Tag Archives: academia

Surviving Academic Conferences without Crying

30 Jul

I had a sudden panic this morning. The BIG conference in our discipline is just a week and a half away! That means I need to not only prepare, but must get myself geared up for the physical and mental exertion that are academic conferences.

thisconferencesucksMy very first academic conference was right after my first year in graduate school. I decided to be uber-professional and take my advisor’s advice about networking very seriously. I also wanted to push myself past my boundaries. Not only was I so new to academia when I started graduate school that I didn’t know what a peer-reviewed journal was, I considered myself someone relatively uncomfortable at meeting new people and making small talk. Not to mention, I felt pretty unsure of myself talking about anything related to my discipline (don’t even get me started about how scared I was to speak in graduate seminars). But, I had to do these things to “network” successfully, right? So just do it was my motto.

Thus, as a very fresh, starry-eyed graduate student, I forced myself to the major professional conference in the summer after my first. And I’ll admit that I was beyond miserable at that first conference. I only knew a few people in my department, and even fewer of the people from my school in attendance. I roomed with older grad students who I barely knew, and were too far out of my own area of interest to introduce me around. Out of the 5,000+ people there, I felt like I knew no one. I wandered around alone for days without any familiar contact. It was pretty terrifying. I’m surprised I ever stayed in academia after that.

But since then I’ve been to dozens of conferences. And with some reservations, I actually look forward to them. Conferences are stressful, but all in all, they serve as a reminder of the excitement and love I have for my discipline. They’re a chance to see a lot of the wonderful friends I’ve made over the years at conference. And now that I’m out of grad school, they’re a chance to see my grad school friends.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about attending conferences without losing my mind.

  • Think small. If you’re at a *huge* conference, try to attend a smaller conference happening at the same time, or connect with a sub-section of the larger organization. A lot of smaller organizations run their meetings concurrently, either in the same hotel or in the same area. They might have their own receptions, workshops, and hospitality suites. It’s a lot easier to get to know a smaller group of people. And if they’re people who are either similar to you, or who study the same thing you do, it will feel much homier.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. Most importantly, wear shoes you’ve worn before. The first national conference I went to when I was on the job market, I broke in a new pair of Danskos. I thought Danskos didn’t need breaking in, and this was NOT the case. Oh, the blisters!!
  • Pack a conference survival bag. Include band-aids (see above), granola bars/snacks, advil/tylenol, candy etc. Heck, maybe even bring a good book with you if you think you’ll be sitting around with nothing to do (as I did at my first conference).
  • Don’t be afraid to meet new people. If you’re a student, and you see another student-type sitting by themselves, sit next to them and start to talk. You have one thing in common– the conference. You’ll be surprised who you’ll meet that way. Don’t be afraid of meeting scholars whose work you know, either. If you’re feeling shy, ask a professor or mutual friend to introduce you.
  • Don’t be upset if people you know ignore you. People are crazy-busy at conferences. And academics, as much as I love ’em, can be slightly socially inept sometimes (ha ha ha). So if one of your professors or a further-along graduate student you know blows past you without acknowledging your attempt at a “hello,” don’t take it personally. It’s not you. They’re trying to juggle presentations, meetings, workshops and all sorts of other stuff on bad hotel coffee. Unless they’re really just rude (which I guess might be the case in some situations), just assume they’re busy and try to grab them again when they look less busy.
  • Take advantage of hospitality suites, media centers, wifi spaces etc. to hang out and work during the conference. These are great places to catch your breath and meet new people. And they often have free coffee and snacks.
  • Be really selective about the sessions you attend. I spent a few years of meetings going to sessions because they sounded interesting. I ended up bored to tears most of the time. Honestly, unless your discipline is different, a lot of presenters don’t prepare and do nothing to try to make their talk interesting. To avoid getting stuck in a snooze-fest I do a couple different things:
    • I search the program ahead of time for names of people whose work I know. I make it a point to not only go to their sessions, but to introduce myself afterward if my work is somehow related to theirs. I’ve never met someone this way who didn’t appreciate hearing that a graduate student found their work useful.
    • If I do try a panel that sounds interesting, but I don’t know the presenters, I sit in the back so I can duck out, if I need to. I only duck out between papers, though, not during someone’s presentation.
  • If you’re having a really busy conference (you’re on the job market, or just have too much on your plate): Write out your own detailed schedule ahead of time of where you have to be and when. Printing this out will be much easier than trying to make one on the fly at the conference.
  • If you’re presenting, think about your presentation like teaching. I’ve seen some truly terrible presentations. There is already lots of advice out there on this, and there are some disciplinary differences (I guess in History they read their papers– I can’t imagine the snooze fest that is). I would stress these:
    • In my social science discipline, do not read your paper. Please.
    • Do use visual, selective, and appropriate Powerpoint. Pictures! Graphics! Short videos! Stand out!
    • If you use powerpoint, bring it on a flash drive, email it to yourself, and try it out ahead of time to make sure there are not technical issues.
    • Do not cram 8 million words on your slides. Do not use small fonts. The same goes with tables.
    • Do not spend more than a few slides or 3-4 minutes (in a 15 minute presentation) getting to your data and findings!
    • No surprise endings. Walk your audience through your argument, but tell them where they’re heading up front.
  • Do some  serious “networking!” My partner, who is well-versed in conferences from 10+ years of my attending, calls “networking” the most important part of conferences. Networking was what my advisor was talking about. Yes, it happens at sessions, in the halls, and at receptions. But you know where it really happens? Over drinks. In bars, out, late after the conference ends. “Networking” = drinking. Have a drink.  Bond with people. Make friends.
    • Warning: Don’t get drunk. This isn’t a night at your apartment playing Apples to Apples with your best friends. And when you’re drinking, don’t bitch about anyone. Everyone in academia knows everyone. Seriously. And you never know who is at the next table. Don’t bitch about someone using their name, and don’t say anything you wouldn’t say in a mixed-department function anyway. Just be smart about it.
  • Do something local. After going to great new cities where I never left the hotel, I try to always do one thing that’s local. It’s a shame not to try a local restaurant, explore an interesting neighborhood or go to a museum. Duck out of the conference for an afternoon to do this, if you have to. Or, if I have time, I’ll stay an extra day and sometimes even rent a car to explore the area with friends. As a result, I’ve been to plantations, museums, swamps, canyons, ghost towns, markets, and landmarks I might have never gone to otherwise. It’s definitely worth it!

