Teaching low-wage work with playspent.org

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 8.24.40 AMOne of the activities that went particularly well in my “Women and Work” class last winter used the website playspent.org. This website is an online “game” that challenges users to make it through the month with one of three low-wage jobs without going broke. The premise is that you are one of the many Americans who have just lost your job and your home and are down to your last $1,000 in savings. Users first select a job, then choose how far away from that job to live. At each decision-point, the consequences are made clear through short pop-up text boxes and interactive features. For example, if they choose to live farther away from their job in order to reduce rent costs, their gas expenses for commuting to the job go up. After several set-up choices are made, the month begins. Users are faced with a series of real-life scenarios to respond to as the month progresses. For example,

“Your child wants to join an after-school sports team, which requires a physical and a uniform. What do you do? Say yes ($50). Say no.”

or

“Two bills are due today. What do you want to do? Pay gas bill ($100). Pay electric bill ($125). Pay them both ($225). Borrow money from a friend.”

At other moments users have to select what items to purchase at the grocery store, get paid, get strikes on their record for taking time off from work to contest a speeding ticket in court or stay home sick. At each decision point, short pop-up text puts the decision into a national context, and the amount of money they have left to get through the rest of the month changes accordingly.

I had my students “play” the game in class on one of the days dedicated to wages. I had a regular classroom, not a computer lab, so this required students to bring their own laptops. The day before I asked for a show of hands of how many people had laptops that they could conveniently bring to our next class, and enough hands went up to proceed. On the appointed day there were enough laptops in the room for students to break into groups of two to four to play the game together. Each group played the game on their own. Many went through it several times to see how they fared while making different decisions. The discussion questions below were displayed on the overhead projector while they played. I floated around the room to see how people were progressing while they played. Students got very involved with the activity, as indicated by the difficulty I had getting them to stop and the amount of noise they made!

After I called a halt to the game and got everyone to close their laptops, we discussed the experience with the questions below. (I adapted these questions from similar ones provided by Brooke Kelley on the Sociologists for Women in Society list-serve. Thanks Brooke!)

  • How many of you made it through the month without running out of money?
  • If you made it through the month without running out of money, how much longer do you think you could have made it under the conditions of the exercise?
  • What surprised you about this exercise?
  • What parallels did you see between this exercise and the Ehrenreich reading?
  • Did you make any decisions that seemed wise at the time but which you later regretted?
  • This game isn’t gender-specific. How does it relate to our class theme of Women and Work?

The students had lots to say. Those that grew up in more financially stable households found the experience of trying on low-wage work eye-opening. Students that grew up facing similar financial difficulties seemed to find the experience validating, and shared further examples with the rest of the class. All in all, this is an activity I would do again.

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This activity was paired with the following readings:

Kessler-Harris, Alice. 1990. A Woman’s Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

  • “The Wage Conceived”

Sacks, N. E. and C. Marrone. 2004. Gender and Work in Today’s World: A Reader. Cambridge: Westview Press.

  • Ehrenreich: “Nickel and Dimed: Selling in Minnesota”

Publishing your first academic article

I’m speaking in one of my department’s professionalization panels today on the subject of academic publishing for graduate students. The increasingly competitive academic job market requires students to begin publishing early, so I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned so far and hearing what the other participants have to say.  Here’s what I plan to discuss:

1. Different kinds of publications

There are a variety of publishing genres in academic life. Book reviews, encyclopedia entries and book chapters in edited volumes are just some of the opportunities that may come your way while you are a student. I’ve written one book review, one book chapter (coming out in April!), one article in a cross-over magazine meant to be read by scholars and the general public alike, and several online pieces (stay tuned for the launch on of the Critical Sustainabilities project!). I’ve learned a lot from all of them, and in future years I hope to try my hand at writing reports and opinion-editorials as well. Still, publishing peer-reviewed articles in academic journals remains the gold standard of academic writing and is the kind of publication that will help you the most if you hope to pursue a career  in academia after graduation. I’ve had one of these published so far and a have a second going through the submission and review process. The rest of this post focuses on these types of publications.

2. How to pick a journal

The first official journal article I published grew out of my master’s research. Since this project involved collecting new data and making my own argument about it, it was a good  fit for publication. Other opportunities may come to write more theoretical pieces out of field-statements written as part of the qualifying process, or perhaps from class papers. Once you know what writing you want to publish, the next step is to figure out where to publish it.

