academic conference advice: Navigating social events

By | April 15, 2015

Ugh, social events. We’re all in this together, people.

Let’s be real—a super important piece of the AERA Annual Meeting is its social events. Attending business meetings, receptions, and social gatherings offers the following benefits:

  • (re)connect with people who do similar work
  • (re)connect with people who are affiliated with your current or former institution(s)
  • secure free food and/or free drinks

Everybody should go to social events, but I’m talking especially to graduate students here: These events are fantastic ways to win friends and influence people, AND they can also be a lot of fun. Don’t look at me that way! I’m serious. But you have to walk into social events with the right mindset and armed with the right tools. 

I’m here to help! Below, I provide tips for introducing yourself, starting conversations with people you don’t know well, and building a network of like-minded scholars and peers. 

First, read this article called “19 tips to impress literally everyone you meet.” Tips #5 and #6 are especially relevant for the conference context—you need to be ready with a quick self-introduction, and that introduction needs to be super duper interesting.

Now, consider the following tips:

1. Bring an exit buddy. Find someone to walk in with and to talk to in case you find yourself standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. Remember that most people feel at least a little nervous about walking into a social setting and would be delighted to show up with an exit buddy. And people who aren’t nervous are probably enormous extroverts who can afford to let some of their extroversion rub off on you.

1a. Bring a mirror or recruit a teeth-check pal. You don’t want to a.) talk to your academic hero only to find out later that you had spinach in your teeth, or b.) talk to your academic hero while worried that you have spinach in your teeth.

2. Don’t forget to be amazing/smart/funny/enthusiastic—but also, remember that this is a social event and not an academic presentation. Talk a little bit about your work, ask a little bit about their work, then talk about the food (“this is the best phyllo-dough spinach pastry I’ve had since the reception I went to last night, but it’s not as good as the phyllo-dough spinach pastry I had the night before!”), or the weather, or your kids/pets/robots, or anything else that comes up.

3. Reconnect with people you’ve met before, but don’t assume they’ll remember you. Consider using the following model:

  • “Hi, <famous academic>! I’m <insert your name>, and we met <insert where and when you met>.”
  • *shake hands, listen to <famous academic> say “Of course I remember you—you’re the most amazing/smartest/funniest/most enthusiastic person I’ve ever met!”*

4. Make your mentor(s) introduce you to people. First, this is their job and don’t let them tell you it’s not. Second, most people like showing off a little—either by flaunting their connections with other academics or by showing people what an amazing/smart/funny/enthusiastic graduate student they have. 

4a. Tell your mentor(s) how you want to be introduced. Here’s how I approach this:

*sees Andy diSessa standing around talking to Bill Sandoval*
*grabs Joshua Danish’s arm* “OMG JOSHUA INTRODUCE ME TO BOTH OF THEM and tell Bill that I used his conjecture mapping model in my dissertation and tell Andy that I’ve been talking about his work since I started graduate school”
*pushes Joshua toward Andy and Bill*

5. Share the love. If this year’s Annual Meeting isn’t your first rodeo, you may have some friends or connections built up from previous years. Bring a peer, friend, or classmate with you to say hi to these folks! And introduce them, and do it in a way that gives them a starting point for connecting with each other! You can use the guidelines from item 3 above, followed by this:

“This is my friend <insert friend’s name>. I wanted to introduce you because you both <do work on *insert thing*>/<used to live in *insert city*>/<own a cat named Lily>/<etc.>”

The best thing we can do for each other, and for ourselves, is to build up a network of smart, amazing, funny, enthusiastic people who do interesting and important work. The best thing we can do for each other, and for ourselves, is to fight that ridiculous scarcity model that dominates in academia. There’s enough room for all of us. There’s enough room for fun. There’s enough room for friendship and kindness and generosity and laughter. 

6. Don’t drink too much. I assume this is self-explanatory.

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