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Ph.D. candidate credits conference travel for aiding philosophical growth


February 2019 | By David Ching. Photo by David Ching.


Lacey Davidson

If you want to catch up with Lacey Davidson, it might be advisable to make an appointment.

The Ph.D. candidate in philosophy is constantly on the move, juggling her on-campus life with frequent travel to philosophy conferences across the globe. In doing so, she serves as a model of success for graduate students, not just in philosophy, but in many ways for students across academic disciplines.

“Quite frequently Ph.D. students in philosophy graduate having gone to one or two conferences perhaps, and maybe with one publication,” said Christopher Yeomans, head of Purdue’s philosophy department. “And so it’s really quite remarkable that Lacey has managed to find her place in several different professional networks and publish in different areas of philosophy.”

Davidson has been especially busy of late, as this is the peak season for philosophical conferences. This semester alone, she has already attended the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern and Central Division meetings, with trips to the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and Pacific APA meetings still ahead.

She believes these experiences have prepared her for a life in academia on several fronts. They helped her make connections within her field and laid the groundwork for publications, and they also provided practical experience in fundraising and basic logistics many professors do not understand until they become full-fledged faculty members.

“You’re going to be meeting the people that do the things you want to do in your life,” Davidson said. “You’re going to hear their papers. You’re also getting to know them. Philosophy’s a relatively small field, and you see the same people over and over – in a good way. You’re building this relationship with them. If you’re working on similar stuff, you can send them your papers and they can give you feedback. I think that’s going to be relevant across the board.”

Benefits aside, the concept of professional networking likely feels like a chore to many academics. However, Davidson’s advisor, associate professor Daniel Kelly, cautions graduate students against viewing conference participation in that negative light.

“I get it: Calling it ‘networking’ makes it sound like a grim but professionally necessary slog of Machiavellian inauthenticity and status jockeying. Bad way to think of it!” Kelly said. “Better way: What you’re really doing is finding your people. There aren’t terribly many of us in the world as interested and passionate and ultimately knowledgeable about philosophy, let alone the corner of philosophy that you’re trying to contribute to and develop an expertise in.

“So it’s important to get out there and find those fellow travelers and make friends with them, see what they think, hear about and think through what their take is on the philosophical issues of the day. Moreover, conferences and workshops are where a lot of the important philosophizing gets done.”

Davidson said her travel experiences have been so transformative that she wanted to provide similar opportunities to students here at Purdue. A leader in Purdue’s Women in Philosophy group, Davidson is one of the organizers of the third-annual Inclusive Philosophies Conference, an event geared toward graduate scholars that will be held on March 29-30.

“My motivation was to provide a similar venue for students working on topics in philosophy that are sometimes marginalized,” Davidson said. “Sometimes, depending on who you talk to, working in applied philosophy is devalued. I think it’s changing, but even three years ago, I think there were fewer venues as a grad student to present socially engaged philosophy, so we wanted to provide that venue for grad students here.”

Much of Davidson’s scholarly work examines subjects like injustice, oppression, and bias. Her dissertation, which she discussed in an on-campus Human Rights Lab presentation in February, focuses on preserving the moral force of the evaluation, “that’s racist!” so that we can hold each other accountable in our vision for a just and equitable world.

With that focus on inequality in mind, of course it makes sense that Davidson would act as a change agent on her own campus. Citing her efforts to allow new philosophical voices to be heard, Yeomans credited the graduate student for helping the field evolve.

“We have a faculty of 19 and we only have three women out of 19, and that’s not at all unusual for a philosophy department,” Yeomans said. “It can’t stay that way, and so we’re all working very hard on it, but Lacey is really leading the change. And she’s doing it in such intellectual and charitable and ultimately effective ways.”

While Davidson has successfully cleared hurdles that prevent many graduate students from taking advantage of the networking and professional growth opportunities that conferences and workshops provide, she knows the process can be confusing and intimidating. Looking back, she shared some strategies that aided her efforts:

* On getting funded: Look for grant support if possible. Two of Davidson’s visits to the University of Sheffield in England, plus several other conferences and other trips, came courtesy of a Global Synergy Grant through the College of Liberal Arts.

“That’s a good way to fund some travel if you have a global scope,” she suggested.

In addition, her experience coordinating the Inclusive Philosophies conference and Purdue’s Lectures in Ethics, Policy, and Science taught Davidson how to scrape together funding from university sources. She has also applied that concept when attempting to fund her travels.

“Just survey the ground and cobble it together,” she said. “Sending somebody an email and asking them for money and never hearing back doesn’t hurt you.”

* Go ahead and apply: Davidson realizes that responding to a call for conference submissions might terrify inexperienced graduate students. She encouraged them to try anyway, even if they worry their resume might not be taken seriously.

“There are a lot of barriers to applying, but people have an imposter syndrome kind of thing going on,” she said. “It never hurts to apply. Getting rejected from a conference doesn’t hurt that bad.”

* Use conferences to prepare publications: Davidson said it is becoming more important in philosophy for faculty members to have published. She pointed out that a key benefit from attending conferences was that the experience can kick-start the publication process.

“If you’re working on a new paper, the conference asks for 1,000 words. That gets your idea off the ground,” Davidson said. “Then as you prepare for your presentation, you’re putting together the arc of the argument or whatever your field requires and you’re getting some good feedback at the conference. Then you can turn that around, submit it for publication, and then you’re on your way. So if you can think of conferences as part of the publication process, which is how I think of it, I think that is beneficial.”

Davidson will not submit to conferences as a graduate student for much longer. She is on track to complete her Ph.D. this year and is already on the tight job market in philosophy.

While her time at Purdue is drawing to a close, Yeomans and Kelly agreed that Davidson has made a necessary – and greatly valued – impact on the department during her time in West Lafayette.

“She’s been an organizational dynamo from the start, initiating conferences, running workshops and lecture series, managing budgets, and bossing committees. And that’s just the logistical stuff,” said Kelly, Davidson’s co-author on “Minding the Gap: Bias, Soft Structures, and the Double Life of Social Norms,” which published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy last year. “She’s one of the best teachers we’ve had since I’ve gotten here. More generally, she’s deservedly the most decorated graduate student I’ve ever seen.”

Davidson’s department head agreed, sharing Kelly’s optimism about her bright prospects as a philosophy professor-to-be.

“Lacey’s really alive to all of these different aspects to diversity and the different kinds of standpoints and perspectives that people bring,” Yeomans said. “She’s been a real mentor for other graduate students – particularly other female graduate students.

“I know as head she’s a trusted voice, so if there are things going on in the graduate community and there are problems or issues to be addressed, she’s one of the first people I want to talk to because I trust her judgment. Again, I think she’s judicious and charitable, but always standing up for what she thinks is right. She’s been a fantastic colleague.”