Trying to find the right journal for your article can be daunting. My strategy was to ask several different advisors and published peers about the journals that they follow, and for recommendations on where to submit my own work. Then I spent time looking these journals up online to get a feel for their content. Usually this meant purusing recent tables of contents. It is also wise at this point to think about the subfield of your discipline in which you hope to specialize, and to target a journal within that field so that your writing will get in front of the eyes of the subgroup of academics whom you hope to join. Again, getting this kind of information requires talking to people who know your field well. Keep in mind that you can only submit your draft to one journal at a time.

I submitted my article first to Social Problems. The editor quickly got back to me with nice things to say about my work, but recommended I seek out a more specialized journal as my piece was too narrowly focused to be able to make a contribution to their larger theoretical themes. I then resubmitted my piece to Organization and Environment, where it was accepted after two rounds of revisions.

Over time, I’ve developed a better sense of the different journals in my field as I see my peers publish in them and as I read more of them myself. I have also found it helpful to subscribe to the “table of contents” e-mail alerts at a variety of journals that interest me. That way whenever they publish a new issue, I get an e-mail that lists the new article titles and their authors.  Even without reading most of these articles, over time the e-mail alerts have given me a much better sense of what kinds of articles are appropriate for which journals.

You may also hear about journal “impact factors.” This numerical score reflects how widely cited the articles published in the journal are. The higher the impact factor of the journals in which you publish, the more “successful” you will be considered by the academic establishment. Nonetheless, I’ve largely ignored impact scores at this early stage of my career and focused instead on getting published by the journals that are best suited to my work.

3. Editing your work to fit the journal

After completing my thesis, I whittled my 70-odd page paper down into something closer to 20 pages. Doing this forced me to pick one of the several arguments in the original work on which to focus, to get to the point much faster, and to be vigilant about cutting text that did not explicitly support my main argument. Next I revised the piece to fit the requirements of the journal to which I was submitting.  These requirements are usually available on the journal’s website under a heading that says “Submit a Manuscript,” “Author Guidelines” or something of the sort. Revisions often include changing the citation and reference style, editing your work to fit within page or word-count limits, or formatting tables and appendices in specific ways. You may also decide to revise your work substantively as well by emphasizing themes most relevant to that particular journal.

4. Submitting your writing

The actual submission process itself is usually fairly straightforward – simply create an online account and follow the journal’s instructions. In addition to your final article, you will input your personal information, keywords for the article, an abstract and a second version of the piece without your name and other identifying information. Your article will go through a “double-blind” review process intended to keep you from knowing who your reviewers are, and to keep them from knowing who you are.

There is often also a space to include a letter to the editor. When I submitted for the first time I just wrote something short and generic such as “Dear [editor’s name], Please accept this article for consideration. I look forward to hearing back from you.” However, I’ve since read other opinions on how to use this space. See here and here for more information.

5. Revisions

After you submit your work, one of two things will happen. The editor will reject the article without sending it out for review, or will contact other academics with expertise in your topic to read and comment on your work.  If the first happens, you will likely hear back from the editor fairly quickly. If the latter happens, it will likely be several months before you hear anything. If the article does get sent out for review, you will hear back that it has been rejected outright, that it needs to be revised and resubmitted for a second assessment, or that it has been accepted with few to no revisions necessary (this last option is extremely rare).

When you hear back from the editor about the status of your submission, look at the brief note that tells you whether it was rejected, critiqued with a request for revisions, or accepted. Then, ignore the e-mail for a week or so. I’ve found that I can better tolerate the sting of the critiques provided by the peer reviewers if I separate the time between finding out the status of my submission and actually reading the detailed comments.

In my case, my article was sent out for review by the second journal to which I submitted, and I then received a request to “revise and resubmit.” One of the critiques of my work was that I had overgeneralized my findings as well as overstated their significance. I’ve heard from several faculty members that this is a common problem amongst graduate students, so be on your guard for these problems. I revised my paper accordingly and resubmitted it, after which it was sent out for review again. One of the reviewers was satisfied with my changes, and the other requested further revisions. I made further revisions and submitted the paper for the third time, after which it was accepted by the editor without being sent back out to the reviewers.

