I am a second year graduate student in a PhD program that's not prohibitively distant from Philadelphia. I am wondering if I should go to the Eastern APA even though I'm not on the program. The word around my department is that the Eastern APA should be avoided at all costs, and that one should go only once one is on the job market (and then only if necessary). I read your blog and know you have been critical of the APA. But, really, is it that bad? And even if it is that bad, is its badness enough to warrant the counsel to never go unless required by a job interview?
The word around your department is about as misguided as could be. The worst thing would be to have your first visit to the Eastern be your job market year. My criticisms of the APA tend to assume as a premise that there's sufficient reason for large segments of the profession to attend the Eastern regularly. This applies to graduate students. So if it's affordable, definitely go and get a sense of what the conference is like. Attend papers about topics you already know things about. Skip the "smoker." And don't get too drunk.