After a few days of reflection, this year's MPSA conference in Chicago struck me as a transformative moment. The conference is dominated by graduate students and junior faculty. I'm starting to move into middle age, by MPSA standards. And I can see changes occurring in the way I and others in my cohort deal with the conference.
For one thing, it's pretty rare that we attend panels in which we are not participants. That's not to say that panels aren't useful -- they certainly can be. But it's rare to find a panel with more than one or two interesting, high-quality papers on it, and then you're stuck listening to the other papers and the discussant's comments on them, and that's time you could be doing other things.
What other things? Meetings. It used to be that I'd attend a few meetings and then later get together with friends for drinks or meals. Now, all these things are blending together. Small gatherings are a great chance to catch up with people, but you also talk about professional development: projects you're working on, opportunities for collaboration, new datasets becoming available, jobs coming open, etc. And while there used to be an enthusiastic but unfocused celebration of discovery, today it seems more like a business. That is, you talk with people about research projects and try to suss out whether it will lead to robust findings and a publication. If so, you pursue it; if not, you ditch it. That's not a bad thing, but you can see the tenure incentive structure going to work on us.
So, anyway, I caught myself in the act of professionalizing. Interesting moment.