How to Work the Conference (Part Two of Three)

Today we continue with Part Two of the “How to Work the Conference” series (see Part One here).  Today’s post deals with how to behave during the conference–that is to say, how to look like you’re very busy and in-demand.  Because conferences are performance art.  You may know almost nobody and feel like a total fraud, but you’ve got to ACT as if you are the next hot thing.

Now, to preface, if this post seems uncustomarily terse, it is because I am writing from vacation in San Diego, in a few short minutes between chatting with friends on the deck and leaving for kayaking at La Jolla Cove. I am ambivalent about the kayaking because of the Great White sightings at La Jolla this past week (not to mention the Great White sighting at Mission Beach yesterday that actually closed the beach for the first time in living memory, and put paid to our surfing plans).

However, The Professor’s motto is: feel the fear and do it anyway.  So unless the beach is actually closed, kayaking we will go.

Now to the conference. Conferences are also about facing your fears. Few young professionals really enjoy conferences. They are terrifying and intimidating. This is normal. You go anyway. You go and present. You go and organize panels. You go and attend the business meetings of subfield organizations that interest you. You go and participate in the workshops on publishing and the job market. You go and hang out at the open bars (that part may be less difficult). You don’t necessarily go to the Saturday night dance party.

But once there, what do you actually do?

First off, you dress correctly. I am not going to repeat my admonishments about appropriate professional attire here; I simply refer you to this post. Don’t ignore it! What you wear matters. People notice and judge you. Maybe not consciously, but they do. You must look like the young professional that you are.

Second, you must network. But how do you do that? There are a few ways, and the best ones require advance planning. If you are very junior and have little or no social capital, then hoping to grab an influential senior scholar for a conversation or coffee or a meal, on the spot, is virtually impossible. Your only real chance is by inviting them ahead of time.

A month before the conference, compile a list of the scholars whom you’d most like to meet. Be clear in your mind about why you’d like to meet them.

Do you just want to say hello? Then study the program and find out their panel and plan to attend it. You may approach them afterwards to shake their hands, congratulate them on their paper, briefly tell them about yourself—no more than one sentence–and give them your card. And then walk away. Walk. Away. Do not cling or drone.

[A note on business cards for graduate students.  Have business cards.  Make sure they are university business cards, not personal.  They must have the logo on them.  Include your department, status (ABD, Ph.D. student, VAP, etc.), email, website, and cel phone number.  Always carry your business cards in a small case made for this purpose. I saw these at Office Max the other day.  Do NOT put them in your back pocket or knocking around the bottom of your purse.  They should always be clean and pristine.  Practice ahead of time reaching in and quickly and gracefully extracting one.  No fumbling.]

Do you want to ask them to serve as an external member of your committee? Or perhaps ask them to contribute to an edited collection? (Which, as you know from this post, I completely frown upon and urge you to drop immediately.) Then send them an email, in the briefest and most courteous terms explaining who you are, why you’d like to meet them, and asking them if they are free for coffee. Understand that they will likely not have any meal-times available for you. Those are reserved for older, dearer, and higher status friends and colleagues. But you might, if you’re lucky, get a 20-minute coffee slot. But only if you ask ahead of time.

Do you want to get to know very influential famous scholars to cultivate them as potential supporters (and tenure letter writers) in your field? Then do the same as above, but be very, very careful about how you couch the invitation. You don’t invite someone to coffee for such clearly self-serving reasons. Rather, you have a substantive reason for seeking their advice. i.e., you’d like advice on how to proceed with publishing your book—recommendations for editors or presses, perhaps. If your request is flattering enough to their ego and identity as a leader in the field, and they are the kind of senior scholar who enjoys mentoring junior people, AND you promise up front that your requested meeting is no more than 20 minutes, and scheduled ENTIRELY at their convenience, then you might score a coffee or a pre-dinner beer at the hotel bar. Use that 20 minutes wisely. Be brief. Well rehearsed. Do not cling. And at the end, give a firm handshake according to the instructions in this post. And walk away.

