Increasing Grad Student Participation in Conferences

While at the PCB-AHA this week, one of the conference organizers asked a group of us about ways to stimulate the attendance and participation of graduate students.  This question knocked around in my brain a bit as I talked with my cohort members later and as I spent hours traveling home (having bought a cheap flight with a long layover that was hundreds of miles out of my way).  I also reflected on the THATCamp model and wondered if there might be some way to integrate the successes of an unconference to make a traditional academic conference more helpful to grad students.  Here are some of my ideas:

1) Travel money: Yes, the reality is in the current economic climate, many of our universities have very little, if any, money allotted for conference travel.  Everyone from my UC Irvine cohort paid for the PCB-AHA out of their own pocket, opting for the cheapest of travel options (train or discount flights because few of us have cars that work well enough to travel the desert in mid-summer) and then sleeping two to a bed to offset the pricey conference hotel rooms.  The most frugal of us also brought along homemade sandwiches to defray meal expenses.

2) Banquet registration:  None of my fellow grad students were able to afford the banquet options at the conference.  Perhaps a system to ‘sponsor a grad student’ at the banquets would be helpful, as I suspect that many of us lost networking opportunities by not being able to attend. I could imagine a scenario where a senior-level faculty member would not only pay for the meal of a grad student, but also take said student under their wing at the meal and introduce him/her to other faculty members in their field.

3) Facilitating pre-conference collaboration for carpooling & room-sharing: A listserv or FaceBook group for grad students looking to share costs for travel to a conference would not only make the conference less pricey for student attendees, but could also foster other pre-conference collaborations, which leads me to point #4…

4) Fostering informal  ‘unconference’-style student forums:  One thing that I’ve learned from my work on the MHpodcast is that there are numerous graduate student concerns that could be benefit from cross-campus conversations.  This booklet from the AHA is one attempt at addressing the needs of graduate students.  However, facilitating focus groups at conferences would be even more helpful than a pamphlet in addressing specific grad student concerns.  This could be organized in an ‘un-conference’ manner either by having students form interest groups prior to the conference through FaceBook or via an informal brainstorming session at the beginning of the conference.  With either method, grads could propose groups based on their subfields of history or on topics related to the graduate experience (such as applying for external funding, using Zotero, dissertation writing, balancing parenting with academia, etc).  Conference organizers could support the topic groups by setting aside a room for group meetings–perhaps a lounge or a room with a roundtable setting. These meetings would also fit nicely into mealtimes, so if a grad student discount could be arranged at the hotel restaurant or bar, that would be helpful (in my experience, the high cost of eating at the hotel venue typically prevents students from doing so).

In compiling this list, I should say that none of these suggestions are, in any way, meant as a critique of my PCB-AHA experience. This conference has the well-deserved reputation of being an accessible and friendly venue for graduate student participation. I am certainly grateful for the support and collegiality that I experienced while presenting my paper and attending various conference sessions and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

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4 Responses to Increasing Grad Student Participation in Conferences

  1. Laura Mitchell says:

    Thanks, Jana, for posting concrete suggestions–useful for anyone planning a conference in straitened economic times. The majority of your comments were aimed at the financial side of conference travel and participation, always a challenge for grad students and now increasingly uncertain for faculty at many institutions. Facilitating pre-conference communication to help with material issues (transportation, lodging, meal options) can certainly make participation feasible for more people.
    The idea of “unconference forums” has appeal beyond a specifically grad-student audience. Despite the success in some spheres (especially tech/digital scholarship), the concept doesn’t seem to be getting much purchase at mainstream academic gatherings. Thoughts about how to help bring about such a change?

  2. Jana says:

    Yes, my thoughts are really very practical and logistical ones, mostly aimed at actually getting the grads to the conference. However #4 is really about making the conference more useful for grad students who can feel either very alone at a con (if they don’t know anyone else attending) or overwhelmed by the formality of the event. Listening to prepared papers is stimulating, but the informal connections could ultimately be more helpful in aiding their progress. As an example, at the PCB there was a excellent panel about “The Status of Women in the Profession.” The speakers were women who were educated and hired in the 60s & 70s–their stories were amazing & heart-wrenching. But what would have made that panel even better, would’ve been an informal ‘support group’ meeting afterwards for women who are currently trying to get hired and balance stage-of-life issues with their work.

    Certainly this model of creating informal working groups shouldn’t be limited to grad students only, but perhaps because I’m in that stage of my career right now (and both frustrated with the high price of conferences and desperate for further networking opportunities), I think it’s a great place to start experimenting with unconference models of collaboration.

  3. Sean Winslow says:

    I think a big improvement would come from just choosing to avoid venues where no affordable housing or food can be found–the last conference I committed to, in Oxford, booked a ‘Student Rate’ of $200/night after conversion. Add to that airfare, separate-charges for all the meals and the banquet, and it was horridly expensive. Thankfully, there are hostels in Oxford, but even they cost as much as some cheaper universities’ rooms in the States.

  4. Katrina says:

    I agree with the points about conference costs; particularly in the current economic climate, conference committees should think about offering ECONOMICAL choices for attendees (and a “conference rate” at the Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton, etc of $150 that doesn’t include breakfast or wifi is not it). I attended conferences as a grad student by staying nearby at a bed & breakfast or hostel.
    For grad student participation in banquets, the AHA for several years now has offered a number of free tickets to graduate students to the Women’s History Breakfast (which I always enjoy), I don’t know if other events do this too. I’ve actually found the best way to get to meet and spend time with other attendees is to go on a tour or other organised local event, where people are more relaxed, it’s fun, and you have time to talk.