Dr. Wendy M. Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ. Her research focuses on how inequality shapes political participation. In her free time she loves reading feminist theory and mysteries (and feminist mysteries!), running, and drinking beer. You can learn more about Dr. Christensen on her website and on Twitter at @wendyphd.
How To Survive Academic Conferences
Suddenly it’s August and the American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting is right around the corner! That means I need to prepare physically and mentally for the whirlwind of activity and socializing ahead!
I attended my first academic conference during my first year in graduate school. I decided to take advice about networking very seriously. I decided to go to the ASA meeting. 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 were too far out of my own area of interest to introduce me around. Out of the 5,000+ people there, I felt as though I didn’t know a single person. I wandered around for days without any familiar contact. It was pretty terrible and mentally exhausting. I’m surprised that I actually stayed in academia after that.
Since then, I’ve been to dozens of conferences. And with some reservations, I actually love them. Conferences are still stressful and exhausting, but they also serve as a reminder of the excitement that I have for my discipline. And conferences give me a chance to see a lot of the wonderful friends I’ve made over the years at conferences—the result of successful networking! And now that I’m out of grad school, conferences give me a chance to see my grad school friends and mentors.
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 like ASA, try to attend a smaller conference happening at the same time (SSSP, ABS, SWS). 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 (SWS feminists!), or who study the same thing you do, it will feel much more familiar and give you more to connect over.
- Try not to be afraid to meet new people. It’s easy to sit in a ton of sessions and never meet anyone as panels and lectures are not very interactive. Attend some informal events like workshops and interest-meetings (focused around students, for example) where you’re likely to talk to people. Try to find a buddy and go to some of the section receptions together. 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. I scan the program for scholars whose work I use and then attend their sessions. I make sure to go up and meet them afterwards and I’ve found people are usually always gracious and friendly in these circumstances.
- Don’t be upset if people you know ignore you. If someone from your department 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 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. Keep in mind that people, even those who have been to tons of conferences, are probably just as stressed out about them as you are.
- Take advantage of hospitality suites, media centers, wifi spaces etc. to hang out and work at during the conference. These are great places to catch your breath and meet new people. And they often have free coffee and snacks!
- Select roommates wisely. It’s great to save money by rooming with a bunch of people. I always do this at SWS conferences, which I think of as a big feminist slumber party. I’ve actually met bedmates in the middle of the night when they got into bed with me (hey, don’t get the wrong idea, folks)! But it’s also nice to room alone sometimes, if you can swing it financially. For the upcoming conference I found an AirBnB boutique hotel room for the same price that I would have paid sharing a room at the conference hotel. It’s a couple blocks away, and it’s good for me to be able to escape the crazy activity of the conference when I need to.
- If it’s going to be a really busy conference map out your schedule ahead of time. I use the color-coding function in my calendar to note which events are mandatory (e.g., a meeting I’m running, my own presentation) and which events are optional. That way, if I decide to wander around the book fair longer than I planned, it’s clear to me at a glance that I’m not missing something important.
- Be selective about the sessions you attend. I spent a few years of meetings going to sessions because they sounded interesting and I ended up bored more times than not. Maybe I’ve had bad luck, but I find a lot of presenters don’t prepare and do little to try to make their talk interesting. To avoid getting stuck in a snooze-fest I do a couple things:
- I search the program ahead of time for names of people whose work I know and make it a point to go to their sessions.
- If I do try an unknown session, I sit in the back so I can duck out, if it’s not what I thought. I only duck out between papers, though, not during someone’s presentation. Don’t be rude.
- If you’re presenting, think about your presentation like teaching. I’ve seen some truly terrible presentations (and some really fantastic ones). 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 what that’s like). I would stress these:
- For the love of Karl Marx, do not read your paper. Please. I don’t care how entertaining you think your voice is. It’s not.
- 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 onto 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! Meeting people and networking really are the most important part of conferences. Yes, it happens at sessions, in the halls, and at receptions. But you know where it really happens? Over drinks (coffee or alcohol). In bars, over dinner, out, late after the conference ends. “Networking” = drinking. Have a drink. Bond with people. Dance. Laugh. Make friends. BUT:
- Don’t get drunk. This isn’t a night at your apartment playing Apples to Apples with your best friends.
- Don’t bitch about anyone. We all need to vent about professors, colleagues, students, department chairs. etc. But, everyone in academia knows everyone. This is not an exaggeration. You never know who is at the next table. Never bitch about someone using names or other identifiers. Basically don’t ever 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 – try a local restaurant, explore an interesting neighborhood, or go to a museum. I’ll at least take an afternoon, or an extra day to explore. As a result, I’ve been to plantations, historic attractions, museums, swamps, canyons, ghost towns, markets, and landmarks that I might have never gone to otherwise. It’s definitely worth it and makes the conference experience much more fun!
That’s it! What are your tips for surviving ASA? And if you see me at the conference, say hello!