You will notice the emphasis I place on not clinging. The status jockeying of conferences is a major element of the conference and is ignored at your peril. You must not look like a hanger-on or a sadsack who has nothing to do and noone to meet, even if you are. You must give the impression of being a busy and dynamic young scholar who has it going on. How do you do this?

First off, read and memorize my post, “The Six Ways You are Acting Like a Grad Student (And how this is killing you on the job market).  Eradicate every one of these six behaviors prior to stepping foot into the conference hotel.

Beyond that, I can do no better on this subject than to quote extensively from The Tenured Radical’s post on this very subject, written about how to behave at the book exhibit of the AHA Conference of 2010, but frankly applicable to any corner of any academic conference, any year.  The emphases are mine.

  • Greet your graduate mentors but do not cling to them. In fact, it is best, when you see them, to look as though you have somewhere very important to be.  Practice saying into the mirror:  “Gosh, it’s really great to run into you — I’m off to the Chapel Hill booth to meet up with a friend/an editor/someone on my panel.  Have a great meeting!”  Only break this rule if they happen to be with someone very important in your field, in which case, keep a keen eye out for an introduction.  Count slowly to five in your head:  if the introduction is not forthcoming, skate out of there.
  • Leave any and everyone before they leave you. If you see someone’s eyes drifting over your shoulder, even slightly, say warmly:  “I’ve really got to run — so nice to have had a chance to say hello,” then skate.
  • If there is someone you know, but are unsure whether to greet or not, casually pick up a book and leaf through it.  If said person greets you, look very surprised and say: “OmygodIcan’tbelieveIdidn’t see you!”
  • If someone important calls you by the wrong name, let them.  If they do it twice, correct them.  If they keep doing it, forget it. There is one historian, who will remain nameless, who has greeted me for twenty five years as if I were Isabel V. Hull of Cornell, and I no longer correct her.
  • If you run into someone you just did a hotel room interview with, you don’t have to act like you are employed by an escort service and pretend you have never met them.  Smile and nod; if you are close enough to speak say hello and say you had a good time in the interview.  Even if you didn’t.
  • Have one sentence to say about your dissertation if a senior scholar asks.  One. (KK: ONE!!!!) “I’m writing about the transgender community in Havana after the Cuban Revolution,” for example. Most people are just asking to be polite, although in the rare instance that the person really is interested in it, be conversational — do not launch into your interview speech.
  • Never, never, never ask a senior scholar what s/he is working on unless you are dinner partners.  Your just-to-be-polite question is:  “Are you having a good meeting?”
  • Check compulsively, but discreetly, to make sure your fly is not open.

The Tenured Radical also mentions workshops, such as one on interviewing. She writes:

I cannot stress enough how important this workshop is, particularly for those of you who are not yet on the job market.  Interviewing is not just about saying, doing and wearing the right things, although it is that.  It is about reading your audience and responding to the questions that are actually asked while delivering the information you want your interviewers to have. Much of the workshop consists of mock interviews held in a large ballroom that is not unlike the gang interviewing room in the basement where you might, one day, actually be interviewed.  The people who pose as interviewers are kind and helpful, and will honestly critique your performance.

Yes, yes, and yes.  The workshops on turning your publication into a book, or interviewing, or teaching at community colleges are some of the greatest services of the conference.  They also require advance registration, so do that.  It is invaluable professional training.

Today we stop here.  Next week we pick up with the question of how to score dinners with senior people, and how to work the book exhibit.  Until then, happy kayaking!

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How to Work the Conference (Part Two of Three) — 33 Comments

  1. Good points. Another way to meet important folks in your discipline is to attend their talk, ask a good question during Q&A and follow up (without clinging! this is such a good point Karen) on that question with the speaker after her talk. I’ve had success with this strategy in the past. In fact, this strategy is one reason why I don’t end up eating lunch by myself at the conference. When that post-talk chat about the paper (with the speaker or audience members) is fun for all involved, you will get invited to join for coffee or lunch.

