The other day, I read Derek Attig’s “Tips for Making the Most Out of Conferences” and it got me to thinking about what advice I would give to a humanities student or others on this topic. So, today, I want to briefly share some of the things I have learned over the last fifteen years about conferencing, and more importantly networking. This will by no means be a comprehensive post on every aspect of these issues; rather, it will be a brief exploration of things that have worked for me throughout my career.
While I may appear to be an extrovert and excited to meet new people, I am far from it. I am, by nature, an introvert. I want to be alone reading, writing, watching TV, or participating in any other sundry activity. Initially, that aspect of my personality kept me away from networking opportunities at conferences and other professional development opportunities. Over time, I learned how to come out of my inner sanctum and take advantage of the encounters that these professional settings offer.
In his article, Attig suggests that you should set goals during your time at the conference. I have not necessarily set goals. However, the goals that he suggests are things that I have done, and they do lead to great opportunities to get know fellow scholars in the field or professionals in the workforce. One of his goals is to “strike up two random conversations a day while waiting for sessions to start.” What makes this goal good is that it is relatively easy and pretty low-risk. At the conference, most people wear tags that identify who they are and where they work. This knowledge allows for a couple of things. One, it allows you to begin by using the person’s name. Two, you may know someone from the institution where the person works and that may be a way to start a conversation.
At a large conference for my discipline, I did this while waiting on a session to begin. This occurred about four years ago, and since then I have kept in touch with the individual and worked with her off and on. After talking, she learned that I was currently working at the Ernest J. Gaines Center, and this opened up the door for me to speak via Skype to her class about Gaines and his work. This never would have happened if I did not take the time to introduce myself and strike up a conversation. Since then, as well, I have seen her at a smaller conference that I regularly attend, and this provides me with the knowledge that before I even arrive I will know someone at the conference.
Before attending the conference, Attig recommends spending time with the conference program. Take this advice. Looking over the program will help you “figure out what combination of sessions will best fit your career-related goals for the conference.” This will allow you to plan out your schedule. While this aspect is important, the most beneficial part of the program comes from the list of speakers/presenters. Knowing this list, as Attig points out, “gives you a head start on deciding who to seek out while there.”
I would add to Attig’s statement here by suggesting that if you look over the schedule and see a panel presentation or speaker that really interests you may want to think about contacting the presenter by email before the conference. I have done this before, and that initial contact has opened the door to being able to set aside time to meet with the presenter and as a result increase my network. When doing this, I typically just send an email like the one below:
I see you are presenting ___________________. Currently, I am researching on the same (or similar) topic, and I am looking forward to hearing your presentation and learning more about it.
Matthew Teutsch, PhD
Sometimes, I may add something like, “If possible, would you be able to grab a cup of coffee to talk about this more? (Here, I would explain how my research overlaps with the presenters’.) Even if you do not add the final question, the mere contact opens the door to further conversation at the conference.
The program also provides you with the opportunity to know who you will be presenting with on your panel. Most academic conferences have three to four presenters. That means there may be two to three individuals on the panel that you do not know. Before the conference, you may want to send out a brief email telling the other panelists that you look forward to presenting with them. If you do not do this, make sure that you take the time before the panel to introduce yourself and learn about the other panelists. After the panel, take the time to talk with the other panelists about their projects and what you learned. Program organizers place papers together for a reason, so your papers will probably overlap in some way. After the conference, send a follow-up email thanking the panelists for being on the panel with you. These interactions, again, have led me to connections in the field.
Another technique I have used has tremendously helped me get over my introverted nature at conferences. While I’m researching, I may come across a piece that catches my attention. After reading the piece, I may email the author thanking him or her for writing the text and explaining how their work overlaps with my own. Typically, I will have a question, so that opens the door. This form of contact has led me to connections that I would not otherwise have if I had never taken the time to type out a quick email. These emails show the person that their work is valued, and it creates a space for you to become engaged with a scholar or professional in your field before even meeting the individual in person.
In conjunction with these emails, I would strongly suggesting connecting with individuals via social media, specifically Twitter. Twitter provides a space for people to connect in ways that do not seem as intrusive at times as Facebook or other platforms. Through Twitter, I have started and cultivated countless professional relationships that I would have never had if I had not been engaged on the platform. These connections have afforded me the opportunity to work on various projects and the chance to increase my professional visibility.
Along with these aspects, the connections I have made on social media have widened the pool of individuals I may know before I arrive at a conference. For example, I am going to a conference in April and looking over the program, I realize that I am in contact, in one way shape or form with ten or more people at this conference. While that number may not seem large, the conference is not huge, and knowing at least ten people there provides me with the knowledge, and more importantly comfort, that will not just sit in my room alone and watch TV while other interact, learn, and enjoy themselves. I will be there right beside them.
Finally, if the conference has a meal (lunch or dinner), by all means GO! I cannot stress this enough. You will be placed at a table with people you may not know, and this provides you the time, outside of the confines of a panel presentation, to get to know individuals more. If you met someone at the conference, possibly sit with them, If you don’t know anyone at the conference, use this chance to meet your three people.
This is not all of the advice that I could give on this topic. What suggestions would you give to students about attending conferences? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.