Can I Give You My Card? Conferences and the Anxiety of Networking

Conferences and Grad Student Anxiety

Beginning very early in my graduate career, I was told attending conferences would be beneficial to me in a lot of ways: it would give me the chance to get my work out there (“there” being the ephemeral and poorly defined arena in which graduate student work gets discovered), to meet other scholars in my field, and to network. I knew, objectively, that these were all things that I should be doing, but I was also reticent. Why?

Because I was terrified.

As a grad student, there are a lot of reasons to be terrified of conferences and the networking opportunities they present. First, I found myself wondering how my work – in its most nascent stages (and coming, at least from my point of view, from a woman who was still basically an undergraduate) and which would probably change – could possibly matter in the larger scheme of things. It never occurred to me that conferences were all about works in progress, not presenting perfectly polished (as if such a thing exists), ready-to-publish pieces.
Second, if I was doubtful about the quality of my own work, I was absolutely certain that senior scholars (senior, at this point, referring to anyone in their second year of grad school all the way up to established scholars in my field) would have no desire to meet me. Why should they? I was a neophyte to the study of history (or so I thought) and I couldn’t imagine what other historians would gain from a conversation with me. Wouldn’t it be presumptuous and a little ridiculous to assume they would be delighted to engage in one?
Finally, there is something that comes from working in academia that makes one accustomed to interacting with people with a page, or a screen, or a phone in between. You would never approach a journal editor in person and ask them to publish your work – the process simply does not work that way. You would never walk into a university history department and ask for a job – again, process is king. So walking up to someone at a conference, extending your hand, and offering a business card always seemed, to me, intrusive and strange and uncomfortable.

If It’s So Terrifying, Why Network?

As a graduate student (or really, a scholar at any level), getting your work “out there” is important, even if “there” is only to the three or four people who show up for your panel.
The Q&A – and particularly the “Q” part of that equation – is instrumental to this process. Learn to embrace the questions, even the ones you can’t answer. Learn to embrace saying “I never thought of that,” or “I don’t know, but I’d love to find out,” or “That’s a great question!” Even unanswerable (for the time being) questions will help to think about your project in new ways (or lead you to a better one!) and your audience will feel gratified that they chose a panel that featured a scholar who is willing to learn. Think of it as sending your work out to get input back, rather than kicking it out at 18 and hoping it comes back one day with enough money to take care of you in your old age.

Interacting with senior scholars can be fun, for you and for them!
I had an experience while checking in to my hotel in Providence, Rhode Island for the OAH this past April that changed my perspective on introducing myself to more senior scholars. While the front desk employee was checking me in, we got to talking about what I was doing in Rhode Island for the first time. When he discovered that I was attending the OAH and presenting my work there, his face lit up and he said “I can’t believe I’m meeting a REAL historian!!!” He was an undergrad working on an American studies major, but had a real love for history and he was thrilled to talk to someone. I thought about telling him I wasn’t yet a “real” historian, but I was so caught up in asking him about his project and where he was applying for grad school that it never came up. It wasn’t until I walked away that I realized how excited I was to talk to him. Later at the conference, I introduced myself to historians Lizabeth Cohen and Dorothy Sue Cobble – giants in my field of labor history – and they were generous and kind enough to show real interest in and enthusiasm for my project. It didn’t occur to me until later that they might have been feeling the same way I felt when I was chatting with the hotel’s American studies major. I also attended the Western Association of Women Historians’ annual conference in Denver last month, and had a chance to chat with a few historians I had “met” on Twitter (more on social media and networking coming later!), Megan Nelson and Theresa Kaminski, and I was blown away by their generosity and kindness toward me. They, like Professors Cohen and Cobble, seemed genuinely pleased to meet me and hear about my project. This is all a long way of saying that you might think other historians have no interest in your project, but my experience on both sides of those encounters leads me to believe that most historians are open to, welcoming of, and excited to interact with younger scholars. So go for it!

It gives you a chance to build a community.
I have to admit that the first time I asked someone if I could give them my card (at this year’s AHA career fair), I felt odd. I half-expected the person I offered it to to say no. Instead, he asked me to remind him where I was from and what I was interested in. I was shocked by how easy it really was to make connections, and how receptive people were! Asking if you can give a person you’re in conversation with a card is the best way to begin networking. And the best reasons to network are not because you think it will immediately lead to a job (it really very rarely does), but literally because of the network building itself. Since I started handing out cards and just generally putting myself out there more – particularly on Twitter – I have begun building a network that I rely on for scholarly news, support, and just generally as a way to enter the world. I think perhaps it would be helpful not to think of networking as building a network of people that might be useful to you, but as community-building that is mutually beneficial. Communities support each other, in tacit as well as less easily definable ways, and in this age, that can’t help but be a good thing.

How to Network

So, how do you network/community-build at a conference as a grad student? Below are my five tips to keep in mind at your next conference!

  1. Go to conferences!  This might seem obvious, but really, start going as soon as you can. I started at Master’s level conferences, which helped me get comfortable and hone my skills before I started applying to any of the major conferences. Go to as many as you can afford to go to (and as many as you can handle without losing your mind and neglecting your work). The more you go to, the more people you’ll meet.
  2. Print business cards!  Some schools offer them for their graduate students, some don’t. Find out if your department does and if not, order your own! I designed mine at vistaprint.com and have received numerous compliments on them. They also make me feel super put-together at conferences, which boosts my confidence!
  3. Be brave – scholars you admire will no doubt enjoy hearing why and how their work has influenced your own. Tell them! Just keep the fangirling/boying to a minimum – this is a professional setting after all. (Feel free to fangirl later. I always do!)
  4. Go to graduate student receptions.  It might seem like networking with other grad students is a waste of time since they’re in the same place you are, but one day these people will be your colleagues, and you never know what they may stumble across that ends up being helpful to you and vice-versa. Again, this is all about community building.
  5. Invite people to coffee/for a drink, etc. The worst someone can say is no, but it gives you an opportunity to talk more extensively and at the very least gives you a means of introduction in follow-up emails.

Have other suggestions for how to network at conferences? Leave me a comment below!

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