Thursday, July 9, 2015

How to make the most of academic conferences

Port Huron, Michigan Labor Union Conference, 1946 (with decidedly more comfortable chairs than most conference I have attended)
It's conference season once again. Although conferences generally seem to happen all year round these days, the Spring/Summer break is the traditional time for academics to brush the dust off the abstract submitted months ago, and gather to talk about research (and teaching and movies and beer).

I'm currently at the Leeds International Medieval Congress (IMC) which is a huge gathering of medievalists at the University of Leeds which happens every July. This year, there are apparently 653 panels and round table discussions (that's a whole lot of talking).

I often find, as I am in fact finding right now, that large conferences like the IMC can be overwhelming. Without a contingent of colleagues, friends or researcher buddies, it is easy to get lost or anxious in an event of this size. In short, even while surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of similarly-minded people, you can get pretty lonely. This can be even more pronounced if it is your first conference, or if you are a non-academic without academic colleagues to tag along with, or simply if no-one else you know is attending the conference.

So, in honour of the IMC, and particularly for first-time conference attendees, here are my top 10 tips for navigating and making the most of large conferences, honed from years of attending (and sometimes feeling lost at) academic conferences.

1. Find your people. Conferences are about meeting new people, making connections, and thinking about some new ideas (also with other people). All of these things can be easier if you find your people; in other words, other people attending the conference who are interested in the same things you are. Start with the others on your panel (if you're giving a paper) and email them before the conference to introduce yourself and say you're looking forward to meeting them.

2. Be prepared. A couple of weeks before the conference, browse the programme for key words or themes, and strands (large conferences are usually divided into thematic strands). This will give you a rough idea of which panels you want to attend, and a draft schedule for the conference. Start with the strand your own paper is in and move outwards from there.

3. Keywords. If you're struggling to think of relevant keywords, or you have too many and need to be more specific, try thinking about your thesis, or research project. What are the key words or ideas? Key authors? Concepts? Texts? Once you have a few, look for papers and panels that also feature these.

4. Have goals. What do you want to get out of this conference? Is there someone in particular you want to meet? An organisation or network you want to join? A skill you want to acquire? Having predefined goals before you arrive can help you make the most of your time and to feel like you've achieved something.

5. Be flexible. Having a plan is helpful, but be prepared to try new things. Someone might suggest going to an interesting panel you hadn't thought of, or nipping off site for a drink. This detour might turn out to be one of the best moments of the conference.

6. If there is a clash and you want to attend two panels at the same time, consider emailing the speaker(s) in the panel you don't attend before the conference and inviting them for a coffee. People generally appreciate others making an effort and the speaker is likely to be flattered that you're so enthusiastic about their paper. If you can't make a meeting, you might ask them if they'd mind forwarding a copy of their slides or paper. 

7. If you can't decide between two panels that are happening at the same time, read the abstracts on the conference website (these are often omitted from the printed programme). This should give you a bit more of an idea of what the paper is about: remember, sometimes titles can be misleading.

8. Have your one-liner ready. "So, what is your research about?" "I'm doing a PhD on gender in Chaucer" is better than a rambling speech: you can always go into more detail later.

9. Carry some post it notes to write your email address on when exchanging details. If you've got business cards, great, but I personally find that I put these in my bag where they languish for months. Slips of paper tend to get lost, and as much as I intend to, I rarely go back to my notes. A post it note can be stuck in a wallet, on a notebook, and even on a shirt. It stands out, and offers flexibility to write what you want to make the message more memorable. You can also use post its to add notes to those you've already made; connections to late papers, for example, or additional references.

10. And finally, once you've made it home, have rested up and done your laundry, follow up on the contacts you made. It is so easy to forget those assurances to be in touch, or to email someone your paper, but this is how you keep those promising new connections going. Set aside an hour on your first day back in the office, or the first evening back at your desk, to send those follow-up emails that make a big difference and mean that next year, you will already know who your people are.