Are you going to the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences this year? Or maybe a large disciplinary conference?
Are you worried about your conference presentation? Or excited about meeting up with colleagues you don’t see in person very often?
Is this your first time? Are you unsure about what it’ll be like? What to wear? Who to talk to? How your presentation will go?
Don’t panic. Everyone feels a mix of excitement and fear about conferences.
On the one hand it feels like a place where you are going to be judged.
You are going to stand up and talk about your research, this thing you are so passionate about and so invested in, to a bunch of strangers. And you probably think that they will know, from that one short presentation, whether you are cut out for this academic game. Will they like you? Will they think you are a fraud?
On the other hand, Congress is an opportunity to meet up with other people who are equally passionate about ideas and who don’t think it is crazy to stay up until 3 a.m. talking about Deleuze (or whatever it is you would love to stay up until 3 a.m. talking about).
I’ll let you in on a secret. The second one is what it is all about.
Conference papers are like speed dating.
You can’t say a lot in a 15 to 20 minute conference presentation. And this worries a lot of people, especially if you think that the point is to show the audience what a brilliant academic you are.
In reality, your goal is to connect with the people in the room who would love to join you for dinner/beer/wine/coffee to talk for much longer than 15 minutes about your research.
Focus on your findings, your insights, your theoretical musings. What is it about your research that you’d like people to know? Talk about that.
You can talk about how it relates to wider debates in the bar later. And how it relates to someone else’s findings. And the interesting theoretical stuff that you are still trying to figure out. That is what is going to keep you going until 3 a.m.
The presentation is where you meet the people you are still going to be talking to later.
Which sessions should you attend?
A successful conference is one in which you meet someone interesting. Go to sessions to find someone you would love to spend longer than 15 minutes talking to about their research (and maybe yours, too).
These are the people who can give you useful feedback when you are stuck on an article.
These are your future collaborators; the people who help you develop new ideas and new research directions.
Congress is where you get to meet up, every year, to discuss what is happening and really advance those ideas. In between, you have e-mail. And the telephone.
Building connections with other scholars is an important goal. You don’t want to seem only instrumental, no one will want to hang out with you if you seem like you are just in it for what you can get. But you should be aware of all the ways that you can make Congress work for you.
Are you looking for an academic job?
No one is going to hire you or not because of what one person heard you say in a conference presentation. But wouldn’t it be great if someone listening to your presentation were able to say, “There are some really interesting people on the market right now in this area. I heard a couple of good papers at Congress.” the next time they were discussing possible new hires in their department?
Already have a job?
What if there were jobs opening up in your department? What kind of people would you like to join your department? You don’t want another you to compete with. But I bet you want interesting colleagues doing interesting research that complements yours. Read the program with that in mind. Dream of possibilities.
Talk to publishers
Did you ever think about why the publishers are there? Sure they sell some textbooks. But the main reason publishers come to conferences is to build their lists.
Editors are going to sessions with the same goal you are – to find interesting people doing interesting things. They are accessible through their stall in the book fair at other times. Even if you are nowhere near ready to publish a book, chat to them about your ideas.
WARNING! Don’t get too excited about what they say. Rachel Toor, a former university press editor, has some good advice about interpreting editorese in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Take advantage of career development opportunities.
The folks at the Federation have organized Career Corner to provide helpful information that you need. There are sessions on grants, publishing, knowledge mobilization, and managing your career. These sessions are not just for graduate students.
SSHRC will have a booth in the book fair staffed by program officers. Go talk to them. Ask all those questions you have about how particular programs work.
Be kind to yourself
Conferences can be intense. Do what you have to do to make the whole experience enjoyable.
Are you an introvert? Build in quiet alone time. Find a secluded spot to eat lunch by yourself. Take one session off and go for a walk. Go back to your room for a nap and some quiet time before meeting people for dinner later.
Spending time doing self-organized stuff with friends and colleagues is a valuable use of your time. You don’t have to be in a formally organized session every possible minute of the day.
Try to eat well and get some good sleep.
This post is based on one first published May 6, 2009.