The Conference Paper Question

Over the summer, I have quite a bit more “unstructured” time than I did during the quarter. To help schedule my time, I decided I should make a checklist of things I need to get done over the next couple of months before leaving for China. (I’ve started using Evernote to organize my checklists. Comment if you have another system/software that works well for you.) At the top of that list right now is writing a paper for a conference hosted by the Young Historians Workshop at Renmin University in October. The paper isn’t actually due until mid-September, by which time I will have been in China for at least a couple of weeks, but with the time it will take to settle in, I know I’d better have the paper largely finished before leaving.

Graduate students receive (and give) ambivalent advice about conference papers. Participating in conferences can be valuable for developing presentation skills, receiving feedback on work, meeting scholars with similar interests, and adding lines to your CV. Pragmatically, it is possible in at least some cases to get funding for travel to conferences if you are presenting, so being on the program can be helpful if there is a conference you want to attend as well. Beyond these benefits, though, the most important outcome of presenting at conferences may be developing experience talking about your field of expertise outside of the classroom, in other words, beginning to make the transition from graduate student to professional scholar.

These advantages come with caveats, though. Putting together a panel in such a way that it brings together scholars with similar interests and who can helpfully critique each other’s work and draw a healthy audience is an art in itself – and one that is especially difficult for graduate students whose professional networks are not as developed as those of their mentors. (Of course, there is also the argument that there is no way to master this art without practice.) Additionally, a poor presentation based on suspect research is just as likely to hurt your professional profile as help build it. Finally, writing conference papers and traveling to conferences takes time and may be a distraction from more immediately important tasks.

In short, presenting at a conference is a risk. Personally, I lean towards the optimistic side and have found presenting at different types of conferences to be a valuable experience. In general, though, I think it is useful to think about different elements of PhD study (not to mention the whole enterprise) as risks that should be consciously analyzed. (I also think that, on the whole, PhD students are overly risk-averse, but that’s a problem for another post.)

So, why am I taking this risk in particular? There are two main reasons. First, this will be my first formal opportunity to present my research in China, and I want to make the most of my year there gaining experience speaking to and (more importantly) learning from Chinese scholars. Obviously, I am especially excited to do this in the context of a conference with a theme that is relevant to my research interests. Second, writing the paper is keeping me accountable for doing research that is is important to the dissertation as a whole without being easily categorized as relevant to one chapter more than another. If anything, what I’m writing will become something like an epilogue (and yes, I feel ambivalent about whether that’s the best use of my time – hence the risk). The research itself, though, has to be done to have a better grasp of one of the main sources I’m using for other parts of the dissertation and will help me develop my overall argument from a slightly different angle.

So, overall, I think I’m doing the responsible thing and taking a positive step toward becoming a professional historian of China. But there are also nagging doubts about whether this is really the best use of my time. This, in a nutshell, is what summer looks like for me, and I love it.


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