By Rob Currie-Wood

The start of a new fall semester is not only a return to classes but also a new season of applications for funding and conferencing. When we think of academic conferences, we often overlook graduate student conferences and instead think about applying to larger national conferences. This post highlights the advantages that MA and PhD students can get from attending graduate student conferences by drawing on my experience at the 2015 Bell Chair Graduate Student Conference.

During the fall of 2014, one of my professors recommended that I apply to the Bell Chair Graduate Student Conference. I had never presented at a conference before, but I had just finished gathering data for my MA thesis on political party financing. At that time, I remember thinking, “why attend this conference when my friends are encouraging me to use our limited travel dollars to attend the 2015 Canadian Political Science Association meeting?” I decided to apply for the Bell Chair conference, despite the appeal of going to CPSA, because presenting at a graduate student conference felt more manageable in terms of scale and posed a lower risk to my reputation should something go wrong. Plus, additional travel funding was available through the Bell Chair. I am grateful for attending (even if I went for dubious reasons) because I received incredible feedback on my paper, enjoyed the relaxed setting, and met future peers and mentors. I expand on these benefits below.

Academics will critique your work

Graduate student conferences are an opportunity to present your research and get feedback. Rand Dyck was the first person beyond my supervisor to read an analysis of my dataset about party financing. He provided a detailed critique of my paper within a thematic discussion for the panel. I found his comments quite helpful because he evaluated my research from a slightly different vantage point than my teachers in Calgary. Moreover, Rand was very gracious when commenting on my paper that was very clearly far from publication. He even gave me a written list of comments.

Present research in a semi-formal setting

Graduate student conferences have the same professional feel as every other academic conference. The major difference is that the expectations for presenting at graduate student conferences are lower than for presenting at regional or national forums. I found presenting to a room full of peers (along with a handful a renowned academics) to be less nerve racking than if the room had been full of renowned academics (with a handful of peers). The relaxed environment made for a very interesting discussion following the panel, where I soaked up additional insights about Canadian party politics.

Meet your people

Graduate student conferences are the place to meet peers in your discipline. During my two days at Carleton University, I connected with other MA students with interesting research in development, PhD students working on dissertation chapters, and senior PhD candidates soon to begin post-docs. The graduate student conference attracted an array of junior scholars, some of whom dealt directly with Canada and others who used Canada as a case for comparison. Several have since started tenure-track positions and some of the presenters remain friends to this day, while others are now my mentors. My encounters with other participants at the graduate student conference were friendly and informal, yet they unexpectedly established a professional network that has helped me progress in academia.

Graduate student conferences are an incredibly valuable experience. I strongly encourage you to consider applying to one this academic year – especially, the 2019 Bell Chair Graduate Student Conference: Canada at a Crossroads?.


Rob Currie-Wood is a PhD student in the political science department at Carleton University. He is helping organize the 3rd Bell Chair Graduate Student Conference with Elsa Piersig and Louise Cockram