This revise and resubmit process can be tricky. You want to make all of the revisions suggested that you believe will strengthen your work, or that can be made without taking away from your argument. You also need to decide which revision requests you will not fulfill because they conflict with the argument you are making or with the overall direction of your piece. You’ll need to then write a letter to the journal’s editor explaining the changes you have made, and justifying those you have not made.  It may be wise to have a friend or colleague read this letter before you submit it. I asked someone else to read mine to help me edit out the defensive tone that snuck its way in there despite my best efforts to respond professionally to critiques of my work. Although journal publishing is meant to be double-blind, either the author or the reviewer will often know who the other person is by the content of their writing. Academia is a small world and you will likely be interacting with your reviewers in other settings in the future, so it is best to remain cordial and focus on how the process helps you improve your work. Here are the first and second cover-letters that I wrote to the editor during revisions process. Comments by the reviewers are redacted as their writing is not mine to share.

When your piece is finally accepted, it will be copy-edited by the publishers for typos. Nonetheless, it is important for you to read the final version of your work before it gets published. This may be another good time to recruit a friend’s help.

See Tanya Golash-Boza’s blog post for more details on how to manage this stage of the publishing process.

6. Timeline

Publishing takes a long time! I finished my master’s thesis in 2008 and published the article based on that research in 2012. However, much of that lag was due to the fact that it took me a long time to get around to revising my thesis into an article. To speed things along, be sure to resubmit your article to a new journal in a timely fashion if it gets rejected.

  • Submitted to first journal- April 2011
  • Rejected by first journal – May 2011
  • Submitted to second journal – May 2011
  • Got first revise and resubmit request – August 2011
  • Submitted second version of article – October 2011
  • Got second revise and resubmit request – January 2012
  • Submitted third version of article – March 2012
  • Article accepted – March 2012
  • Article published – May 2012 (even though the citation is for March)

7. Final thoughts

Don’t forget to celebrate your progress at each turn! Did you submit an article? Turn in a revision? Get something published? Find ways to celebrate these successes!

 Other resources:

Slideshow: La Virgen de Guadalupe

I got back into Los Angeles on Wednesday for another week of interviews and research (see post on my last trip to LA here). One of the women I interviewed that day suggested attending festivities for the Virgen de Guadalupe that evening. The Virgin Mary’s image appeared in the cloak of Juan Diego Cuahtlatoatzin on December 12th, 1531, in Mexico City. She is celebrated every year at this time and Juan Diego has since become the first Roman Catholic indigenous American saint. The Virgen’s image is now housed in the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Read more about her in the Huffington Post.

On Wednesday in Los Angeles, pilgrims walked miles into the downtown area carrying floats with her likeness made out of roses. Here are my snapshots from the evening, along with a few of the Union Station railroad terminal where I caught a cab home.

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Research trip to Los Angeles

On Wednesday night I got back from a week spent visiting some of the most polluted parts of southern California, and in some cases the country. These are communities surrounded by ports, refineries, freeways, train tracks, warehouses and other industrial facilities.  They live with air pollution, asthma, cancer, dust, flares, the constant rumbling of machinery and trucks, and bright lights at night. Over the course of the week I heard stories of what it is like to live there. I heard about explosions, fires, police checkpoints, and the not-so-distant history of the Klu Klux Klan. But I also heard stories of improvements made, lawsuits won and protections put in place.

My dissertation research covers the growth and changing nature of environmental justice advocacy in California over the past three decades. Although I’ve been working loosely in this field for much of the past 14 years, my prior work has focused on the San Joaquin Valley and the international arena. And as a dedicated northern Californian, I find I have little knowledge of the southern half of my home state. So, this trip was an important opportunity to expand my understanding of environmental justice advocacy, and to connect across the gentle rivalry that sometimes divides north from south.

I’ve included photos and a description of my trip here in the hopes that through my eyes you too might better understand my state and the problems we face.

César Chávez National Monument

Day 1: Instead of driving south over the I-5, I went up and over the mountains that divide the Central Valley from Los Angeles through Cajon Pass. I wanted to visit the César Chávez National Monument in Keene, which President Obama dedicated just last year. Environmental justice advocates in the San Joaquin Valley have rich ties to the United Farmworkers of America, and César Chávez continues to be a potent political symbol there.  The national monument houses his grave, a garden, and a visitor’s center that was showing a photo exhibit of the 1965 Delano grape strike the day I visited.

