Conferences are a way of life for academics. Most scholars have a "flagship" conference for their discipline that they attend each year with a second (or third) conference that they attend regularly, if time and travel funding permit. When I was a junior scholar, just starting out in my first tenure track position, I didn't care much for conferences. I was somewhat of an introvert and found it uncomfortable to attend large gatherings of people I didn't know and found myself in many awkward situations when trying to force small talk. Over time, I became more savvy in the academic game, and have found a number of ways that conferences can be used to boost your career ahead. Here, I share a few of these strategies with you so that you can also overcome any aversion you have to conferences and start using them to get ahead.
1. Network strategically to meet specific career goals.
As a junior scholar, you often hear from mentors about the importance of networking. You may like networking. You may loathe networking, having more desire to be a wallflower at conferences than a social butterfly. I had to force myself to become better at networking - spending each and every academic gathering practicing my skills at introducing myself, explaining my research, and asking others about their own work.
The secret to good and effective networking is to hone your energy towards those individual who will help you with your specific career goals. Don't network with just anyone! You will waste precious time and energy. Before attending a conference, identify a small, specific group of individuals that you plan to make yourself known to. Some examples:
Find a senior scholar in your area and attend his or her presentation. Introduce yourself, or better - ask him or her to coffee during the conference. Try to identify potential ways of working together and invite him or her to collaborate with you. I once attended a pre-conference workshop on a topic I was interested in and invited the session organizer to lunch. He was a senior scholar from Australia and I would have never had had the opportunity to meet up with this person otherwise due to cost and distance. However, asking him to lunch during the conference led to a collaboration that resulted in two co-authored publications and two federal grants that were scored.
Meet scholars in departments you would like to work in. When you are on the job market, face time with potential employers is gold. As a doctoral student, I volunteered at a conference and asked to work the registration desk. Here, I was able to greet many conference attendees and introduced myself to attendees who worked at programs I applied to. The communications were informal, but I believed that they helped me score a few phone interviews.
Attend sessions and meet with senior scholars who manage professional development programs or fellowships. Here, you can ask questions about potential opportunities that may make you more competitive for fellowships or awards.
Over-attending sessions and networking with anyone who makes eye contact with you will waste a lot of your time, since it won't result in publications or jobs. Being strategic allows you to focus your effort on productivity and you will have time left over to enjoy the conference location.
2. Use conferences as deadlines for manuscripts.
In academia we often lack hard deadlines for our scholarship. To many, this may be a blessing and a curse. Especially when we may only receive an in-depth evaluation every two or three years. Time can get away from us fast! So, one way to boost your productivity is to develop a writing goal (paper, grant proposal) and prepare to present a paper on that topic at an upcoming conference to help achieve that goal. For me, after a conference is over I brainstorm a couple of manuscript topics and select one to have finished by next year's conference. Combining tips #1 and #2, I have networked with scholars at conferences and when a potential collaboration seems positive, I have suggested joint paper projects for the next year. This works very well and can lead to a number of first-authored papers, if you present the idea and manage everyone's writing contribution.
3. Don't present anything at a conference that you don't plan to publish.
Conferences are great for a number of reasons. However, some scholars fall into a trap where they present a large number of conference presentations over the year and then never publish them. For some, this results in being denied tenure - conference presentations do not look nearly as prestigious to tenure committees and administration as journal articles. So, why waste time writing papers that will not get you tenure? My advice: don't just propose any paper to present at a conference. Propose a publishable paper. Use audience feedback to help you improve your paper. In the meantime, go back to old conference papers and revisit how they may be turned into publishable papers. If your prior conference papers are not data driven, this previous post on publishing non-data driven articles may be of help.
4. Use time at a conference for writing.
Academic life pulls us in many directions. When we want to be writing our dissertation or manuscripts, we also have family obligations, teaching obligations, and service obligations. For me, my first tenure track position required me to publish an average 2-3 manuscript per year while teaching three classes each semester. How do we get ahead in our writing?
An NIH program officer once offered this advice and I've used it to my advantage ever since - use the time dedicated to attend conferences to work on your writing. While attending conferences, you do not have students stopping by your office, you are away from the distractions of home life, and it is even acceptable to leave phone and email greetings that inform people you will not return their message for several days. Use this uninterrupted time to your advantage!!! For conferences, I often plan a small number of sessions to attend, my own session, a few meetings with colleagues or for networking, and the rest of the time I hunker down in my hotel room to start or finish manuscripts. This may help you churn out an additional manuscript each year.
5. Try to have fun and enjoy yourself!
This last nugget of advice may seem surprising, because it does not involve writing or being productive. However, as academics we build our entire careers around writing, reading, and networking. That can lead to a lot of burnout! Balancing time at conferences so that you actually get to enjoy the city you are visiting can help energize you and even feel like a mini-vacation if it's done right. Find neat restaurants that serve local cuisine, see a couple of sites, and enjoy drinks and music with colleagues who you meet up with annually at conferences. If you follow tips #1-#4 presented here, you will be able to be productive AND find time to enjoy yourself while away!
Remember that these tips can be combined to enhance your experiences at conferences while also making them work for you to boost your career. Need more tips on networking, publishing, or presenting at conferences? Contact Nicole today to see how she can work with you to move your career ahead!