Collected Advice & A Plug for Evernote

15 Aug

For the last few years I’ve used the fantastic memory app Evernote for saving useful information (and recipes, so many recipes). Every time I get a useful bunch of info in an email– lists of documentaries, classroom activity ideas, book publishing advice, writing tips, course readings etc.– it goes into Evernote. Whenever I find an interesting blog post or newspaper article related to research, surviving academia, or teaching, I clip it to Evernote. Even if the original link to the article or post goes down, I have the text and images saved. If I need an article for classroom activity, I can quickly search Evernote for something useful, print it out, and head to class. I was using an app on my ipad for saving meeting and conference notes, but now I am transferring those over to Evernote as well. In short, Evernote is my brain. I’ve built up 900+ notes over 3 years (ok, some of those are recipes), and haven’t hit the limit of the free version yet. It’s an app I’d gladly pay monthly for, though, and that’s not something I typically do, so that’s saying a lot.

I’ve collected a bunch of tenure track advice over the years, and tonight I’m rereading and organizing what I have. Here are some highlights:

Advice for New Assistant Professors by Older Woman, Scatterplot

I particularly like tips #2 and #5. I want to make sure I integrate myself with the faculty and administration (and this is a much larger school than my last one), while also staying open and accessible to students. I have two workshops in the next couple weeks (one on writing and one on diversity in the classroom) that will help with the former. And making scheduled writing and research time is a priority, while I work on finding out more about the preferred balance of teaching/research/service is at the school.

I’m not sure about #8. I’ve never hated a job, and can’t imagine hating this one. Yes, it is good (as I learned during my visiting position) to keep myself mobile and not too attached to the institution if I want to go someplace else. But, I’m the sort the sort that stubbornly makes the best of everything. And I’m truly excited for this job.

Five Steps to Creating a Five-Year Plan to Achieve Tenure by Tanya Golash-Boza, Get a Life, PhD

I’ll need to adapt this for four years, but overall the advice is excellent, even if the goals seem rather large and daunting at the moment. I like the semester version of Tanya’s goal setting, as well, and plan to do that this semester as it worked well for me last last year.

How to Figure Out the Publication Expectations for Tenure by Tanya Golash-Boza, Get a Life, PhD.

Another fantastic post from Tanya. I especially the idea of checking out the CVs of those recently promoted at my institution, and making sure to share research and publishing plans with senior colleagues and mentors.

First Tips for Faculty by Mary McKinney, Successful Academic

This is a great collection of tips, even if it is slightly geared to those freshly out of grad school. I’m already more than familiar with the feeling of juggling waaaay too many balls in the air. Actually, I’m looking forward to that this semester (I’m crazy, right?). The tips that stand out here are: to find a support system (and hopefully writing group) of other junior faculty on campus (and at nearby institutions), finding mentors on campus, and avoiding potentially controversial committees and committees that meet frequently (no matter how interesting they sound). Also, this sounds all too familiar:

For many academics I’ve worked with, it is easier to get caught up in smaller projects with firm external deadlines – such as sending off abstracts for conference deadlines – than it is to work on papers that you wish to send to prestigious journals. Beware of getting wrapped up in projects that are relatively unimportant. Don’t be seduced by short-term commitments that are less anxiety provoking than your biggest chores.

Starting a Tenure Box by Anastasia Salter, ProfHacker

Perfect, practical advice! I’ll start a tenure Evernote file and secure folder in Dropbox (and I’ll back it up on an external HD because I’m nuts like that). I don’t need a document scanner, because I have my iPhone and JotNot Pro for that.

The Sunday Meeting by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Inside Higher Ed

I really like the idea of sitting down weekly to plan the week out and write out goals. Whenever I do this, my week goes much better, and doing it regularly would be fantastic!

Collegiality: The Tenure Track’s Pandora’s Box by Mary McKinney, Successful Academic via Tomorrow’s Professor

There’s some really good advice here like “The rules of collegiality are similar to the rules of dating. A conversation has gone well when the other person has done most of the talking,” and “Find a likeable side of everyone,” and of course, “Don’t get angry, get tenure.”


All that advice just makes me more excited for the year to begin! If you have any sage advice of your own (or a link to something else), please feel free to share it in the comments!

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