Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist, and Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Why Attend Conferences as a Freelance Academic?

Full kurosawa pryal

Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

For a freelance academic, the scholarly conference can seem like a confusing proposition.

Attending a conference without an institutional affiliation can feel alienating. That alienation, combined with the fact that many freelance academics are no longer searching for faculty positions, can make conferences seem like a colossal waste of time and money. And honestly, as a freelancer, what would you present on at a conference in your field? What could you possibly contribute?

The answer is: Far more than you might think.

For independent scholars who are considering attending an academic conference, here are some suggestions for how to overcome feelings of alienation and how to figure out what you have to contribute.

What if you feel like you don’t belong?

Feelings of alienation, especially for those who have just recently left academia, might be the most difficult challenge to overcome on this front. You left the ivory tower. So why are you back on the academic-conference circuit? You don’t have to earn tenure, so why are you publishing scholarship? What if the other conference attendees find out that you don’t have an academic position?

Just because you aren’t in an academic job doesn’t mean you can’t have a post within an academic organization. For example, I recently took a job as a mentor for a large scholarly organization; at its annual meeting the mentor program has its own gala, meet-and-greets, and other events. I’m involved in a way that isn’t just about teaching or research.

Kelly J. Baker, a postacademic journalist and author, wrote about attending her discipline’s annual meeting as the chair of a task force on contingent faculty. Although she wasn’t an academic when she attended, she had a purpose. Eventually, Baker ended up leaving the task force once it became apparent that her efforts weren’t going to bring about change. But her efforts were still valuable — and your efforts can still be worth your time, even if you fall short of your goals.

What if you feel like it’s a waste of time and money?

It’s true: Most conferences are an expensive time suck. I would never, ever suggest that you go attend one for any reason if you can’t afford it. Right at this moment I’m working on an accommodation for a member of a panel I’m chairing so that she can Skype rather than pay to travel across the country and spend money she does not have.

If you feel like a conference is going to be a waste of time and money, then trust your instincts. Don’t go. Don’t go just because you feel like you should. Don’t go because you miss your old friends (you can always visit them). Don’t go because you feel like you’re missing out on the zing of academia. Spending a grand or more on a conference isn’t going to bring back the zing. It’s just going to make you broke.

But there are reasons to go if you can afford it.

You can network with colleagues and clients. You can pitch a textbook to book editors. You can give a workshop on a topic, refine the workshop based on your experience, add that workshop to your résumé, and advertise similar workshops in the future (for money). Which leads me to the final concern.

What do you present on at a conference as a freelance academic?

Say you have decided to submit a proposal to present a paper at the conference. What do you submit if you are no longer interested in the tenure treadmill? As a freelance academic, how can you make a conference presentation meaningful to your career outside of academia?

You can always present traditional scholarship, of course, even if tenure is not your goal. Scholarship has many uses and benefits beyond earning you tenure. Presenting scholarship can help you establish an identity as an expert in a particular field — as someone who might be hired by those outside of the field as, say, a consultant. Or, you might present your scholarship simply because you enjoy it.

But there are other ways to share knowledge at a scholarly conference that do not involve presenting traditional scholarship per se.

Do you lead workshops as a freelancer? Suggest a workshop in your area — say, as a roundtable — at your field’s conference. For example, if you lead workshops on interviewing skills as a freelancer, the conference for your learned society might be interested in having you lead a workshop for graduate students on interviewing skills as well. The same goes for workshops on résumé writing, social-media best practices, and online portfolio design. Any skill that you teach outside of academia is a skill that workers in academia would likely be interested in learning.

I recently gave a talk on how academics can better engage with the media — how to write on your area of expertise for general audiences, and how to be an effective media expert when a reporter calls you. I was surprised by how interested traditional academics in my audience were in my zany topic.

In short, bring your freelancer skills back into the academy via a scholarly conference. You’ll be surprised, too, by how many people in your learned society will be interested in what you have to teach.

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