National monuments are administered by the National Park Service. Because I associate the park service with national forests and camping trips, it was jarring to see their familiar signage next to images of César Chávez, farmworkers, and artifacts from the picket line. I’m pleased to see César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement get this level of attention and legitimacy, but also uneasy to see a memorializing process that makes it easy to think the problems they worked on are things of the past.

César Chávez National Monument

César Chávez National Monument

The drive through the rest of the mountains was beautiful. The Santa Ana winds had blown the air pollution away so I had an uncommon view of the stunning desert vistas around me. I didn’t see them again for the rest of the trip.

I ended the day happily in Riverside at a 35th Anniversary Gala Event for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ). CCAEJ got its start through a fight against the Stringfellow Acid Pits above Glen Avon. The site contaminated local groundwater, and on several occasions released liquid hazardous waste into a canyon that carried it into the streets of Glen Avon. Activism around the site led to the creation of the California State Superfund Program and to the birth of CCAEJ. It is still being cleaned up.

Day 2: On Friday I woke up to soak in the beauty of a nearby desert rock formation visible from my motel. Then I drove to the Los Angeles Port to attend the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation‘s public meeting in San Pedro. The LA Port is the largest industrial port in the country, and the diesel exhaust from the ships, equipment and trucks that operate there are the largest source of air pollution in the region. The Foundation was funded by the port after years of activism by local residents and a lawsuit over the negative impacts of the port on the surrounding communities. The day I visited the board was discussing the $506,000 worth of grants they were giving to support local community initiatives.

The view from San Pedro

The view from San Pedro

After leaving the port I drove north to Pacoima, where I had a great time interviewing Veronica Padilla and Yvette Lopez from Pacoima Beautiful. They’ve offered to drive me around Pacoima to see their work in person, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again on my next visit!

My car

Day 3: Saturday was a welcome day of rest.  I organized my notes and audio files, scheduled more interviews, and hung out with my cousin at his office in Glendale (where I slept for the majority of the trip). I had it on my list to clean out my car too, but didn’t quite get to it.  You know you’re a Ph.D. student when you open the car door and books fall out!

Day 4: On Sunday I headed back to the area around the Los Angeles Port to interview Jesse Marquez from Coalition for a Safe Environment. Jesse grew up in Wilmington and works to protect his community from the pollution released by its neighboring ports, refineries and other industrial operations. While he printed out reports and campaign materials for me, I poked around his office. There were water samples and soot in jars, maps of the area with callouts pointing to the various projects of industrial expansion, and lots of books. I always find it instructive to peruse people’s bookshelves, and Jesse’s were no exception. The vast quantities of highly technical environmental impact reports spoke volumes about the maze of government regulations and science that he navigates in his day-to-day work.

Wilmington

The bookshelves at the offices of Coalition for a Safe Environment.

After leaving Wilmington, I headed to Maywood to sit in on a meeting between residents and their lawyers at the local Denny’s.  Maywood residents have been engaged in a long battle against a polluting battery recycling plant run by Exide Technologies. The plant has been repeatedly cited for releasing lead and arsenic into the air above legal limits. See coverage by the Los Angeles Times here.

Downtown Huntington Park

Day 5: On Monday I made my first trip to Huntington Park and strolled through the downtown, which was bustling with activity. I met with Strela Cervas from the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of six California environmental justice groups. We discussed the challenges and opportunities of scaling up local battles into statewide policy work in Sacramento. I heard more about their campaign to pass a Green Zones initiative and their support of AB 1330, which would increase enforcement of environmental law in communities overburdened with pollution, and also channel more resources to them. I also learned more about about their “Solar for All” campaign to provide clean energy and jobs in low-income communities through investment in rooftop solar energy production. The need for environmental clean up as well as jobs in the communities in which environmental justice advocates work was poignantly underscored when I passed by long lines of people outside the Social Security Administration building on my walk back to the car.

