Large academic conferences are prone to create awkward social situations, especially for those who are not (yet) well integrated into a field. Imagine walking around the Chicago Palmer House lobby among 7,000 political scientists who have gathered for the American Political Science Association annual meetings. You know that many in attendance exercise gate keeping powers over jobs you would like, awards you want to win, or journals you would like to publish in. Yet, you only know these people by name and they have no clue who you are. You could wait around in the lobby for an opportunity to grab the person with the familiar name tag. You might be a bit more strategic and selectively come up to VIPs of your choice after panels. Or, you could send out e-mails in advance in the hope of setting up brief meetings over coffee. Regardless of what option you pick, it will be awkward unless you are a natural at this (which most people are not). It can be doubly stressful for young women given that most “VIPs” are older males.
USC professor Brian Rathburn tried to provide some helpful advice for young academics navigating the scene but packaged this in “the worst metaphor ever,” as Dan Drezner put it. He then pulled the post (a cached copy is here, his explanation is here). I don’t have too much to add that hasn’t already been said by Dan Nexon, Laura Sjoberg, Steve Saideman, and Dan Drezner. But I do want to reiterate one point that Dan Drezner makes:
You don’t have to network at all. It likely helps your professional development a little bit on the margins, but not nearly as much as you would think. The opportunity costs are small compared to researching and publishing good work. Pour your manic energy into the latter far more than the former, and don’t fret that you’re missing all the cool parties if you don’t feel like schmoozing.
I think this is both right and potentially useful for mental sanity. Small talk at conferences is not going to get your article accepted in that prestigious journal nor will it land you a job at that university you always wanted to be at. It is important to get to know the people in your field but that is a gradual process much of which takes place after people start inviting you because they like your work. Stay focused on meeting people with whom you share intellectual interests and don’t be too worried if some other grad student manages to line up coffees with all the “big people.” If you have to spend time in lobbies at all, consider playing bingo rather then seeking opportunities to have small talk with “VIPs.”
ps1. I admit it was cheap to put sex in the title. But some of the links really do talk about sex and sexual harassment at conferences.
ps2. I actually did first meet Brian Rathburn at a conference years ago after he e-mailed me. We had a nice chat and I have nothing per se against this strategy. Indeed I often and gladly meet people I don’t know for brief chats at conferences, although I have never set up such networking chats myself. Very often these chats are enjoyable and intellectually engaging. I just don’t think they are very important in the scheme of things. Note that you can make a bad impression as well in such settings, especially if you have nothing of interest to say. So: do it if you are comfortable but don’t fret about it if you would rather not.