From Thursday morning to Saturday night, I have been (and will continue to be) reporting live from the Society for American Archaeology 2012 conference in Memphis, TN. I am currently a second year PhD graduate student in Anthropology, with a focus on Archaeology. Conferences are important, regardless of your discipline. As a grad student we can easily settle into our departments, but the real world is much more diverse and is a reality we need to learn to face. Not only are the people attending your academic conference the same individuals who shape the discipline, they are also your peers.
One of the misconceptions of attending a conference is that the important part is the talks, posters and sessions. Okay- maybe that's exaggerating a little. The presentations are important, they give you a chance to learn about new methods and theories, and see how others are approaching topics both similar and diverse. If you just go to the conference to listen and read chances are you will get something out of it. But you can get so much more if you just learn to hack your conference.
Step one: find out about the social media and follow the chatter prior to the actual conference. For the SAA conference we have been chatting on twitter. Now at the conference we are continuing to chat about the sessions that are occurring, tips on where to go for lunch, and even doing some networking. One of the problems of this conference in particular is that there are two back channels on twitter: #SAA2012 and #SAA77. The former was started by the masses who wanted to discuss their projects and travel plans ahead of time. The latter was announced by the institution even though the other had been in use already. While this is problematic, at least it exists and allows us to get a little prepared.
Step two: do your research and be prepared. Prior to Memphis I was checking out the locations of my hotel, airport and conference center so that I would know exactly where to go, I researched the other individuals in my symposium so that I could speak intelligently with them, and I had my bag all set with a notebook, granola bars and business cards. Even if you are just a grad student with no positions in the department, get business cards. Its so much easier than fumbling through your bag for paper and a pen, and looks professional. Also, bring clothes that make you look like the big dogs at the conference, or at least dress nicer than you normally would. For archaeologists, just having clean clothes is sometimes considered dressing up- but how about adding a collar and not wearing jeans? It shows that you are a professional who is ready to interact with the academic world and not just another undergrad.
Step three: get involved. You can't always present a poster or do a presentation, but try to get involved to some extent. If you're not presenting you can be a volunteer. It's a great way to meet the organizers of the conference and you can help out the people you are trying to network with. If you do a symposium or session, go to the happy hour afterwards or at least mingle with the other presenters following it. Ask people about their work, or ask for their input on yours. Usually if you are just friendly and candid you can get invited out to lunch or at least have an extended chat in the hallway. Interacting with your peers and professors of any level is important. One day all of these people will be your colleagues, so its important to show that you are up to the task. This doesn't mean an all night bender with your advisor and the symposium organizer, in fact I try to limit my drinks to one or two per night, but you should be social to some extent. Honestly, hallways and bars are where the real benefits of conferencing are seen.
This advice may not hold true at every conference, what are your suggestions and advice? How would you hack your academic conference?
If you want to follow along with the SAA conference, you can read my twitter feed @bonesdonotlie or follow the back channels #SAA2012 and #SAA77