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From PhD to Life

I attended an academic conference and didn’t go to any sessions

Conferences are a great space to expand your network of higher-ed contacts.


I had a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of conferences when I was a graduate student. I thought – not wrongly – that they were about presenting research, sharing ideas, meeting scholarly colleagues. And yes, they are. Presenting a paper is an opportunity to get feedback on work in progress, too, and to add a line to your academic CV.

What I didn’t get was that conferences were also and perhaps more importantly about networking. Scholars you meet at conferences might invite you to present your research at other events, or urge you to submit an article to a special edition of a journal they are editing. You could meet future hiring committee members, or learn insider information about departments where you might apply for jobs… or decide not to.

Graduate Student Me also had little concept of the world beyond scholarship and teaching within the world of higher education. I knew university presses, government funding agencies, and scholarly associations existed, of course. I didn’t know much about them as places of employment. I only learned about Mitacs toward the very end of my PhD program. I’d never heard of the Conference Board of Canada. I received a copies of University Affairs issues in my department file folder and never thought about the people who wrote, produced, or managed it.

As someone now adjacent to higher education and academia, I attended Congress in Regina, Sasakatchewan, to represent University Affairs and Beyond the Professoriate, the small business I run with Maren Wood. UA had a booth in the expo space, and I spent a few hours there over three days, talking with folks who stopped by to pick up a copy of the magazine or grab a branded wobble light.

It was enormously fun.

One of my concerns when I was contemplating a career beyond the Ivory Tower was that I wouldn’t be around smart people anymore. I cannot emphasize enough how wrong I was. I love speaking with graduate students, postdocs, faculty members, university staff, publisher representatives, folks who work at non-profits such as Mitacs and the Conference Board, and everyone else I met at Congress.

I learned a bit about what a business development specialist at Mitacs does. (This is a great job for PhDs, including just-graduated folks.) I spoke with faculty members who’d made difficult – and ultimately good – career decisions. I visited a book publisher’s display that didn’t include any books! Concordia University Press is new and looking for authors, FYI. I learned about early plans for next year’s Congress at UBC; it sounds like some innovative programming is in the works. I was also glad for an update on the doctoral internship program in the English department at UBC. (“I’m so proud of our students,” one professor told me. Yes!) I heard from graduate students facing a tough academic job market while balancing family and life needs. I shook Federal Minster of Science Kirsty Duncan’s hand.

My time at Congress confirmed for me, once again, that there really is life after the PhD, even if that life doesn’t include a career in academia. Smart, interesting, engaged people work everywhere. Learning continues.

Dr. Loleen Berdahl (left, University of Saskatchewan), Mat Buntin (middle, from the University of Toronto Press), and Dr. Jonathan Malloy (right, Carleton University).


Tara Siebarth, Glen Ashworth, and Natalie Samson from University Affairs.


Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. X. Otxoa / August 29, 2018 at 06:13

    Any top-level conference in any field is always about disseminating research results. The networking aspect is important but it is only secondary. I could never justify to the taxpayers who fund my research the expense of going to a conference and not attending some sessions.

  2. Samuel S. / September 1, 2018 at 22:48

    For students, I would consider networking the more important aspect of attending a conference, although of course the communication experience is valuable. That said, I would never condone skipping several sessions (let alone all of them), that is ridiculous.

    I completely agree with X. Otxoa’s comment about justifying the taxpayer footing the bill just to have fun and meet people. Doing so is actually offensive. Then again, perhaps there is a reason behind several UA authors’ failure to become academics and consequently write numerous articles dismissing academia as a viable career option…

  3. Jennifer van Alstyne / September 27, 2018 at 10:54

    I don’t know about the other commentators, but conference and research funding for travel is not readily available in all fields. Also, funders love networking, connection, and publicity, so I’m not sure how upset they’d be if you didn’t attend 5 sessions if you met 5 people who actually are interested in your work who will use and share it themselves.

    I presented at a national conference and the most valuable things I did were visit the bookfair to talk to editors, and attend a How to Get your Book Published workshop. Yeah, I went to panels. But they weren’t helpful for me, even if they were interesting.

    I learned more than my professors knew about the state of the current academic book market. I talked with dozens of people shopping 1st books, heard from people on their 6th or 7th, and learned from acquisitions and series editors.

    Seeing the alt acs at the conference started me down the path to leaving. And no, it’s not because I can’t do academia. What a rude comment about alt ac people! I left the academy because I can help more people outside it.

    Talking with the editors at that conference made me realize how little training faculty and researchers have access to in public relations, in sharing their work. That conference helped inspire my academy-adjacent business helping people by creating personal academic websites, social media consultations, and providing training.

    I admire Beyond the Prof because they are helping programs and faculty like you better prepare students for a variety of career options. Sounds like that University Affairs booth was the place to be!

  4. Glenda K. Folk / October 17, 2018 at 10:57

    Networking is important, however, it should not become the primary reason for attending. Learning and sharing is still a viable reason for participation. I do believe we need to reinvent ourselves through public or private enterprise, due to the diminishing rewards of trying to find a meaningful and secure position, in our field of cultural production.


  5. Jeannine B. / October 23, 2018 at 17:00

    As an independent scholar, I consider myself “locked out” where it concerns scholarly research and access to any funding opportunities for research would be nonexistent. I have had some chapters published both online and in print publications but, if I am to get to a conference or a convention, then I will have to fund it myself (which means being very “limited” as to which conferences and conventions I could attend). For example, American Library Association conventions and midwinter meetings would be a heavy burden on me since I am not employed by a library where most (if not all) of my expenses would be paid by my employer (and funding through the ALA is very meager and not very plentiful). Even some of those who are employed through a library still pay a majority (if not all) of their expenses & still look for someone on various blogs to split hotel expenses. I have been waiting (for a long time) to attend a conference that will not only be within a reasonable price range but will be easier to access from my current location (and will be well worth my money to attend). I believe these conferences are a combination of attending sessions and networking but I wouldn’t solely attend for networking; I myself enjoy research and writing articles but I wouldn’t attend a conference if I were only going to “network”, since that, to me, only seems as if it were a form of mingling. I think that conferences and conventions are about both of those aspects.