  2. Getting invited for drinks/dinners or generally getting to know faculty? Be a peer, not a grad student, obvs.

    I mentioned some of these to Karen but wanted to share them with everyone:
    – If there are doctoral consortiums or workshops, GO TO THEM. You’ll network better with faculty and up-and-coming grad students.
    – Go to your sub-discipline/division’s business meeting. They are dull, yes, but everyone important will be there and you’ll pick up on things that will be worth discussing with people later. Also (at least in my discipline) there are division receptions afterwards where people mingle.
    – Be on your conference Twitter stream (and be smart and witty and fun on it) and interact with scholars on there. Twitter is also a good place to find out where the receptions that aren’t published in the schedule are occuring.

    – To give off the “peer” vibe:
    * I try to not dress like a graduate student and pay for a good haircut. I purposefully try to have one item of flare to help people remember me — like I’ll wear sassy shoes (like a black suit with red shoes) or have a bold scarf or if it is a later night party, I’ll change into a bold solid colored, but tasteful dress.
    * I talk to faculty about “real life” stuff like owning houses and childcare woes to appear less like a whiny grad.
    * I behave as if I know lots of people and what they’re up to (which I try to actually do, not fake like I do — primarily by listening hard AND keeping up on the in press stuff from all my discipline’s journals)… For example, Me: “Oh, Cindy Smith had something in Awesome Journal on that a few months ago…” or forwarding a very relevant article before it is in print. Letting them know that you’re thinking of them and their work is good.
    * I try not to stay in grad student clusters at parties. It is really hard to crawl out of the safety zone, but you have to break out and mingle. If you need a wingman, try to keep one friend who is as good or better of a small talker as you are, hopefully is a more senior grad student and is doing not-dissimilar work. “Hi Awesome Professor that I already talked to a few times this week. Let me introduce you to Sweetie McSweetson, Bob Smith’s advisee.” If your wingman is a 1st year grad student, s/he is going to say first year grad student things like “omg, it is sooooo hard to balance TAing with all the reading that I have to do.”
    ** WRT to wingmen — try to work it out with friends to trade off wing-maning. For example, I know that Muffy (different sub-discipline) is going to be interviewing with School X, so I go to School X’s reception with her and chat with the faculty in the department that are closer to my area, and then Muffy does the same for me with her sub-discipline people in a department that I’m applying to.

    ** WRT Super-Wingmen: Before our big disciplinary conference, I met with all the faculty in my department (particularly the ones that are going and are well-networked) and told them EXACTLY what my dissertation is/was about, where I was apply, and generally tried to seem great to them. This helped in 2 way: 1) elevator conversations with friends at the schools that you’re applying to, and 2) endearing them to your plight so that if you see them at a party/reception/divisional meeting, they’ll be more inclined to introduce you/network you around.

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  5. Important pre-conference query: business cards. I’m getting them made, but I can’t afford the super expensive ones made by my University with the university logo. So it looks like the business cards I’ll have won’t have the logo on them, like you recommend. Is that really bad? I’m heading off to the big conference for my discipline, where I’m giving a talk, and this is my first conference, so I’m really unsure how to behave in a variety of ways, business cards being just one of the many things I’m unclear about. Advice?
    Thanks, also, for this series — it has been so helpful for me to read before I go!

    • you can photoshop the logo and design your own cards and have them printed locally–Kinko’s lets you do that, for ex; officemax also i think. I’d recommend that. I think you ought to have the logo on the card if possible!

        • i did a little checking and I think you can go to the UO Design and Editing Services page, and it seems to provide logos for UO students and employees. You can of course just find the image online as well. But it’s probably best if you can get the official jpeg.