Line at the Social Security Administration building in Huntington Park

The Los Angeles River

I had a bit of free time before my next meeting, so I drove by the Los Angeles River to take a few photos. It looks more like an industrial flood channel than a river, but I found it strangely attractive nonetheless and enjoyed taking photos of it. Check out long-term plans to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the river here.

The Los Angeles River

My next interview was with Felipe Aguirre from the Comité Pro Uno in Maywood. Over the din of the trucks passing outside, we spoke about his many years of activism, his role on the Maywood city council, and the air pollution and contaminated drinking water faced by Maywood residents. Felipe told me that he first got involved in environmental justice advocacy when he found out that pollution where he lived was so bad that an administrator at a local school made a habit of referring the kindergarteners from his neighborhood to doctors who screened them for lead poisoning.  

Day 6: On Tuesday I joined a visiting group of environmental justice activists from Houston on a tour of the ports, railroads, freeways and warehouses in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.  This transportation system moves a vast quantity of goods every day. The neighboring communities suffer the consequences through air pollution, asthma, cancer and sometimes even fires and explosions. Over the course of the day we:

Picket line in front of Green Fleet Systems

Teamsters Local 630

Truck drivers taking a break from the picket line (names withheld by request)

Tracing the infrastructure of the global “logistics industry” from sea to mountain was daunting.  I already knew that environmental injustices are deeply embedded in global commerce, but watching the massive quantities of goods moving through the area brought it home in a concrete way I’ve never felt before. These lists of exports and imports through the area give a taste of just how deeply entrenched our society is in the international flows of goods:

Top imports coming through the LA and Long Beach ports:

  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Auto parts
  • Electronics
  • Shoes
  • Crude oil
  • Plastics
  • Chemicals

Top exports exiting through the LA and Long Beach ports:

  • Food
  • Scrap metal
  • Scrap paper
  • Animal feeds
  • Cotton
  • Resins
  • Petroleum coke and other petroleum products
  • Coal
  • Chemicals

Cargo ships at the Port of Los Angeles

The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports

Railroads cary cargo inland from the ports

Over the course of the day we used the buddy system to make sure nobody got left behind when we got back on the bus after each stop.  My buddy for the day was Juan Parra of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. We discovered we had a few friends in common, and I enjoyed hearing about the early days of environmental justice advocacy in Texas and the Southwest from him. We also spent part of the drive looking at the Google Map on my smart phone.  We used the satellite view to zoom in on the port of Houston and the neighborhood of Manchester where some of his group lives. Juan pointed out a house that we could see was surrounded on three sides by oil tanks and other industrial facilities.

The irony of spending the day driving and using electronics to learn more about environmental justice problems that result in part from pollution due to driving and electronics manufacturing was not lost on me. But although we’re all implicated in the planet’s environmental crisis, some of us are less implicated than others.  Low-income communities of color usually contribute less to the problem while suffering its impacts more. And like all advocates, we do the best we can with the tools at hand while working towards something better.

Day 7: On Wednesday I joined the group from Houston again as they met with an array of local environmental justice advocates and scholars.  After our morning meetings concluded, we went on one final “tour.”  Alicia Rivera from Communities for a Better Environment drove us through Wilmington, mostly to parts of the town I had not seen before. At one of our stops Francisco Vargas saw us and came out of his home to talk with us. He lives next to the Warren E & P urban oil-drilling site we were looking at. Francisco described how the drilling shakes the earth and has cracked his home’s windows and foundation. He told us that in response to his requests for financial help fixing the damage the company offered him vouchers to get his car washed instead.  In spite of his hardships, Francisco shared a few laughs with us before we went on our way. See page 6 of this report for background information on the drilling site.

View from the car in Wilmington

DSC_0033Francisco Vargas and Alicia Rivera at the Warren E & P drilling site in Wilmington

The immensity of the powers arrayed against communities trying to protect themselves from the pollution I saw in LA and the Inland Empire was staggering.  That’s why it was so inspiring to learn about the issues alongside the group of advocates from Houston, who are anticipating port expansion projects of their own. They were here to get a sense of what port expansion can mean, trade ideas, and learn from what California advocates have been able to accomplish. Although I’ve lived in California since I was five, the fact that I was born in Houston made me feel a special kinship with this group.  I’m grateful to them for sharing their learning experience with me, and to the Los Angeles environmental justice community for their hospitality and warm welcome.

