I have disciplinary conferences, where I will interview candidates and be interviewed, as well as presenting papers and helping facilitate pre-conference sessions. I will also be presenting at research subject-specific conferences as well, sharing findings from a research project and recruiting participants in the next phase of study. All in all, I have (at last count) 5 conferences this year, with the potential for 2 more. (Damn, even writing that is freakin' horrible.)
I always tell younger faculty that professional conferences are (a) important to attend and (b) energy-sucking voids that should be chosen selectively and often avoided. How are these propositions simultaneously true? Well, here is my explanation...
Conferences are a great way to get to know your field. You need to learn the outlines of your discipline, the arguments and developments in your field, and the latest research related to your topic. You will need colleagues with whom you can do research and write in the future. Conferences are where you find out more about the discipline and meet prospective colleagues and mentors. If you go to or participate in sessions on your topics of interest, you can meet people who are more senior than you, learn about their research, and get them to know about your research. These senior colleagues are the people who will eventually read your tenure portfolios.
You can also cruise book tables of publishers in your field (and buy books cheap on the last day), do some amazing people-watching, get some free food and booze at receptions, visit with previous instructors and old friends, and perhaps even sight-see a little in fun, new places. A little time away from the old grind can be a very good thing; it is even better when there is room service. And with your part of the trip paid for by the school, you can bring the partner or family and make it a vacation.
That said, conferences can be a little too seductive. I know, you get to present, and that adds a line to your vitae! Of course, it isn't a line that counts much when compared to a publication. And parties are fun, but they often have lots of free-flowing booze, which can lead to lots of unfortunate interpersonal behaviors and comments made a little too loudly. I have had a colleague burst into tears in public because she was so drunk (nothing about the conversation warranted it), another get sexually harassed by a former mentor who was very drunk, another who drunkenly insulted someone at a reception for a school where she wanted a job, and I have heard tell of more inappropriate sexual liaisons at conferences than I could recount in one blog entry.
Yeah, alcohol has some major side effects. Seriously, if you plan to get really drunk at a professional conference, leave the damn hotel or only spend time with your oldest and best friends somewhere private!! Of course, I am the model of sobriety and propriety at these events...but I cannot tell you if that is because I don't like getting too drunk, I have plans for higher administration, I generally avoid embarrassing situations, or I just don't find that kind of behavior attractive in myself or others.
It is also important to note that going to conferences takes money, time, and energy. I have been lucky to be at schools that pay for most of my travel for conferences, especially if you are on the search committee, but many of my friends have very limited travel funds. Conferences can cost $1,500 or more, once you add in hotel rooms, airfare, registrations, and meals (even if you do Chinese takeout, Subway, and McDonalds). If you get $500 per conference, you are still sucking up $1,000 yourself. And even if you get a roommate and keep your meals to those provided by the conference (and you pack tupperware to steal food for later), it still costs a lot.
Conferences usually last 3-5 days, as well, and they won't tell you when you are presenting until after you have had to buy a plane ticket, so you usually wind up there most of the time. The days you spend at the conference are rarely days you get a lot of work done. Sure, you can grade on the plane, as long as you can keep your materials together and not lose a paper or two. And if you can put up with the inquiring looks from your seatmates, who often interrupt with questions about your discipline, jokes about how hard you grade, and so on. Imagine how much more work (writing and grading) you would get done with 3-5 days without interruptions by email or phone, staying in your own place with all of your writing resources available. Perhaps we should just tell people that we are going to a conference and just stay home!
Lastly, conferences are like vacations--fun to go on, but they require recovery time. You get home from a 4-day conference, and your family needs attention, your laundry is dirty, your work is still waiting for you, and you have TONS of unanswered emails and phone calls. And that is assuming that you actually get home! So many people have sat in airport terminals when their planes were delayed or cancelled, that almost none of them go home on the official "last day" anymore. They all want a day leeway, in case there is a snowstorm/ice-storm/tornado/hurricane/some other act of God. Nothing in worse than leaving your Monday class prep for your return on Sunday afternoon, only to find out that you will not be arriving until Monday at 8am wearing your old clothes. (Sigh.)
So, before you write the proposal for yet another conference, consider the following questions:
1. What benefits will you get from attending the conference?
2. Can you afford the expenses of money, time, and energy?
3. What is your agenda for the trip (contacts, experience presenting, relaxation) and how will you achieve it?
4. What is the best way to maximize the benefits for you while minimizing the costs?
Hopefully, by answering those questions, you might make better conference-going decisions. I wish you good luck in this conference season. My first conference is coming up soon, and, nonwithstanding all of the warnings listed above, I am happy and excited. I have plans with friends, get-togethers with family who live near the conference site, tons of interviews with potential candidates, a presentation or two, meetings, and an interview with a school who might hire me. Lots on my plate. We'll see how happy I am when I am coming home from the 5th conference of the year.