How To Work the Conference, Part One of Three

(Wednesday Post Category:  Landing Your Tenure Track Job)

[This is the first in a two-part series on Working the National Conference. Part One, today, explains the importance of the conference in an academic career. Part Two, next week, focuses on specific strategies to use before, during, and after the conference itself to get the most out of it.]

Conference season is almost upon us. The sociologists are meeting in Las Vegas in just a few days. Anthropologists are gearing up for their November meeting in Montreal, and the Historians and English-types perversely continue to congregate right in the middle of the winter holidays.

Anyone on this year’s job market is already anxiously anticipating and preparing for the hoped-for/dreaded conference interviews.

And yet, few junior scholars, from graduate students and ABDs through new Ph.D.s and young assistant professors, actually know how to “work” a conference. That is, to utilize the 5 days of the conference period to maximize opportunities for networking, self-promotion, professional skills training, and building a public intellectual identity.

There is a great deal to say about how to apply to a conference and how to write a conference abstract; those things, however, are beyond the scope of this post series.

This post and the next are about what you do while you’re at the conference.

This is truly one of the secret skills of the successful academic career. And it is never, ever, explicitly taught. While enlightened departments will offer job market preparation seminars and mock job talks and teaching instruction and guidance on grant-writing, no department has ever, to my knowledge, held a workshop on “effective conferencing.”  [Addendum:  I was just alerted to the excellent post by the Tenured Radical on rocking the AHA.  This is a fantastic guide.  Read it!  I will build on these ideas next week.]

Unless a graduate student enjoys a happy combination of a naturally ebullient personality, tremendous intellectual confidence, a generous mentor who allows her to tag along, a large cohort of conference-going fellow graduate students, and fierce political instincts, chances are she will spend much of the early part of her conference-going career a) wandering forlornly through the hallways of the conference hotel, b) lurking in corners pretending to read the conference program, and c) hiding in her hotel room.

It is perfectly natural to dread the national conference. They are monstrously large. And alienating. And lonely. And embarassing. Certainly the idea of marching up to Herr Dr. Famous Professor in some hotel hallway with outstretched hand and business card at the ready is distasteful to most everyone. And far too many think that this is what conference “networking” involves.

I am here to tell you that it isn’t. And I am here to teach you what to do instead.

Today I wish to speak in general terms about why you are at the conference in the first place. Your status at the conference will be different based on where you are in your career.

If you are a relatively new graduate student, you will plan to attend the conference, and no more.

If you are a Masters student, you will plan to give a poster presentation at the conference.

If you are a Ph.D. student, you will plan to give a paper at the conference.

If you are ABD, or a brand new Ph.D., you will plan to organize a panel at the conference.

If you are a young assistant professor, you will plan to organize a panel at the conference and become involved with a specialized section of your professional organization.

If you are an advanced assistant professor, you will plan to give a paper at the conference and serve as a discussant on another panel, one organized perhaps by graduate students, and take a possible leadership role in a specialized section of your professional organization.

And so on.

Whatever you have planned, make sure that you ATTEND the national conference of your discipline on a yearly basis. Lack of funds is not, in and of itself, a sufficient reason to not attend these meetings. They are important enough to put on the credit card.

Attendance and participation at the national conference of your discipline signals that you are a serious scholar and a legitimate contender. It signals seriousness of purpose and an integrity of intention: “I will be seen and heard.”

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this intention–”I will be seen and heard”–when it is made manifest publicly at your national conference.

I will go out on a limb and say that the willingness to be seen and heard at the national conference is the most important litmus test dividing the soon-to-be major scholar and employed academic, from the ranks of the un- and under-employed.

Of course it goes without saying that some who religiously participate in their national conferences end up, in this job market, underemployed. But I would venture to say that nobody who ends up well and fully employed ever neglects to attend their national conference yearly.

Avoid the national conference at your peril. It is scary, and alienating, and overwhelming. Go anyway.

And having gone, always push yourself the following year go again, and do something new. If you have attended one year, then give a paper the next. If you’ve given a paper one year, then organize a panel the next. If you’ve organized a panel one year, then serve as a discussant the next. In this way you increase your knowledge of your discipline and its inner workings.

