An Introvert’s Guide to Navigating Academic Conferences

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(Photo via Product School on Unsplash)

In academia, the paper is the product.

When I began this journey, I (naively) thought this simple fact meant one should spend 90% of their time writing the paper and 10% of their time promoting it. Conferences, in this (incorrect) model of the world, were something extroverted, outgoing people could do to fulfill those promotional obligations, and as an added bonuses, they got to meet new people, go to happy hours, and put the conference on their CV. Introverted people (again, in this incorrect model of the world) could reach out to people in their subfield via email, have a Zoom meeting (especially post-2020), and maybe go to the annual conference in their job market year…if they really had to (and yes, you really have to).

Again, this was an incorrect model.

Maybe the most important thing I learned in grad school (which had nothing to do with clustered standard errors or subgame perfect equilibria) was this: while the paper is the product, the target balance of paper-writing versus what I’ll call “relationship-building” (of which conferences are one element) is closer to 50-50 than 90-10.1

The bad news is that you, the humble introvert, should go to conferences (if and when you can afford to do so.)2 Extroverted people must view this kind of advice as a win-win. The humble introvert, on the other hand, might be left with a sense of dread as they think about walking into a crowded room full of strangers where they have to approach Ms. Senior Academic, shake her hand, and say “Hello, my name is Ben. I study the presidency. How are you?”

The good news is that this model of conferences is also wrong (or at least, it is only one model). You can design a conference plan that suits you, your personality, and your level of complete and total dread over having to introduce yourself to strangers in a hotel lobby.

Given my experiences at several larger conferences, here’s my introverted action plan:

Before You Apply

Don’t Rush It: Before going to a conference, you have to make the decision to attend. So when should you start going? When you’re ready. Although no one is thinking about you as much as you’re thinking about you, one goal of the conference (besides to meet potential co-authors and make friends within the discipline) is to advertise yourself and your work. So you want to make a good impression and have work to advertise.

I applied to my first regional conference (MPSA) in my second year when I had a solo-authored working paper that I was ready to present.3 I know other people who applied around that time with an advisor co-author. Some went in their first year as a non-presenting attendee. Others waited until their third or fourth year. You can go whenever you’re ready, but there’s no need to race into conference attendance. It only gets easier the more experience you have and the more papers you write. Much of the small talk revolves around your work and their work, and with time, you’ll have more to discuss and the knowledge to engage more deeply with your interlocutors about their work. I believe the right time to start attending conferences is whenever you have a good working paper you’d be happy to post on your website, share with people, and present at the conference—whether that’s your second year or your fourth year doesn’t matter.

Additionally, you want to be independent at these conferences. Your advisor, advanced graduate students, your junior faculty co-authors—they all want to go to the conference to see old friends, meet new people, and share their work. Surely, they will be happy to make some introductions, and they might invite you lunch or dinner, or attend your panel. But go in with the mindset that you will be your own person. Do not cling to people you know. You want to establish your own network and you want to give them the space to do their thing.

Apply as a Presenter: Anyone can attend a conference as long as they pay the entrance fee. This includes academics who aren’t presenting, grad students, and occasionally, interested non-academics. My graduate department did not fund non-presenter attendance, which serves as an incentive to only apply when you have work to share. I find it much easier to go into the conference with a paper because that is the lowest hanging conversational fruit. I’ve already thought deeply about the paper and practiced my presentation, so it’s never hard to say “this is what I’m working on” and have that discussion.

Be Selective: If you really wanted to (ok, you don’t want to—because you’re an introvert reading this article, but if someone wanted to), you could go to a political science conference every month. The annual APSA meeting, the regional conferences (e.g., MPSA, SPSA, etc), the European meetings (e.g., EPSA), field and sub-field specific conferences and workshops, and so on. At some point, you would run out of time to the write papers you need to present.

Before You Go

Set Up Some Meetings: Setting up meetings is the core of my conference strategy. I am not the kind of person who goes to all the happy hours and hangs out in the conference lobby shaking hands and handing out business cards. The thought alone makes my mouth dry and my hands wet. No!

To avoid all that, I set up one-on-one meetings with four or five people well in advance of the conference. Doing so ensures I meet new people in my sub-field network at the conference and doesn’t require that I do any random approaches.

Here’s how it works. First, identify four or five people you’d like to meet at the conference. Like, that you actually sincerely want to meet and want to talk to. I tend to choose a couple grad students, a couple junior faculty, and one senior person. I choose people whose work I am familiar with, who work in my sub-field (the presidency, Congress), or my broader field (American institutions), and/or who I have some tenuous connection to (e.g., they have co-authored with someone on my committee, they have visited my university before and I said hello to them, I saw them in an online workshop, etc).

One month before the conference (do this before peoples’ schedules fill up!), I send an email to each person introducing myself (e.g., my name, my institution, my role (grad student, assistant professor), a sentence about what I’ll be presenting), signposting why I’m reaching out (e.g., I’ve read your recent publication in the APSR about X, I’m sure we have a lot to discuss given our shared interest in Y.), and asking them if they have time for a brief coffee and chat.

