If you’ve ever been to an academic conference you know how awkward they can be—and if you haven’t, take my word on it, they are weird spaces. Everybody is thrown together from all over the country: the most senior and well-known scholars in your field all the way down to the greenest first-year grad students. It’s a space defined by intellectual exchange that can be exhilarating and fun but also deeply stressful and performative. And of course, it’s an opportunity to practice that dreaded business-speak practice we call “networking.”
Conferences can be difficult experiences, and the process is that much harder when you’re the only student from your institution in attendance. The isolation and anxiety can be acute without anyone to rely on. But after attending seven conferences without anyone from my university, I have discovered some ways to help you get through the process and reorient your thinking to make the entire thing a lot less painful—and who knows, maybe even fun!
Know who you are socially and embrace it. You may be the most outgoing extrovert in the world; in that case, you’ll probably enjoy the challenge and opportunity of a conference. But if you’re like me—and most historians I know—it might take a while to come out of your shell. The best thing is to recognize how you are around people and to lean into that. I moved schools several times from K-12 and each time was a wrenching process socially. But I slowly came to realize that I just take time to get comfortable around people. We each handle being in new situations differently, and I have learned that I need to be patient with my own process. Your relationship to the conference also matters. If this is a conference you plan to attend repeatedly over your career, you can give yourself more time to become a part of the community, whereas if the conference is a one-off comprised of people you’re unlikely to see again, you may want to prioritize engagement a bit more. The last time I went to a conference like the latter, I tried to attend more sessions, I signed up for a graduate student mixer, and I made a point of hanging around and speaking with panelists after their presentations. Try to put yourself out there, but don’t beat yourself up over being a little quieter or needing some time away from overwhelming groups. Trust that with time you will warm up to people. So be patient and generous with how you operate in new social situations.
It’s okay to be alone. Conferences are bizarre social situations. You’re around a ton of people all the time but you don’t truly know any of them. The experience is even weirder when you’re around senior scholars whose work you’ve read—you feel like you know them, but you don’t! And it can feel like they know everybody. When you do join in a conversation, you’ll likely feel a pressure to constantly talk and feel like you’re failing if you aren’t, but that’s okay. Push through the discomfort and carve out time to intentionally be alone and recharge. If you’re in a cool city, visit a museum, go on a tour, or head to dinner alone in an awesome restaurant. Plan an activity that you know you’ll enjoy and that’s just for you. At my most recent conference in San Diego, I planned a trip to the zoo, which I’d been dying to go to for my whole life. Yeah, it was a little weird being the unattached 30-year-old man roaming the zoo, but I was prepared for that and had a fun time just being by myself. Treat yourself to a new experience and be prepared for those feelings of loneliness.
Look for other singletons. You’re unlikely to be the only person at a conference who came alone. Look for others! If you see someone hanging around the edge of a room, strike up a conversation with them. This can be an awkward process, but think up some ideas for topics. Asking them about themselves and what they study is a great start, but so are questions about how the conference is going for them, what they think of the host city, or how they like their university. You may find that they’re in a similar situation as you and that you have more in common than you thought. I still remember my first conference as a graduate student where I met several people who were the only ones from their universities. They became friendly faces who I look forward to seeing every time I attend that conference. They can become your conference support network and they’ll understand some of the same experiences you’ve had. There is a bit of serendipity involved in meeting these people that can be hard to achieve with online conferences, but even there, look for the opportunities to connect with people in designated social sessions, especially if there are breakout rooms involved. And if the program is manageable, look over it for people who came alone and see if you happen to end up in a session with them. The online conference can be a very different experience, but approach it with the same generosity and openness can result in similarly meaningful experiences.
Forget about networking, focus on connections. I hate the term “networking” and find it grossly transactional. Instead of thinking about what we can gain from an interaction, go in thinking about making a real, human connection. Learn about other people’s backgrounds and what might be interesting about them. I’ve tried to learn from my advisor who I’ve seen in action at a couple of conferences. His approach is to ask fairly deep questions about where someone is from, what they’re studying, and why that subject is important to them. But what I most admire about him is how he really listens. He starts connecting their interests to other scholars in the field, makes introductions when related scholars are nearby, and asks authentic questions to open a dialogue about potential directions they could take their work. What he is doing is helping people share their ideas on a level playing field, and he does it in a way that is not grubby or self-serving. So, start talking with people and try to focus on who they are and not what they can do for you. When you connect with people in real ways, the networking thing happens as a natural by-product.
Approach the conference with intention, as a fillip. This is a tough one. Conferences can be incredibly stressful, especially if you’re presenting. But it’s also important to take a step back and recognize how remarkable academic conferences are. They are spaces where we get to hear from tons of incredibly smart and well-learned people about a range of topics that we all find mutually interesting. Obviously not every panel is going to appeal to you, so take the opportunity to rekindle your love for your subject and to learn new things. As historians, we spend a lot of our time alone, particularly when it comes to researching and writing. Conferences are one of the rare opportunities we get to share our work, hear helpful feedback, and learn of cool projects that our peers are undertaking. Increasingly, I’ve structured my presentations to explicitly ask for help and advice, rather than as presentations of finished work. Remind yourself that conferences are supposed to be an intellectual exchange and use the experience to grow and rekindle your passion for your subject.
There’s no guaranteed way to ensure you have a good experience attending a conference on your own; I’ve had wonderful conferences that energized me, and I’ve had awful ones that I couldn’t wait to leave. But recognizing that a conference is what you make it is super important. Putting pressure on yourself to perform, dazzle, or network generates real anxiety that can make the entire process miserable. Focus instead on what you most want to get out of your time and be generous with who you are and how you operate. Conferences rarely make or break our careers, but they can be wonderful opportunities to step away from the daily grind, learn new things, and meet awesome people. Enjoy them and let the experiences come to you.
Featured image: Creative Commons. Available here.