The Academic Conference: Vital to Every Doctoral Student

SACES Conference

I returned last week from presenting at a regional academic conference for counselor educators. It was my first time attending this type of conference, and I came back feeling energized and connected! Energized by the workshops designed to enhance my experience and productivity as a doctoral student and connected as I networked with other doctoral students and professors. I realized about halfway through the conference that this topic would be a fitting next blog post.

The academic conference is an absolute must for every doctoral student, especially if you are planning to work in academia. It is critical that you attend these conferences on a regular basis, and I will get to why I believe that very soon.

Oh, and I get it. I am a realist about this issue. You are a student. You may not work at all outside of the academic world or you may just get by on some sort of compensation (i.e. stipend) from your teaching or research assistantship…and that isn’t enough to attend all of the local, state, regional, and national conferences that are available to you every year. It might not even be enough to attend two of them while paying bills and taking care of life and family needs. Conferences are expensive, especially the national ones. There is no way you can attend all of them even if your department pays for a % of your registration and lodging expenses. You still have to find a way to get there and eat so you don’t pass out due to malnourishment during the 2 hour content session.  I’m not saying you must attend all of these. You may need to pick and choose depending on your financial resources and your schedule for that season.  What I am saying is that you must find a way to attend at least one major conference on a somewhat regular basis, hopefully at least annually.

Why are academic conferences so important?

#1 – Academic conferences provide you with an instant pathway to research that may be helpful in advancing your own research or ideas.

I found this to be the case last week. Several presenters, including doctoral students working on their dissertation or other research projects, facilitated discussions on a topic that was somewhat related to my area of interest for my dissertation. I cannot tell you how helpful this was for me. I asked questions, clarified concepts, and we exchanged contact information. Sometimes the presenter was able to inform me of a helpful instrument I had not considered or of an article I had not reviewed. I plan on following up with every single presenter I met next week, so we can continue this dialogue.

#2 – Academic conferences provide you helpful concepts, knowledge, or skills that increase your competence as a teacher, researcher, student, or supervisor.

I know this sounds elementary, but it is still worth mentioning. Due to the conference’s focus on counselor education and supervision, I was able to learn helpful techniques and skills that helped me become a better teacher to my students and a better supervisor to my supervisees. In a profession that often focuses on me “pouring” into others (i.e. clients, students, etc.), it was nice to feel poured into as I was rejuvenated and armed with additional knowledge.

#3 – Academic conferences provide a deep well of networking and personal connections.

This point was probably the most important lesson I learned last week. I was able to reconnect with a few faculty members whom I met at a national conference a couple of years ago. These faculty members seemed to be interested in my program and my research interests. It was fun because some of my interests matched with some of their interests. So not only was it personally validating and motivating to meet professionals who were interested in me, it also helped me continue conceptual conversations around shared topics of interest. One of the faculty members with whom I reconnected invited me to help facilitate a workshop at a university in a neighboring state. I felt honored and excited to be offered this opportunity with a faculty member whom I admire! Therefore, networking gives birth to networking. And who knows? These doctoral students and faculty members could be our colleagues when we become employed as an Assistant Professor. They could be our next department chair or the head of our faculty search committee. So we may never fully know the value of a good first impression until a future date.

Attending conferences is vital for your development as an academic professional in the making. Through promoting conceptual conversations, advancing ideas and research, and gaining skills and knowledge, your professional identity and skillset will become more developed. But probably the most important benefits of attending conferences involve the personal connections and networking opportunities that are available. By engaging in these conferences on an annual basis, you are preparing yourself to be the best doctoral student and future professor that you can be.

The question now becomes…how will you make it happen?

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