Classically Inclined

August 17, 2017

On conference papers and workload limits

Disclaimer: I am aware that there are far more important things going on in the world at the moment. I haven’t got the words to write about them, so these are the words I have.

At the start of the week, I posted on Twitter about academic work limits, in particular about how many conference papers people limit themselves to a year. I thought I’d write up the collected thoughts here, as it’s a useful thing to have in mind. As background, I was asking because for the last year, I’ve been following my own version of the guidance given in December by Helen Lovatt on managing academic workloads (which came out of our first WCC UK mid-career event). This is part of that transition from being on a temporary to a permanent contract, but also from being early career to being mid-career – one thing I’ve come to appreciate over the last year is that I simply can’t keep going at the pace I did when was a fresh-faced PhD, as it’s just not sustainable when I now know I’m looking at the long haul.

My personal version of the limits for the 2017-18 academic year looks like this:

– one book review or one book manuscript
– two articles to referee
– one external examiner role (for PhD or MPhil/MRes thesis)
– no more than three current PhD students
– two active national bodies
– one school talk per term
– one invited seminar

There’s flexibility here, of course – I currently have no PhD students, which makes being Administrator of the WCC UK doable, plus if I don’t feel an article I’m asked to referee is any good, I can just say no. Helen’s point was that in saying no to things, and knowing you’ve said yes to your ‘quota’, you ensure you have the space and time to do the stuff you actually want to do rather than these kind of activities which can become rather all-encompassing. Given that we’ve not started the 2017 academic year yet and my school talks and invited seminar are already booked up, you can see why I’m trying to plan ahead.

Helen’s original post says that she tends not to volunteer to do conferences. I can see the logic in this – I was a bit surprised, when looking at my promotion criteria, to discover that just giving a conference paper doesn’t count! (Invitations to give keynotes and seminars count. Presumably even if you turn them down.) But looking at my CV, I’ve still done quite a lot of conferences over the last year, and I thought it might be a good idea to have at least a notional limit in play for me to work with. Hence my call to Twitter.

In terms of numbers, people had a wide range of responses. Some people had no limit or policy at all. Others had one or two; Kate Cook aims for no more than two totally new papers a year, plus one or two papers based on pre-existing material, which I would have been able to sustain earlier in my career but would be out of the question now.

However, the biggest theme that came through was the issue of context and, as Syma Khalid said, judging each invitation (or opportunity) on its merits. Which raises quite an important question – how do you decide what those merits are?

In discussion with Carol Atack and Jo VanEvery, a couple of points for working out how to priorities a conference came up:

  • How long is the talk?
  • Does it relate to existing work? Does it fit with your current project or with a potential next project?
  • Will this introduce you to interesting new people or subject areas?
  • What could I feasibly write up or develop?
  • Have I got some work I want an opinion on?
  • Do I want to gain some exposure for my research?
  • Do I want to get new ideas?
  • What are my pre-existing commitments and what would this do to my workload?

Other important practical issues that were raised were whether or not you would be funded (Minx Marple, Caroline Magennis), how much travelling would be involved (Clare Maas), and whether the obligation would be compatible with childcare obligations (Helen Finch). Another factor I’m also now factoring in is whether the conference will require an overnight stay. When infans was very tiny, I did one conference in Dublin and one in Poland; there were both multi-day affairs, but I only stayed one night. I’m now of the view that while I am in principle willing to do an overnight stay, I won’t travel outside the UK to do it; I also turned down a chance to get involved with the next Celtic Classics conference because the logistics of getting to St. Andrews are such that for me to go and just have one overnight would mean I’d be doing nothing but travelling for two days, which doesn’t sound like great fun to me.

Of course, within this, you want to keep flexibility – if a really exciting CFP or invitation comes along, for instance, you don’t want to have booked yourself to total capacity and not be able to take it up. It’s a fine line between setting things in stone and being so responsive to opportunity that you never have the bandwidth to follow any one opportunity through.

So, in the end, I’ve plumped for a limit of two conferences this year. That feels about right in terms of pre-existing activity, but also in terms of what I’m willing to do – I’d much rather save an overnight trip for giving a departmental seminar somewhere, for instance, than go to a tangentially relevant conference abroad and spending most of my time in airports. Of course, these limits aren’t forever; I’ll come back to them in the future and revise them as my family and institutional obligations shift over time, as of course they will. However, I’m very grateful to Twitter for the conversation and the ideas it sparked, not least having a properly articulated sense of how to gauge an opportunity rather than going by instinct.

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4 Comments »

  1. I found this a really useful read, thank you!

    I’m ECR, but I never managed more than two conferences in a year, which worked for me (otherwise it just got too expensive). But it’s useful to look ahead and see what people do.

    Comment by Jeanne de Montbaston — August 18, 2017 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

    • I’m glad you found it helpful! I’ve noticed a real shift in what feels sustainable now I’m thinking in the mid-term rather than in terms of short term/next contract. In particular, I’ve really noticed the issue with committing to stuff where other people are placing publishing deadlines on you – here I am, with a book contract and deadline to sort, which I said yes to before #infans was born! Whether that would seem like a good idea now is entirely another question…

      Comment by lizgloyn — August 22, 2017 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

  2. Very useful, thank you! Into next round of research planning for next academic year soon, so will have a look at this for help! I can see this year I’m trying to do more than that whole list on .7FTE – no wonder I’m working such long hours and not getting enough actual research and writing done 🙂

    Comment by Susannah Wright — March 7, 2018 @ 9:19 am | Reply

  3. […] toll on you; you have to find other ways of doing things (including, for instance, establishing personal workload limits to stop yourself getting overloaded without you noticing). While doing the Monster Book has been […]

    Pingback by The Ending of Eras | Classically Inclined — July 27, 2018 @ 4:43 pm | Reply


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