A word on posters. It is my strong conviction that nobody who is serious about their academic career prospects, beyond the M.A. level, should ever give a poster at their national conference. If you have something to say, say it in a paper. It is the paper that gives you visibility, and access to a group of panel-mates, and an introduction to a possibly well-known discussant, and the attention of a real audience. It is the paper that gives you a highly valuable line on your c.v., and experience in speaking in front of a group, and handling the terror of an open Q and A period. Posters give you none of these things. They should be avoided.

Once you are accepted into the conference program, then the real work begins. Not the work of writing the paper. That is the intellectual project and between you and your advisor. No, this is the work of “conferencing.” That is, extracting all of the capital that you can out of the investment of time and money that you have made into the conference experience. You have five days in a hotel with between 5,000 and 10,000 scholars in your field. What are you going to do with them?

That is where we will pick up next week.

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How To Work the Conference, Part One of Three — 19 Comments

  1. An additional benefit to following this advice: if you are on the program for your major conference when interviewing for jobs, search committee members have a chance to see you in action and hear a little more about your research, should they choose to attend your panel. Back when I was on the market, I had a line in my cover letters that invited search committee folks to my paper, giving all the information about time and place. Now, as a sometime-interviewer, I think it adds professionalism to an application, suggesting that the candidate is not at the conference only to interview for positions, but to be engaged with the wider field.

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  4. I was accepted at a major international conference (It is one of the three more important conferences in my field). A grad student colleague and I proposed a round table with important scholars of our field from different universities and us (also from two reputed universities). The conference is in England and the tickets are over $1200 (thanks to the
    Olympics), conference fee $300 plus other expenses. In your post you say going to conference is a good investment, but I bet you were talking about national conferences. Is it worth to spend $2grand (I only got $300 in travel grants) or better said, to increase my debt???

    • this is a terrible question. that is to say, it’s an excellent question but there is no clear answer, which makes it terrible. Basically, this is a really huge opportunity for you. But $1700 new debt for it? Have you talked to your department as well as the graduate college and affiliated departments, or asked your advisors or dept head to do it for you? This is the kind of thing that reflects very well indeed on the institution, and sometimes extra money can be dug up. Be a super squeaky wheel!!! That’s my suggestion. If unsuccessful, I suppose I’d lean on the side of going–and then make sure you milk that sucker for everything it’s worth!

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    • yes, in that case, the poster is better than nothing, and gets you to the conference. And I repeat, in some fields posters are very legit. You have to know your field.

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  7. Sorry to dig up such an old post, but I have a question:

    What is a Poster?

    I finished up my MA in Biblical Studies, and am now enrolling in a second MA in Theology (in an effort to be more “well rounded” when I apply for PhD programs in a year). I have already presented one paper at the major conference in my field, and am presenting one at a regional level conference next month.

    I have never heard of presenting a Poster, and I was simply wondering if that was something field-specific or what it might be. Thanks!

    • Posters are when you create a large cardboard poster of your research, and get accepted onto the conf program to take part in a “poster session,” which is when a whole bunch of poster-presenters (like 50 of them) all stand in a ballroom next to their posters on easels, and present the work to anyone who passes by. The bar is much much lower than for a paper acceptance, and consequently the prestige is exponentially lower, unless you are in the sciences, where posters are well regarded.

  8. Apologies for asking this as I realize the post is old: if you are not giving a paper, it are a recently phd (who truthfully just missed the c) is it still better to go than not go? I’m afraid of appearing to lurk by being a non-contributing presence!

      • It’s GREAT to go to all conferences you can as long as you can afford it and don’t spend money there that you need for conferences you’ll present at. Never accrue debt for this, and if money is scarce, again, use it for conferences that will be CV line items. But all conferences are valuable, esp when you’re new and just trying to get your feet, learn the lingo, put faces to names, etc. etc.

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  11. Coming from the field of Medicine/Neuroscience, to my experience the question of poster varies from field to field. In Germany and Switzerland, only PhD students and residents present posters. However, in the US, I was surprised to see really famous professors presenting posters.
    Therefore, I would not reject if a paper was accepted as poster in these fields.

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