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  7. Dr. Karen! I hooted at the conference post part 1 because when I went for the first time to my fields national conference (MLA) I was a low totem pole master’s student who was attending just to get a feel for it and see what was coming over the horizon of my discipline. I was guilty of wandering, lurking and being a sad sack (luckily, when I encountered professors I knew from multiple schools I had the good graces that your rules have described). But, other than that I was terrified. In retrospect, this advice you give is spot-on for all of us self-defeating grad students. I’ve been browsing this blog (first time) all evening, devouring these posts. Just through reading them, I have a new outlook on how I should be organizing the rest of my degree to get the most out of things before hitting the market. So, a big THANKS.

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  10. I appreciate what you do, Karen. I’m not sure about carrying business cards. My impression is that at least in my discipline (philosophy), no one carries business cards, and that handing them out as a grad student would be perceived as pushy and as indicating that you don’t understand how things work in this field. Does that seem possible? I am planning to put into practice many of the other ideas that you teach.

    • Fair enough. I can see what you sya being true in Philosophy. And in the humanities in general, a person would not want to overdo it with the business cards. It’s not a corporate environment. Evaluate your field and use judiciously.

  11. Karen, I love your site and have benefitted greatly from your advice, so I must ask you – though I fear this may be quite a stupid question – what does one do with business cards one has received from a conference? I recently gave my first paper at the national conference in my discipline, and, after my reading, met several senior scholars who complimented by paper, gave me their card, and promptly left. Should I email them, and if so, what is a proper, non-grad-studenty response?

  12. I wish I’d found your blog sooner – what a treasure trove!

    As a final year PhD student, I thought I’d add my ‘conferencing’ tactics. I go through the attendee list (usually not given in advance), tick off everyone I think might be interesting, and find them in the program so I can go and meet them. I also tick off anyone I haven’t heard of, since they might be someone in an interesting tangential field that could be good for interdisciplinary work (check in the abstract book).

    After I’ve introduced myself (and walked away), I jot a few notes about what we spoke about. Conferences are a whirlwind, and at the end I am usually too exhausted to remember everyone I met, let alone what we spoke about. When I get home, I find all of those people on LinkedIn or ResearchGate (failing that, I use email), and I send them a short one or two-line message saying that it was nice to meet them, and that I enjoyed our discussion on ‘xx’ (that’s what the notes are for!). That way they are reminded of meeting me, with more likelihood of remembering me at some future time when I need to contact them.

  13. Thank you very much for your posts. I found them very useful. I will complete my PhD program soon and wish to use my next conference to introduce myself to few professors that might have vacancies within their group. Do you think that I need to say that I am seeking a pistion at the time I meet them or shall I introduce myself only and then email them asking for any potential vacancies within their group?

  14. This is terrible advice. As a “senior scholar” with a soul, I would never hesitate to politely mention my research if asked, nor would I be interested in the obviously shallow insecure academic corpse-climber you pen above. My advice to younger scholars reading this tripe: focus on learning and why you love what you learn, then seek out others with whom you can share it. Other “senior scholars” will find you a breathe of fresh air from the noxious fumes of the creature described above.

    • HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Tenuresplaining for the win! Sharing this comment on Facebook so folks can be warned that advisors like you still exist and need to be avoided.

      Addendum: after quoting this on FB, got these two comments: “Bet that’s a white man!” and “if you feel compelled to mention you have a soul, the opposite is probably true.”

  15. When organizing a panel for a national conference, how much, if any, feedback should you solicit from prospective panelists regarding the written proposal that will be submitted to the conference committee? My sense is that it is the panel organizer’s responsibility to the draft the proposal, but that it is perfectly acceptable to solicit feedback from the other panelists on the finished product, especially regarding their condensed abstracts.

    • I actually explain this in another post, How to Propose a Panel for a Conference, which is also now incorporated into one of the conference chapters of my book: The Professor is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job.

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  19. Hi Karen

    I am a recent Ph.D graduate who found your advice on writing an abstract for a conference paper very helpful. Have you written anything on how to go about writing the actual conference paper?


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