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?
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How to make the most out of your visit days

By Sharon Cornelissen and Samantha Jaroszewski

This past fall and winter must have been a nerve-racking grad school application season for many of you. As first year PhD students, we still vividly remember those anxious days and weeks awaiting graduate school decision emails, compulsively checking gradcafe. Congrats to all of you who have been accepted to one or more programs! Now that decisions have been sent out, it is your turn to decide.

One year out from making our own visits and decisions, we have reflected on the experience and compiled some advice for prospective graduate students to make the most of their visiting days.

thinking woman deciding

General advice

  • Narrow down your options. If you have more than one acceptance, remember that the visit days can be really draining personally, and also are an investment in you by the university. Often they pay for your trip, a current student hosts you and professors take time to get to know you. If you’ve already mentally ruled out an option, consider declining the offer to visit. Perhaps it will also free up a spot for a waitlisted student to go on the official visit.
  • Stay for a couple of days rather than hopping from campus to campus. This gives you an opportunity to ‘feel out’ not just the departmental culture, but also go explore the town or city and housing situation. After all, you are not just choosing a school but also the place where you are going to live for the next 5 or more years. Why not take that extra day to explore the town beyond the university?

  • Get to know your fellow admitted students. Not only may these people be in your future cohort, but also if they end up at other schools they may be good contacts to have. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a place to stay in Chicago or Seattle for a future conference?

  • Keep notes about your visit day experiences. Jot down first impressions, pros and cons, etc. It may be more clear in your mind now than in a month when you have to make your final decision.

  • Be nice to everyone. You never know when you will meet them again, so handle all interactions — including declining offers of admission — respectfully. It may be prudent to email the potential advisor yourself before declining the offer formally, thanking him or her for the time and hospitality.

Questions to ask of current graduate students:
Pay particular attention to the other graduate students — admitted and current students. Your colleagues are the ones that you’ll learn the most from and who will support you in the most difficult moments – trust us, those moments will come. How collegial are they? Is there a more friendly or more competitive atmosphere?

  • Are you happy here? Do you feel students around you are happy?

  • What made you decide to come to this school rather than other schools? How do you feel your expectations have held up?

  • What dissertation projects are current graduate students working on? (Are their projects inspiring and interesting to you?)

  • What are the weaknesses of this department? What would you like to see done differently?

  • How are faculty-student interactions? What type of advising structure is common in the department? Examples of advising structures include hands-off, workshop model with larger cohorts or apprenticeship one-to-one relationship with a main advisor.

  • How much time does it take to fulfill the teaching requirements? Are there other service requirements? How long on average does it take for people to graduate?

  • Do students get offices? Often, visiting days are a time when everyone coalesces in the office, so this can give a misleading impression. Ask about how much time people spend in the office on the norm — are people around?

  • What standard of living does your stipend afford? Can you afford an apartment, studio, close to school, do you need roommates? How is the housing situation? Do you need to take out loans? Is there 6th or 7th year funding available? Do you get reimbursed for conference travel?

  • What is the social life like in this town and/ or with fellow graduate students?

Questions to ask of faculty you want to work with
Often schools schedule individual meetings for you with professors. Prepare ahead of time. What are you going to ask them? An informal sample among our cohort yielded unequivocal conclusions: most meetings are going to be awkward. Knowing what to ask will not only give you better information, but also allows you to evade some of the endemic awkwardness of academia…

  • What projects are you working on? Where do you see your research agenda going in the next few years?

  • How many students are you working with? What are some examples of the topics of dissertations that you are currently supervising?

  • Do you work on projects together with your students, for instance co-authored papers?

  • How would you characterize your advising style? How often do you meet with your students?

  • What kinds of jobs have graduates from this department in the last couple of years been able to secure? What kinds of jobs have your students been offered in recent years?

Final advice: Stop asking everyone for advice. What school fits you well – your interests, ambitions, finances, happiness, family life? How do you want to live your life for the next five or more years? Balancing all these factors is very personal and no one knows as much about your situation as you do. Don’t worry too much about making the “right choice.” There may be many places where you could be productive and happy.