Desiderata for a successful early career philosophy conference: Suggestions from a graduate student

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A guest post by Valentina Petrolini, PhD Candidate, Department of Philosophy, University of Cincinnati

Conferences can be overly stressful for early career members of the profession. Besides the dreadful experiences of talking in front of an audience and the struggle of surviving the Q&A session without too much damage, we often feel the pressure of “networking” and “getting our ideas known” to other people in our field. Unfortunately, many conferences are also quite useless in this respect: formal opportunities to interact with senior scholars are very limited, and graduate students easily end up hanging out with each other during the informal events.

Last November I attended a conference that was an interesting exception to this rule. The Early Career Scholars Conference in Philosophy of Psychiatry at the Center for Philosophy of Science (Pittsburgh) was organized by Şerife Tekin (Daemen College) and Kathryn Tabb (University of Pittsburgh) with two main goals in mind. The first was to tackle a current issue within psychiatry – i.e. overcoming mind-brain dualism – to sparkle the interest of philosophers and psychiatrists alike, thereby promoting interdisciplinarity and cross-fertilization between the two disciplines. The second goal was to facilitate the interaction between early career researchers and senior members of the profession, creating opportunities to discuss each other’s ideas and works-in-progress. I must say that both goals were brilliantly achieved.

As an early career philosopher of psychiatry, I found three aspects of this conference particularly impressive. First, I was surprised to see that several psychiatrists attended the event and engaged in thoughtful interactions with the speakers and poster presenters. It was interesting to see that medical practitioners were both attentive and responsive to philosophical developments concerning their discipline, since – qua philosophers – we often struggle to understand the practical implications of our research. This experience made me more confident about the possibility of building fruitful relationships with people working in psychiatry and strengthened the idea that we are interested in similar questions after all. What kinds of things are psychiatric disorders? What are the causes involved in the onset of mental illness? What are the methods with which we can successfully intervene to improve the health of psychiatric patients? How can we make sense of the patients’ experience when this involves some sort of “reality distortion”?

Second, the conference format facilitated a number of formal and informal interactions between early career scholars and more experienced researchers in philosophy and psychiatry. The event was set up in a way that allowed junior philosophers to present their work effectively through talks and posters, and senior scholars to provide feedback as formal commentators or simply as members of the audience. The (relatively) small number of participants contributed to create a friendly and collaborative environment, making the discussion very focused and at the same time accessible to everyone. I believe the poster session was particularly successful in this respect: over lunch break, most participants took the time to browse through the posters and discuss their content with the presenters. This is (unfortunately) still quite unusual for philosophy conferences, where posters are often relegated to the hallway or scheduled for super-inconvenient times of the day. Hanging posters in the same room where the talks took place and offering a dedicated time to them was definitely the right move to ensure that they got appropriate attention.

Third, I was impressed to see how many different approaches and philosophical paradigms were represented in the contributions. Although papers and posters were carefully selected based on their accordance with the general theme – as Rob Wilson pointed out in his plenary remarks – there was a huge variety in terms of perspectives, methodologies and philosophical affiliations. Again, it is definitely not easy to find a conference where canonical issues in philosophy of science happily go hand in hand with phenomenological reflections and methodological, ethical or historical analyses. However, this is exactly what happened in Pittsburgh: the contributions dealing with reductionism (Goyer & Faucher; Lemoine), dualism (Hine; Hochstein; Kotsko; Ross) and pluralism (Friesen; Petrolini; Tabb) were seamlessly interpolated with the ones focusing on the history and social locatedness of psychiatry (Radden; Tekin) and with others discussing phenomenological (Fernandez; Jeuk), methodological (Buckwalter; Krgovic; Ozel; Repnikov; Robins; Winzeler) and ethical issues (Sadler; Washington).

A few months later, what lesson can we draw from this event? More specifically, what are the desiderata for a successful early career philosophy conference? Here are my suggestions.

  • Make sure that the work of early career scholars gets the right attention. This means creating various opportunities – e.g. talks, poster sessions – where junior philosophers have the chance to present their work and discuss their ideas thoroughly with the audience.
  • Create formal opportunities for interaction between early career philosophers and senior members of the profession. This can happen in a variety of ways: assigning commentators to individual papers worked well in this case, but other formats are worth exploring as well (e.g. mentoring workshops, career development panels).
  • If you decide to have a poster session, emphasize its importance by offering a dedicated time and space in the conference schedule. In particular, make the extra-effort to encourage all the participants to interact with the poster presenters and give them feedback.
  • If the topic of the conference is interdisciplinary in nature, make sure that all the contributions are refereed both by a philosopher and an expert of the other discipline (e.g. a biologist for philosophy of biology conferences). This helps to ensure that the papers are dealing with issues that are theoretically interesting and also up-to-speed on the relevant empirical evidence.
  • Make sure that diverse paradigms and perspectives within philosophy are represented in the contributions. This helps to go beyond traditional (and often artificial) boundaries – e.g. analytic versus continental – and to focus on common problems and innovative solutions.

More on the Early Career Scholars Conference in Philosophy of Psychiatry can be found:

here (Şerife Tekin and Kathryn Tabb‘s summary),

here (Center for Philosophy of Science’s photo album,

and here (John Norton’s comments).

***Word Cloud generated from the abstracts of the Early Career Scholars Conference in Philosophy of Psychiatry (Pittsburgh, November 2014)

Valentina Petrolini is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati. Her work is mainly in Philosophy of Psychiatry, but her broader interests lie at the intersection between Philosophy of Mind and Epistemology.