Conference attendance and participation are important parts of academic life.  You learn new material, make new contacts, hear alternative perspectives, and network.  Conferences are a font of new ideas and approaches.

Airplanes, on the other hand, are a font of nothing but achy muscles, other people’s germs and very long days.  I am currently in Rochester NY for a short conference and some visits with friends.  Since I live in Arizona, that means I spent all day on airplanes in order to get to somewhere with 93% humidity that is currently making me feel like I need gills.  I have a splitting headache and now get to sleep in a strange bed.  At least my honey is here with me.

In the meantime, here are a few thoughts about navigating professional conferences.  While it is always best to be presenting at a conference, they are worth going to regardless.  If you aren’t presenting, however, you need to work harder to start conversations and meet people.  Here are some tips on how to do that.

  1. Get business cards.  If your school won’t provide them (many won’t) then use one of the online sites (such as Vista Print) that will make them cheap or for free.  It is FAR easier to make contacts when you can just hand one over.  Include your name, contact information, school, program, etc.  Make it look professional. 
  2. Look over the conference schedule in advance and have a plan.  You will invariably have to miss some interesting sessions in favor of others, but it is best to make that decision with a cool head, not in a rush to get to the next room.  Moreover you can make an effort to find the people whose session you missed and request a copy of their paper (or at least email them after the conference).
  3. Go to lots of sessions.  This is how you meet people.  Pay attention to not just the presenters, but also the discussants and chairs.  Try to make some sessions from the big names in your field.
  4. Bring a pad and pen.  That way you can collect information from people if need be, brainstorm if the presentation is boring, make notes if the presentation is relevant, and doodle if you’re fried. 
  5. Dress neatly.  That doesn’t mean you have to wear a suit, but this is not the time for tattered jeans and a Metallica t-shirt either.  When in doubt, khaki’s and a light-weight top with a cardigan for women is a great choice, because it also allows you to deal with the scary temperature variations conference centers seem to have.  And wear comfortable shoes that aren’t sneakers.
  6. Introduce yourself to anyone and everyone that you have anything in common with as far as your work goes or who is doing anything that seems interesting.  This could be speakers or people who keep showing up at the same sessions that you attend.  Give them your card and ask if they have one.  You can use those cards later to follow-up and maintain contact. 
  7. Ask for session papers and talk to the authors who are working in your area.  I have a paper in the works that is based on a conversation at a conference combining his and my efforts.  You never know what you will find.
  8. Ask people about their work; everyone loves to talk about themselves and will remember you kindly.
  9. Visit the exhibition floor.  Look at all the books in your field, shop for bargains, and talk to the ones who publish things in your area.  If you start making those contacts now, you’ll have them when you are ready to turn your dissertation into a book.
  10. Follow-up after the conference with those whose cards you got.  Send an email, mention something you talked about, and try to start an ongoing conversation.