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.
My 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!