September 23, 2016

The work we do as undergraduate and master’s students tends to prepare us with invaluable foundations in a field of knowledge and skills in interpretation and writing, but the structure of those degrees tends to insulate us from a broader understanding of the university as an institution or academia as a culture. We then can gain that knowledge during the PhD, but this has traditionally been an informal process as part of general mentorship from one’s adviser and so highly variable.
With the new T&T workshop series I’m running this year, we’re trying to formalize that learning to better support students as they become colleagues. In Fall 2016, we’ll be having three sessions on Milestone topics (job search, exams, and dissertation/prospectus), and three on teaching (discussion/classroom management, grading, and designing assignments).
One topic we won’t get to this semester is conferencing, but since lots of proposals are due in the fall for spring meetings, I wanted to take this space and give some Conference Pro Tips™

An abstract is a summary of what a presentation (Or session! See below) does. Writing good abstracts means being able to quickly and clearly lay out, in somewhere between 150 and 500 words, some background or context for what the project does, how it does it (texts, methods) and why it matters.
Nearly always, the people reviewing your submission aren’t going to be experts in the area, and they may be in some other discipline altogether. That means you can’t assume that they have background knowledge, and you should assume that they will wonder “Who cares?” if you don’t make it clear. This ability to boil down the key points and communicate the importance will serve you well no matter where your career takes you.

Most conferences accept pre-constituted sessions—either paper sessions where individuals present their research, tied together around a theme, or discussion sessions/workshops on a theme or topic that are interactive with the audience. And guess what? At most conferences it’s easier to get accepted with a session than an individual paper. And you know what else? Organizing sessions is a great way to network.
Often, people don’t feel like they can put together a session until they’re established and know all the people in their field, but I encourage you to start doing it as soon as you have at least one national conference presentation under your belt.
Identify a conference you’d like to attend (check faculty CVs for hints and ask around), and then compile a list of people whose work is in related areas to yours (check your references, ask faculty). Write up a brief abstract of what the session will be about, and then start asking people. It can feel intimidating to contact more established scholars, but as long as you’re professional, the worst case scenario is they say “No” but are flattered to be asked.

Networking is hard, particularly if you’re not someone who’s naturally comfortable with strangers. But the number one tip here is that people are flattered when you tell them you think their research is smart.
You can go up to speakers after their paper, introduce yourself, and compliment them on something about it. You can read people’s nametags as people are milling around (there’s a lot of milling around) and when you recognize somebody, introduce yourself and compliment them on how much you liked their article on X. You definitely should ask faculty to introduce you to people. When people in your field invite you to dinner or drinks, you should go (but don’t drink too much). You can use the buddy system to help you feel braver (but more than 2 of you is counterproductive).
Set yourself a goal of meeting 1 or 2 or however many people a day, and then when you’ve done it you can quit. It gets easier as you go, and soon you’ll find people coming up to network with you.

Did you find this kind of information useful? There’s plenty more where that came from at our series this fall. I’m really hoping to get students started down the road of professionalism and learning how to navigate being a scholar, so please come by!