Conference advice: looking back on ASA

Observations from the annual conference

Last week, I flew to San Francisco for a sociology conference, the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. This was my second ASA, after attending the 2012 meeting in Denver while I was preparing my graduate school applications. With a year of grad school under my belt and a teeny bit of perspective, I offer some musings on conference attending as a grad student.

View from the escalator of a lobby crowded with sociologists

View from the escalator of a lobby crowded with sociologists.

  1. Don’t be afraid to submit a paper. Our whole scientific enterprise is based on feedback and discussion. We’ve all put hard work into projects that feel like they can just sit on our desk once we’re done writing. Why not kill two birds with one stone and get feedback while brushing off your ideas — present! Submitting a paper can be scary (it certainly was for me!) but there are low stakes ways to start out; a roundtable was a comfortable way to get my feet wet.
  2. Make an effort to meet NEW people. It’s easy to gravitate towards familiar faces. On my first full day in San Francisco, I found myself sitting in a cafe with two other Princeton PhD students. While it is great to see your friends — especially over the summer, when you may not have seen them for a bit — there is lots of time to see them throughout the year. Instead of defaulting to sitting with people you already know, make an effort to make new connections. When surrounded by interesting people, this is easy to do: peruse the program in the lobby instead of in your hotel room, sit next to a stranger in the audience or attend a round table on subjects that relate to your work. Perhaps best of all, scope out the evening receptions for groups or sections of interest.
  3. Don’t do too much work. During my first go at ASA, I over-did it. I went to all the panels I could fit into a single day — from 8:30 am through 7 pm. I hardly had time to have lunch, and I definitely was mostly undercaffeinated. I took lots of notes and was totally exhausted by the end of the day, leaving me no energy to mingle in the evenings. In retrospect, those notes didn’t really help and I didn’t get that much out of the panels. I wish I had paced myself, been more selective with my time, and spent more time getting to know people.
  4. Dress. This is tough. I’ve learned to better balance professional outfits (think regular-office appropriate, not academic-department-appropriate) and casual clothes. I now pack basically two outfits for each day: a pencil/skirt+blouse outfit for the day and a jeans + blouse outfit for the evening receptions. My first go, I felt a bit underdressed. I invested in a comfortable pair of low wedges that I could around in — which I was extra grateful for when I was invited on impromptu walks or coffee outings.Flats are better for evening receptions to pair with jeans and let your feet recover after a long day. I’d say plan on dressing a notch or two up from your regular office-wear, but most importantly, to make sure you feel comfortable and confident.
  5. Let it be a lesson in socialization. I always try to pay extra careful attention to the norms and unspoken rules of the discipline: how are questions asked? how are they answered? are there trends in how the presentations are organized or delivered? what caught your attention in others’ talks that you’d like to keep in mind when you’re in that position? What wasn’t particularly engaging for you, and so you’d like to make sure not to do in your future talks?
  6. Follow up. If you met someone new, don’t be afraid to follow up with them after the conference is over. if you promised to send something along (contact information, a syllabus, an article of interest, etc) be sure to do so promptly. Building these relationships, however informally, is a great way to get in the loop — perhaps they’ll think of you if something relevant comes up, like a seminar of interest. Encourage others to follow up with you, too. A business card is a good way to do that.
  7.  Make time to tend your roots. Prioritize seeing people from earlier chapters in your life: your undergraduate institution, your grad school, other graduate students or faculty you met on visiting days at various departments or at conferences or seminars over the years. It’s important to tend these relationships. Sociology (or rather, academia) is a small world with much overlap, and these colleagues will be operating in the same small circles with you for many years. Identify friends and stay in touch!
  8. Make eye contact (not badge contact!) first. It is a super strange feeling to walk around for a few days with a sign bearing in large font your name and institution. This signals a lot of things to everyone who sees you, and they will make instant micro-decisions about your value and their interest given your name and the name of your school. Don’t be that guy: remember to make eye contact before badge contact. Interact sincerely and genuinely with all those you meet. Try to recognize faces before searching name tags for a hint at why the person looks so familiar.All in all, learn what you can, eat good food (and that’s important — don’t forget to eat! especially if you’re in a different time zone), bring band aids in case you get blisters, and enjoy the whirlwind of lots of bright minds around you.
  • Do you have any pro-tips for conferencing?
  • Any definite “don’ts” that are important to keep in mind?

Becoming an academic: on hummus and crudites

“I’m trying to figure out what food to get for the party tonight. A few people suggested hummus and vegetables but I feel like that’s all grad students ever eat.”

“Yeah, I actually just had some hummus for lunch”

“…so did I.”

Why do we eat so much hummus? One of the most salient things I learned in my first semester of graduate school was, precisely, how to look like a graduate student — being socialized into a discipline that we enthusiastically claim as our vocation. At orientation, I remember admiring wide-eyed the poise of the more senior students, their penetrating questions, and their concise summaries of their research projects. It felt like they were on display, and I was window shopping for my future demeanor.

This is why we go to job talks. Of course, it is an exciting opportunity to become familiar with the research of our colleagues and of other graduate students or faculty in our discipline and others and offer feedback. But beyond that, we learn how to perform sociology. That includes demeanor and comportment, but also audience interaction: how to ask good questions, and how to answer them. In this informal way, I’ve developed a running list of successful practices and also what not to do; I’ve ruled out possibilities for what “good sociology” looks like and narrowed down the approaches I consider appropriate moving forward. In fact, I recently transferred this running list from a mental note into paper form that I keep in my desk!

  • When an audience member asks you a multi-point question, make notes of the question and answer it in order.
  • So… don’t forget to bring a pen and paper when giving a presentation!
  • Include a road map of the presentation in the first few slides
  • Theoretical framing comes up front! Classical and contemporary theorists if possible!
  • Mixed methods > single method

In our daily encounters with faculty — at the coffee pot, in the mail room, or in our excruciatingly long hallway (a breeding ground for awkward encounters) — we learn to see our academic idols not as daunting figures behind closed doors but as friendly colleagues, insightful and brilliant though they are. We learn how they carry themselves but also develop confidence in our own interactions with the leaders in our fields.

Similarly, in our contact with our more senior graduate colleagues, we are inducted into the academic life — but more specifically, the life of our department. We learn about the prestige of the different journals — tacit knowledge that is invisible to the casual observer. We also learn how to dress the part: we see the degree to which casual attire is acceptable in the office, the more looks they adopt when precepting a class, and how nicely they clean up for a presentation or interview. In a recent seminar with the politics graduate students, I was really struck by how differently the sociologists and the political scientists in the room dressed. It drew my attention to the culture of our department, and perhaps our discipline more broadly: while we are serious and professional,  we’re not overly formalistic.

While I’ve spent hours reading classical theory and learning statistical programming, I’ve spent even more hours chatting with my office-mates, sitting in a writing group with my cohort, and taking notes at job talks; I’ve gone to more wine-and-cheese receptions than I could count and volunteered to show a visiting lecturer around. All of these experiences have shaped how I think, act, and understand what it means to be an academic.

This is — I hypothesize — why we eat so much hummus. If I were planning a party for undergrads, the obvious choice would have been to order pizza for the group. As an undergrad, I ate a lot of free pizza. As a graduate student, I eat a lot of free hummus and crudites. However, as sociologists, we are also being socialized into more professorial preferences. While pizza is still Mediterranean food, it doesn’t quite signal “I’ve spent a lot of time in graduate school” like a strong taste for wine and antipasto.