The Houston group

How to: Applying to Give Conference Presentations

I’ve been invited to be a panelist at an event in my department tomorrow titled “Tips and Tools for Applying to Present at Professional Meetings.” The event is a great idea. When you are new to academia navigating big conferences can be overwhelming, and there are a lot of steps involved in the application process that are not always clear when you get started.

Here are a few of the things I plan to talk about on the panel:

1. Joining professional associations

Professional associations hold yearly conferences that they often call “Annual Meetings.” These are opportunities for people around the country, and often from around the world, to share their work with their peers, get feedback, meet new people and visit with old friends and colleagues. Attending and presenting at these events is an important way to meet and exchange ideas with other scholars with similar research interests.  In your first year of graduate school it is a good idea to begin asking your advisors and peers what professional associations they belong to so you can find a group that fits your interests.  For example, I belong to the American Sociological Association, the Association of American Geographers, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. I’ve also attended and presented at the Rural Sociological Society and Agriculture, Food and Human Values.

2. Joining sections and listserves

Once you’ve joined one or several professional associations, you’ll also want to join a few of the sub-groups within these large associations, often called sections.  For example, I’m a member of the American Sociological Association’s “Environment and Technology” and “Collective Behavior and Social Movements” sections and the Association of American Geographers’ “Cultural and Political Ecology” section. Again, it helps to ask your advisors and peers with similar research interests what sections they belong to.

One of the benefits of joining a specific section is getting put on their group listserve. These can be wonderful ways to stay current on news and opportunities in your field, and are often rich resources for asking questions specific to your research.  For example, you might post a question to the list asking for suggestions for articles on a specific topic related to your research, or you might ask for examples of syllabi to help you design a new class. These listserves are also where you will find out about opportunities to present at annual meetings.

3. Different ways to participate in conferences

Most conferences offer a number of different ways to participate: presenting your own work in a formal paper session, presenting a poster during a poster-session, or being part of a round-table discussion are several common ways to present work and exchange ideas. Or, sometimes particular sections of a professional association will offer pre-conference workshops that provide a space to focus on the interests of the section.  I attended a 2 day pre-conference workshop hosted by the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section of the ASA once and found that the small size of the group facilitated getting to know people over the course of our two days together.

4. Navigating conference deadlines

Here are some of the dates and deadlines you’ll need to track:

  • Date of annual meeting: Each professional association usually hosts their annual meeting at roughly the same time each year. The location and dates of annual meetings are often set more than a year ahead of time.
  • “Calls for papers” begin to be released: After a set date, conference session organizers will release “call for papers” that describe the theme of their particular session and invite others to submit papers for inclusion. The session organizers read through the all the submissions and then pick 3-4 to include in their panel. If you are not accepted, your work may be sent to a general pool for other session organizers to choose from, or your work might be sent to your second choice session, or you may need to re-apply to a different session. Each professional organization organizes this process slightly differently.
  • Abstract due date: Many conferences require only an abstract to be submitted for the session planner to read as they decide whose work to include in their session. Some, however, require an entire paper be submitted.
  • End of “early bird” registration: Many conferences offer discounted rates to people who register to attend their conference early.
  • Full paper due date, if applicable
  • Discounted hotel room registration end date: Many conferences offer discounted rates to guests who stay in the conference hotel if those reservations are made early.

Download a worksheet to help you track these dates for multiple conferences here.

5. Making the most of conferences

Attending large conferences with thousands of other scholars can be exhausting. I usually try to find a few sessions a day that I want to attend, but do not try to attend sessions during each of the time slots available. I find that I need regular time away from the presentations for down time and meeting up with friends and colleagues. Conferences offer many opportunities for socializing, which is often where the best personal and intellectual connections are formed. Some schools host a dinner or night out one night of the conference, and attending these events organized by your own school, a school you used to attend, or the school of a friend are a great way to meet people.

