Dealing With the Informal Conference “Chat”

Today’s post is a Special Request Post for Cynthia, who wishes to know how she should deal with an invitation from a search committee member to meet and “chat” informally at an upcoming conference.

These invitations are evil. Search committees should interview or not interview. They should not drift around “chatting” in an exclusive and inconsistent way that ends up privileging some candidates over others. And trust me, the privilege does not necessarily accrue to the candidates who get to chat! There is far greater risk of ruining your chances during the informal chat than there is of gaining an advantage.

So what to do? Well, in general, if you are definitely going to the conference, and the inviting search committee member knows it, then you can’t really refuse to meet them without looking like a toad. And toads don’t get jobs. So, you pretty much have to go.

But beware. These may look like informal talks but let there be no mistake, they are interviews. You need to bring it.

First off, read, memorize, and meditate deeply on my post: “The Six Ways You Are Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that is killing you on the job market).” Then read and meditate on the complete series on “Working the Conference, Parts I, II, and III.” All of these rules apply, in spades, for the conference “chat.”

Be on guard, and prepared with a complete arsenal of rehearsed responses to basic interview questions. It is true that this is very much a conversation, so you must not “hold forth” at great length. You must make good eye contact, and be sure and keep the conversational ball bouncing back and forth at a good clip. Indeed, there might be small talk before and after, so think ahead about small talk themes like the weather, or better, a terrific panel you just heard.

But the bottom line is, you need to comport yourself like a candidate, and be able to: give the “elevator” version of your dissertation; briefly describe a really cool class or two that you’d teach, with texts by name; explain your immediate publishing plans, mentioning specific journals and presses; talk intelligently about your next research project and how it will be funded; and above all express familiarity with the department/ program/ faculty/job at hand.

In addition to basic interview preparation, which you can read about here, you also need to master conference status jockeying, which you can read about in the Working the Conference posts mentioned above. It is critical that you DO NOT cling! Perhaps the single most important element of the conference chat is that you look like you have somewhere else important to be/someone else important to meet immediately after the scheduled chat time.

I would hazard to say that this is where the greatest risks lie for candidates. In an interview setting you are ushered in and ushered out. But chats have no clear beginning or end, and you could find yourself succumbing to the desperate and undignified temptation to trail along with the faculty member to their next panel. Do No Do This! Cut the cord! Leave!

In fact, leave expeditiously, glancing sternly at your watch while courteously but hurriedly saying, “Oh, pardon me, this has been delightful, but I have to go—I’m meeting the editor at Duke in a few minutes….”

Remember, leave THEM wanting more! The greatest kiss of death of the conference is clinging. I can do no better than to quote Tenured Radical (not for the first time) on this subject:

“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.”

Just today I heard from a reader that he had found himself sitting next to a Famous Professor in his field during a 5-hour flight home from a conference. This is kind of like a conference chat on steroids. Having read this blog faithfully and practiced his professional skills, this reader was ready. Instead of pretending to sleep, he pulled out his punchy dissertation shpiel and other Dr. Karen-patented professional skills. The conversation didn’t just flow; he was actually invited to visit the department and meet some other faculty members for lunch! And that, my friend, is the kind of “chat” we all want. That is “Chat-Ching”!

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