Wesley Henry, University of Washington
As this year’s UCEA Annual Convention approaches, I sat down with faculty at the University of Washington to get a better sense for maximizing my time at UCEA. They shared with me their tips, tricks, and reflections on making the most of the conference experience, and I, in turn, would like to share their valuable insights with you. Below, please find some strategies to keep in mind at this year’s UCEA Convention and ideas to carry with you as you look forward to your next conference.
Engage with Faculty
One of the best ways to make new connections at conferences is to leverage relationships your advisor or other faculty members have with scholars from across the field. An e-introduction prior to the conference or an introduction in-person provides natural entrée where you might otherwise struggle to make a meaningful connection.
Don’t be afraid to approach faculty, even without an introduction. In this case, it is most helpful to know how you best succeed as a networker. Do you need to review their work again before you approach them? Can you speak extemporaneously based on the knowledge you already have of their work? Knowing how you can best set yourself up for success in approaching a scholar is of crucial importance. You should be able to reference their work and be able to ask thoughtful questions. Scholars can sense when a student or peer is truly interested in their work, and, likewise, they can tell when someone isn’t sincere. Finally, keep in mind that everyone gets tired as the conference progresses. As a result, attempt to make connections during the first half to three fourths of the conference, rather than as the conference is winding down.
Establish goals for your interactions with faculty. Do you want to engage with them about their work? Do you want to draw a connection to your work? Are you interested in their feedback on your work? Would you like their thoughts on a particularly tough-to-tackle component of your own scholarship? Knowing your goal for interacting with scholars will help you pursue a purposeful interaction.
Err on the side of being formal. Many of us are on a first-name basis with the scholars with whom we work closely, but that isn’t the culture on every campus. In addition, err on the side of brevity when you’re approaching faculty in person or via email.
Be prepared if you’re going to meet with a scholar to talk about your work. Develop a one-pager on your conceptual framework, for example, to place in front of them. This gives you an opportunity to speak to something specific, and it gives them an easily digestible opportunity to engage in, and contribute to, your work.
Take advantage of social events at conferences. These are a great opportunity to bump into faculty and fellow graduate students who share your interests. You never know what fantastic conversations might unfold or whom you’ll meet in this informal space.
Make a conference buddy. Attending social events can be a lot more comfortable with a friend; so don’t be afraid to start conversations with fellow graduate students. You’ll have power in numbers as you enter these social spaces, and you’ll begin to build your own scholarly network. Establishing these professional relationships is a powerful tool for engaging with scholars in your field, and these relationships will sustain you as you continue your career.
Follow-up with the graduate students and faculty you meet during the conference. Faculty are likely to remember folks they met after a panel discussion, particularly at smaller conferences, and will often respond to your correspondence after the conference. If nothing else, take the opportunity to thank scholars for the time they spent talking with you. You never know when you’ll have the opportunity to see, or even work with, someone in the future.
Looking Forward to Your Next Conference
Reach out before the conference by emailing a scholar who will be there if you would like to talk with them about your work. Try to make contact two to four weeks before the conference, and err on the side of brevity, and formality. In addition, be transparent about why you would like to have a conversation. It is often possible to find scholars who will take the time to schedule a meeting over coffee. If the thought of reaching out to esteemed scholars seems daunting, consider setting a goal to connect with one person at each conference.
Be an active participant in your next conference by submitting a presentation proposal. Don’t be afraid to throw your hat in the ring! Being an active participant, such as a presenter or chair, places a graduate student in a different role and provides the opportunity to contribute to the field.
Build your conference agenda by considering your overarching goals for attending your next conference. Are there new bodies of work with which you’d like to familiarize yourself? Having a general sense of your motivations will allow you to take note of, and keep track of, people, concepts and papers and other materials that are meaningful for you.
Develop, update or practice your elevator speech by being able to describe your work in 60 seconds or less. A polished elevator speech is an important tool and will impress your conversation partners and provide opportunities for follow-up questions about your scholarship.
Finally, have fun, and enjoy yourself! Attending a conference is an exciting opportunity for professional and personal growth. To that end, take some time to explore the host city. Enjoy the company of new people. Give yourself the space to leave work at work, and take advantage of the opportunity to be among fellow scholars!