6. Paying for conferences

There are a few ways to help defray the costs of attending conferences:

  • The two big conferences that I often attend (ASA and AAG) are often held on opposite coasts, so for the last several years I have been alternating which conference I attend by choosing the one held closest to where I live on the West Coast.
  • Don’t stay in the conference hotel! I have always been able to find hotel rooms within walking distance of the conference that are cheaper than the rooms within the conference hotel itself.
  • Share hotel rooms with other students.  This is cheaper, and often, more fun and a good way to get to know other students.
  • Some grants and fellowships include funds for attending conferences.
  • At my school, my department and our Graduate Student Union both offer annual opportunities to apply to get reimbursed for at least some of the money spent on conferences during the year.
  • Apply for paper awards!  If you receive an award for a paper you present at the conference, you also often receive some money to offset the cost of your participation.

7. Conference participation over time

Conferences get more fun the further along you get in your program when you know more people in your field.  As you get more comfortable in the academic setting and further along in your own research, you may also want to start organizing your own paper sessions, attending the business meetings of the sections to which you belong, or running for office as a student-representative in your section.

8. Other resources

Happy conferencing!

The buddy system: The best thing I learned in preschool

Another old post rescued from my “drafts” folder that stands the test of time.

***

My sister and her family used to live in Amish country in Western Pennsylvania.  When I visited I was impressed by the prosperous looking farms and the teams of horses out plowing the fields.  On one visit, my brother-in-law pointed out a nice home as we drove by it.  He told me the original house had recently burned down, tragically killing several of the family’s children in the fire.  My brother-in-law drove that road regularly and watched as the Amish community came together to rebuild the house – finishing it within a matter of weeks.

I’ve often thought it would be nice to feel the strong sense of community support that seems to be a part of some religions. But I turned down my own opportunity to join a church when I was a teenager, and am not likely to change my mind now. In my own small, secular ways I try to create other kinds of support systems.  They’re not romantic, and often involve making dates to do things with others that I might not do alone.  I definitely wouldn’t have spent last Friday afternoon working on the paper for my upcoming qualifying exam, or going to the gym after that, without having a standing date with my writing buddy and another with my gym buddy!

Every now and then I also miss the sense of shared purpose that can come from having a job that actually involves people all working on the same project.  Academics are mostly doing their own thing, and PhD students are certainly not allowed to co-author their dissertations.

Here’s some of what I’ve already tried and found helpful:

  • Weekly writing dates – in groups or pairs (just to write, not to workshop our writing)
  • Grading get-togethers – for moral support!
  • Exercise buddies – mostly gym time and walks
  • Soup exchanges – everyone makes a soup at home, divvies it up into containers, and gets together to trade soups so we can stock our freezers with a variety of yummy homemade soups! I try to do this each winter.
  • Friday lunch dates at the college cafeteria – thanks Bernie!
  • Project buddies – I finished my master’s thesis with the help of weekly phone meetings with two other friends working on their own theses, and did the early stages of work for my qualifying exam supported by regular coffee meetings with another fellow student (thanks Brandi!). I both cases we didn’t read each other’s work or talk about the content of our projects, but used the time to set goals, troubleshoot, and get moral support.
  • Brainstorming buddies – I have found that most of my academic advisors tend not to be productive people to brainstorm with. They’re much more useful at providing constructive criticism on ideas that are already fairly concrete. But concrete ideas are necessarily preceded by the messier work of making sense of fuzzy thoughts, general interests, and gut feelings, which for me needs to be done in a criticism-free environment, constructive or otherwise. Hence, one fellow student and I have periodically gotten together for brainstorming sessions related to our work. This usually involves big sheets of butcher paper, markers,  lots of post-its, and lots of encouragement. : )
  • Future projects partner – all of the ideas above can be done with people who have a wide variety of research interests. In addition, I have one friend whose research interests are very closely aligned with my own, and we have a shared google doc with a ever-expanding wish-list of future research and writing projects to do together. Now, it may be a long time before we get to any of them. I’m diving into my own intensive dissertation research, and my friend is wrapping up research for a post-doc at the same time that she begins a new teaching job. Still, having this running list gives me a place to cultivate the pleasure of dreaming up new projects; provides a sense of myself as a career academic who will get to work on a wide variety of projects over time, even though my dissertation currently seems interminable; and helps me trust that the future that will allow more collaborative work than my current status as a Ph.D. candidate.
I’ve heard of others who get together to do their house-cleaning in groups, taking turns with whose house they focus on, but I’ve never tried it. I also keep thinking it would be fun to do a monthly “cook for the freezer” day with a friend. You know what they say, many hands make light work! Or, at least, work that is more fun.