culture, and ensuring that these spaces still feel like gate-keepers long beyond the time that they should have moved beyond this.
4. Why are we really here?
Conferences have long been important events for academic communities. These are the spaces where, in theory, research is disseminated, connections made, and the boundaries of knowledge reconfigured. However, the conference changes for the worse ‘when neoliberal policies are fused with the growing interventions from right wing, nationalist political leaders,’ meaning that ‘many scholars are subject to travel bans, others are forced to resign, and students are expelled and detained’ (Taylor and Lahad, 2018). With the negatives of conferences being clear, why does academia continue with the conference?
The pandemic expedited conversations around academic conferences that had been slowly progressing over the last few years. Are these events working for academics today? Are they accessible, open, and appropriate? Research on academic conferences has criticised their detrimental impact on the environment, considered the sustainability of conferences that demand delegates to use long-haul flights, critiqued the glorification of conferences as ‘academic tourism,’ and considered the ways in which Twitter, for example, can act as an alternative site for connection.
Between prohibitive costs, environmentally damaging travel, negative impacts on host cities, and risks for marginalised scholars, you might be wondering by now: what is the point of academic conferences? Why do we keep doing them? And you wouldn’t be the only one! With the problems of conferences crystallising during the pandemic – and alternative formats emerging – there have been new commitments to changing these spaces. For me, academic conferences can become fertile spaces for doing academia differently, rethinking knowledge production and communication spaces with accessibility, transparency, and openness at the centre.
Academia’s pressures are no doubt heightened at conferences, and these can sometimes feel like make-or-break events to engage intellectually, belong in a discipline, and be recognised as a “good” academic. Academic conferences create a whole set of problems and demands on academics but, counterbalancing this, they are also vital spaces to form peer networks and friendship. For me, the friendships that I have made at conferences have been important not just for professional support, but bringing laughter, joy, and connection to the PhD and now my job!
In academic life, networking can often feel instrumentalizing, with a sense that people might only be connecting to “get ahead.” However, there is a growing consensus that this kind of networking is shallow, and instead a turn to nurturing connections as collective resistance. In a landscape where universities increasingly rely upon precarious employment as a desirable model for academic labour, academic friendships are often haunted by the knowledge that many of us will not have the opportunity to pursue long-term academic careers. With the knowledge that competition has never been fiercer, and the stakes never lower, many people are growing tired of the constant competition.
I know from experience that PhD students can sometimes feel atomised in their departments, and conferences can become the place where academic connections can form. These networks often last beyond the space of the conference itself, allowing for perspectives to be shared from different institutions revealing not only sector-wide problems, but also being a forum for support and other kinds of knowledge-sharing. They might also foster collaboration opportunities, but this is often less important than the value friendship can bring in creating caring communities.