The pre-scheduled coffee-and-chat paradigm offers a very low stakes opportunity for both you and the interlocutor. Note that the interlocutor is going to be busy (especially if they are not a grad student)—they have probably been to several conferences, have many friends in the discipline (from grad school, post docs, other conferences) that they want to see, other academics they are trying to meet, etc. Coffee fits into their schedule in any free 30m slot, is casual, is cheap, and can adjust in time to the quality of conversation (I’ve had 20m coffees and 90m coffees). If you do want to schedule a meal, ask other grad students rather than the faculty who are going to be busier and have larger networks.

Note that these same advantages accrue to you, the introvert. You can schedule the coffees around panels or times you want to just be alone in your hotel room, the time you feel most social (e.g., morning, afternoon), do not involve alcohol or food, and if it’s not going well, you can always pull the rip cord in a way that seems very natural—”well it was so great to chat, I need to go [to another meeting/to a panel soon/to take care of a little bit of work].” You cannot do that at lunch when the waiter has not taken your order.

In my experience, people almost always say yes. And these end up being very high quality conversations because I reached out to people who have very similar research interests and who are cool people because they have worked with cool people I like at my university. These meetings have led to co-authoring opportunities, future connections, and friendships at the next conference.

Be Able to Describe Your Project in One Sentence: When you meet people, they will ask you what you research or what you’re presenting. Be ready to describe your work in one sentence and in one minute. This takes practice. Write several drafts of this before the conference.

Set Goals and Be Kind to Yourself: When you’re at the conference, it can feel like you should spend every waking minute talking to people or attending panels. No! Take care of yourself and do the conference in a way that is respectful to yourself. In addition to my own presentation, every conference, I pledge to go to at least one panel per day where I ask one question and have at least one one-on-one meeting per day I’m there. If I do that, everything else is gravy. If I don’t want to go to a happy hour because I’m socialed-out, as long as I’ve done my panel and my one-on-one, I give myself permission to get dinner by myself and go to bed early. If you do this for three days of the conference, then you’ve made three quality connections and learned something new from 4 $\times$ 4 = 16 scholars in your field.

At the Conference:

Go to Your One-on-Ones: Show up to the meeting spot early. Know what the person is working on (from paper titles on their website) and know what their presenting (from the conference website). Be interested in them and what they do. Be sincerely interested. Not instrumentally interested. Go to their panel if possible and in the meeting, ask them a question about their presentation if it’s after they’ve presented. Aim for 30m of conversation. If it’s going well, obviously keep talking until one of you has to go or the conversation runs out of steam. But don’t hang on too long.

Go to Some Panels: Go to the ones that are of sincere interest. Ask a question. Introduce yourself to the presenters after and follow up on something they said.

Give Your Talk: Arrive early. Be prepared with your presentation downloaded on your own computer, on a flash drive, in your email. See my long guide on short talks for advice on how to prepare and present. Stay in the room after and talk to people who come up to you, or engage with the other panelists, or follow up with someone who asked a question.

Go to your Section Business Meeting and Happy Hour: At the annual conference, your sub-field will have a business meeting and happy hour. At the business meeting, people receive awards and vote on who will chair the sub-field section and who will serve on awards committees. A lot of people in your sub-field will go and it’s good to be in the audience and participate actively. These are the people you will co-author with, get good feedback from, and who will review your paper. Often, sub-fields have an open, catered happy hour after the meeting. Go to this too—it’s the one “networking” event I am sure to attend. You’ll have a good conversation with anyone there because you know they do work in your sub-field and you have some common interests.

Take Care of Yourself: Drink water. Eat meals. Get sleep. Don’t put extra pressure on yourself to be Ms. Super Social when you’re not that person.

Be Kind: Don’t gossip. Be humble. Be professional. Don’t drink too much (or at all). Don’t gossip.

After the Conference

Send Thank You Emails: Email all of your one-on-ones thanking them for their time. Based on the conversation, you could consider sharing your paper draft (noting that they do not need to send you any comments and it’s just an FYI) and saying you’re looking forward to seeing them at a future conference.

Looking Ahead

It gets easier with every conference. At the first one, you don’t know anybody, and you’re building your network from scratch. But after one or two, you’ve had eight to ten one-on-ones, you’ve meet friends of friends, you engaged with people at the panels. There are many more familiar faces. There are many more people you can reach back out to and grab lunch or dinner with. Go to four or five and you will become the person who has a busy schedule reconnecting with friends and meeting new people. You’ll be the one who grad students are emailing.

  1. Relationship-building in academia is about more than conferences and networking though. Other elements in this category include: attending and participating in departmental speaker series and online talks and workshops, serving as a discussant, going to the grad student breakfasts with visitors, choosing the right advisor, getting to know other faculty and grad students in the department, etc. And I’ll also emphasize that relationship-building is not simply some instrumental thing to game. It is how you meet potential co-authors, make friends, learn new things, and avoid loneliness. 

  2. Disclaimer time: I was lucky to go to graduate school at an institution that encouraged grad student conference participation and provided some conference funding. Same goes for my current appointment. Obviously not everyone can afford to go to two or three conferences a year—but these strategies still apply if you can only attend one per year or even one in your entire grad school education. Also, look out for funding opportunities through the conference itself or external travel grants for graduate students. Also, look for conferences occurring online (like JAWS) or near your school. 

  3. Ultimately, I did not end up going to that conference because of something random that happened in 2020…but I can’t remember what that was right now for some reason…