Working a Conference
by Jordan Tompkins
Going to the 2014 Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Albuquerque, my main goal was to network. I set the bar high. I planned to attend every panel, discussion, and event humanly possible. I wanted to make a lot of acquaintances, maybe meet some future employers. It was a goal I didn’t accomplish, at least according to my original standards.
I’m one of those people who likes to be over-prepared. I outlined all the panels I planned on going to, starting at 8am every morning and running until 7pm every evening. I never made it to many of those panels. In my excitement, I had forgotten that I am a mere human, someone who needs to eat occasionally and have some down time. After 2 days of intense stress over HOW MUCH I NEEDED TO DO (the capital letters indicate my panic), I realized that my expectations were way too high. After that, I still went to panels, workshops, and other events, but I gave myself plenty of room to breathe.
As for networking, it was harder than I imagined. Talking to people one-on-one is easy for me, but it’s really difficult (and awkward) to walk up to a group of people and give my elevator speech. That’s something I’m still working on…
During the week of the conference, I went to two workshops, one on evaluation and another on text analysis. I highly recommend attending workshops at conferences. That’s where I really met people, people who are interested in some of the same things I am, or who study things that are interesting but have nothing to do with what I want to do.
Outside of workshops, I only met two other people. Both are from Arizona State University, and neither of them study anything remotely interesting to me. But meeting them taught me one of the most important lessons about what it means to network—networking doesn’t mean you have to meet people who do any sort of research or have any sort of interests. It’s more like making friends than it is making professional connections. Or maybe it’s just that making professional connections is more like making friends than I thought.
I was surprised to find that most of the connections I made included me “selling” UMD to undergraduates at the conference. I gave out my email, the email of professors involved in similar research to the undergraduates, and offered to give one person a tour of the anthropology department at UMD. More than making connections for just myself, I realized I was making connections for my department. And it was more fulfilling than just meeting people who would be useful to me.
So my attempt at networking was a failure, at least by the standards I had at the outset. But I did make some friends and I learned a lot through workshops and the panels I attended. I learned more about the students I go to school with every day, and I got to explore Albuquerque. And even if my original expectations didn’t pan out, I learned to be realistic and prioritize when it comes to my time. I also figured out what I need to work on for my next conference or networking event (ehem: elevator speech).
Although I like to be over-prepared for everything, I’m really bad about factoring enough time for myself – if you haven’t already figured that one out! I explored Old Town in Albuquerque when I was avoiding panels. I ate at all kinds of restaurants, the good, the bad, and the downright nasty. I learned that it isn’t as uncomfortable to do things alone as I’d thought it would be…it’s actually kind of nice.
One day one of my cohort members and I took a trip through the desert to the Sandia Sky Tram. That was one of the best parts of the trip, but Rebecca has already given a great description (with pictures!) of it, so I won’t repeat it here. If you ever go to Albuquerque, though, make time for the Sky Tram.
I also made friends, or is that networked, with our hosts. I jokingly tell everyone that Ed (the host) is my new best friend. And he was like my own personal chauffeur, offering to give me rides everywhere. Hanging out with him, and his wife Muriel, was a highlight of my trip.
In short, I learned from my trip to the SfAA conference that networking doesn’t have to be all professional, dressed up in slacks and button ups. It can be more like making friends, if you let it. Additionally, remember to do what you want to do while at a conference. Concentrate on doing things you like. For me, that meant exploring, hanging out with the people I met, and going to workshops; but “fun” looks different for everyone.
Note: Attending panels and workshops or even just going out to dinner with a group – particularly those with folks who are conducting top research in your field is an excellent way to network. You should introduce yourself and what you do, no matter how difficult this might be for you (the link associated with the image above and here provides some tips on introducing yourself and networking at conferences). At the minimum you may learn something new from making that contact, and you may even set yourself up for a future collaboration with the individual or someone they know. Attending panels and workshops can also help you learn what is cutting edge in your field as this is research likely not yet published. But you aren’t required to attend every single event at a conference. Be strategic. ~J. Shaffer