4 adults socializing over coffee
Academic life

Conference networking, or, surviving the terrors of the academic fire swamp

Let’s face it: your average introverted academic would rather encounter the three terrors of the fire swamp than a conference networking event.

And who can blame us? The awkwardness of small talk combined with the pressure of meeting the people who will review your publications, assess your grant proposals, and rank your job applications is truly dreadful. Yet, a conference might be your only chance over the course of a year to connect with colleagues working in your area or to meet people whose work you admire. So: do you walk through the doors of that journal reception or scurry back to your hotel with some bodega-bought wine and cheese?

That bodega cheese is super-tempting, I know. And at the end of a long day, it might be the right option. However, some of the connections you can make at conferences will be best ones of your career. Publications, multi-year collaborations, international speaking opportunities, and abiding friendships have come my way from conference networking over the past 17 years. In this post, I want to dissect three terrors of the conference networking fire swamp and suggest some less perilous alternatives. If you’re a grad student or a junior scholar, these might be especially helpful for you!

Terror #1: The flame out

Like the sudden and startling flame spurts of the fire swamp, you might find yourself unexpectedly in the company of someone you want to meet, or admire, or even have an academic crush on! Most likely, this will be in an awkward place like the restroom line or when you’ve just stuffed a piece of shrimp into your mouth. These kinds of unrehearsed encounters are the stuff of nightmares for many. Even under the best of circumstances, you might be at a loss for words or only have a few seconds to make an impression. So how can you quickly get beyond pointless small talk (“wow, this shrimp is still kind of frozen”)? What can you say besides, “um, I really like your work?”

Whether you’ve just bumped into someone, are meeting them at a panel, or are being introduced by a colleague, here’s a few simple tricks:

  • If you know the person’s work, say something specific about it, such as “I use your article on x in my class. The students really respond well to it.” Or, “Your writing about y was really helpful to me in thinking through z problem.” Don’t go over the top, but it’s nice to say something more than “I like your work.”
  • If you don’t know much or anything about the person, try not to lead with “What do you work on?” or “What institution are you at?” Not only are these a bit dull, but they might be difficult for precarious colleagues to answer. Try “How are you finding the conference?” or “Where did you travel in from?” Academic conferences can feel like everyone is trying to measure everyone else in terms of their work and their status in the academic hierarchy. It’s nice to ask more human-centred questions!
  • Plan ahead! If there’s someone you’d like to meet in person – maybe an editor you’ve been emailing with, a potential advisor, someone you’ve “met” on social media – try to schedule a coffee or lunch. It’s hard to make a meaningful connection during big networking events or just in passing. One-on-one time, even half an hour, can be much more impactful (and enjoyable!).
Adults standing and clinking glasses of wine.

Terror #2: Getting sucked into the party

The conference version of lightning sand might well be the off-site party or evening reception. Don’t get me wrong. These can be fun. But they need to be approached with a little bit of caution and a dose of reality (and maybe with someone nearby to pull you out!). First, any event centred on alcohol or with an open bar can be problematic. “Academics behaving badly” isn’t as funny as it sounds, not when sexual harassment and predatory behaviours are all too common.

Second, if you’re only going to the party because you feel it’s important to network, get that bodega cheese and go home. While these “optional” events don’t always feel optional when you’re a junior scholar, off-site parties are not especially likely to be places where you’ll have productive conversations (or even be remembered the next day). In my experience, these parties are for folks connecting with old friends from grad school, and for blowing off steam. That’s fine – but don’t waste your time trying to network.

What are some better ways to feel connected at a conference? How can you still be social and maybe even make friends?

  • Attending smaller receptions for specialty groups (e.g. interest and identity-based groups or topic area groups) and journals you read/publish in is a better use of your social energies. Over time, you’re likely to see the same people year after year and your network will grow naturally.
  • If evening receptions or places with alcohol still aren’t your scene, attend the business meeting for the conference or for your specialty groups. Special lectures for journals or honoring scholars in your area are also good places to start getting familiar with the faces in your field.
  • If you do go to an off-site party, bring a friend; set a specific time to leave before people start getting sloppy; and plan your way home, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar city (e.g. don’t assume transit is running, cabs are available, etc. – research your options).

Terror #3: Academics of Unusual Size

Although Westley wants to deny that the ROUSs (Rodents of Unusual Size) exist, he soon finds himself at the business end of their bite. Every field has what we might call Academics of Unusual Size – and no, I’m not talking about body size! I mean the size of their reputations, and sometimes, their egos as well. Luckily, most don’t actually bite. But, what do you do when you come face-to-face with academic celebrity (such as it is?)

Best case scenario: the superstar is actually really lovely, down to earth, and just a scholar like yourself. I think this is the case more often than not. In fact, if this person is the specially-invited keynote, they might be feeling a little lonely at an unfamiliar gathering. What can you do?

  • If they’re standing alone, or sitting alone at a meal – ask to join them! Don’t gush like a weirdo, just ask if you can sit down and start a normal conversation. #CelebritiesAreJustLikeUs
  • Invite them to your session, if it’s in their area of interest.
  • Don’t grill them about their work. That’s what the keynote is for. Try asking about their pets instead. Or really, anything not directly related to their talk.

Worst case scenario: The superstar is a jerk. While lots of people will be jerks at conferences, it can be especially disheartening to have a negative encounter with someone whose ideas are really important to you. Maybe it’s a backhanded compliment, a jibe at your institution, or just ignoring you altogether. It would be nice to think we all had the security to clap back at this b.s., but that might not be realistic. What can you do?

  • Don’t participate in your own negging. For example, if someone puts down your institution or your town, don’t feel you have to agree just because they’re a big name. A simple, “hm” might be enough of a response. Or just, “oh, that hasn’t been my experience. Interesting.”
  • Don’t take it personally. I know, that sounds glib. But truly: their rudeness is not your problem. It’s almost never about you. And oh joy: you get to walk away from the situation; they’re stuck with themselves forever.
  • Take it as a reminder to practice kindness. I really believe that behind the masks of insecurity and the awkward small talk at conferences, there are many many people who are aching for kindness and who want to know how to be kind in return. Practice it, and let it come back to you.

Out of the swamp

Conference networking will probably never come naturally to a lot of us. That’s normal! In closing, I would say two things. One, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to network. It’s okay to rest and recharge. Find situations (like meetings and low key receptions) where it can happen naturally. Over time, your network will grow. You don’t have to be hustling every minute to make it happen. Second, remember that most everyone is worrying about the same shit you are. My shoes aren’t cool enough. I’m an imposter. I don’t know anybody. I’m the only one who doesn’t know how to do this. Not true! We’re all trying to make it out of the swamp in one piece.

Do conferences and other group events make you anxious? Are you missing out on opportunities because of it? Coaching can help you challenge some of the thoughts and beliefs that feed that anxiety and develop strategies to help you feel more comfortable and confident at your next conference! Check out my coaching packages and feel free to get in touch here or instantly via Facebook Messenger.

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