On National Conferences

Now that the holidays are behind us, hundreds of Humanities PhDs and PhD-seekers are back to thinking about national conferences, whether because they have scheduled interviews there or due to the more general networking possibilities these conferences bring. The first half of this post is dedicated to preliminary interviews…and, specifically, the awkwardness of interviewing at national conferences such as the upcoming MLA 2019 Annual Convention or the AHA 2019 Annual Meeting (both being held in Chicago). I’ve included my list of preliminary interview questions to prepare at the end of the section. Part two of this post is about networking at these mammoth conferences beyond interviews. Networking doesn’t always come naturally to everyone, so I’ve compiled a list of ideas and techniques for networking if you’re not sure where to start.

Part One: Preliminary Interviews at National Conferences

It is becoming more and more prevalent to conduct preliminary interviews over Skype rather than at national conferences. Scholars from a variety of fields have noted this trend and it’s not unique for fields in the Humanities. (See this useful post on tips for Skype interviews.)  I’m broad-brushing a little here, but the hold-outs who still attend national conferences seem to be small liberal arts colleges and private schools. If we look at the information on the Spanish and Portuguese 2018-2019 wiki, as of December 22nd there were only 16 schools interviewing at MLA, and only 5 of them are public institutions. By contrast, between 30 and 40 public institutions are on the Skype preliminary interview list.

My advisor tells me that once upon a time he would attend the national conference for job interviews and have at least a dozen scheduled, sometimes back-to-back. Those days are long over. I have a few theories as to why that is:

  • Interviewing over Skype is far more cost-effective for the hiring institution: asking four faculty to sit in their department conference room to interview candidates is free; flying them elsewhere and paying for their hotel rooms/meals over the course of 3-4 days costs the thousands of dollars…not to mention you’re asking them to give up time during their mid-semester break
  • Skype interviews are more equitable than national conference interviews: adjuncts, lecturers, and graduate students (who can’t receive funding for conferences unless they are presenting a paper) often can’t afford the expense of traveling to a national conference; the flight, hotel rooms, meals and suit necessary to attend these interviews can cost upwards of $1,000, which is very burdensome for individuals who don’t make a faculty salary
  • Institutions are in a race to be first or to get their top candidate: many institutions that hold Skype interviews in the fall are able to schedule their campus visits for January and/or February; let’s face it…if you’re a candidate and you have a campus visit on the horizon, it’s natural to feel more invested in that quickly materializing prospect than in a preliminary interview
  • National conference interviews are awkward: one of two things could happen here: 1. you end up in a room with folding tables, trying to tune out everything around you (including your next interviews, which are one table over), or, 2. you end up in someone’s hotel room…potentially sitting on the bed one of the interviewers slept in last night…strange…just strange

All of that aside, preliminary interviews at national conferences are still a phenomenon. When preparing for a preliminary interview, it is important to research the institution you will be interviewing with. To do background research, I do the following:

  • Determine what kind of ice-breaker pleasantries you might use. So, for example, you walk into a hotel room and the pre-interview environment is stiff. Before launching into the interview, what are you going to say that’s casual or conversational? You have to play the room or the situation here. This is easy, low-hanging fruit: “How is the conference going for each of you thus far? Have you attended any interesting panels?” Another option might be: “Can you believe how freezing cold it is outside? I had to drink an extra cup of coffee this morning just to stay warm.”
  • Read university webpages, college webpages, department webpages, and faculty bios when and where you can.
  • Cross-reference the job posting with the degree plans online to hypothesize what courses they might like you to teach.
  • Determine what kinds of interdepartmental initiatives are taking place on campus that you might be called upon to participate in. For example: is the line you’re interviewing for part of a cluster hire?; is there a center for the Humanities (or similar interdepartmental center) on campus?; what kinds of academic programming (think speaker series) is your prospective department involved in?
  • Assemble a list of 3-5 anecdotes that can shape-shift into answers for a variety of generic/annoying HR questions. What do I mean by this? I mean the questions like “tell me about your worst teaching moment” or “what inspires your teaching?” It’s impossible to prepare for every variation of those questions so, instead, I prepare mini-stories that I then mold into whatever question was just asked of me. In theory, you could use the same story for both of those questions if you frame it differently. But, in general, people respond well to concrete anecdotes.
  • Prepare answers to Junior Prof’s “Preliminary Interview Questions.” Based on the data I have, these are the 27 questions you are most likely to get asked.

Part Two: Networking at National Conferences (for Introverts)

Set networking goals for yourself before you set off on your adventure. They might be meeting one specific person and talking about a specific project, or you might tell yourself you’d like to talk with 5 different people and you don’t care who they are…as long as you make an impression. I usually try to strike a balance between these two goals and meet one big name in my field in addition to whoever else I naturally encounter.

In other words, ask yourself: 1. who you want to meet, 2. why you want to meet them / what you hope to gain from the connection, 3. why they might like to meet you.

Bring business cards. Even in a world saturated by LinkedIn, Academia.org, and other forms of professional social media, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked for a card and not had one. I have two kinds of business cards. The first was made for me by my institution and it includes my work phone number and address. The second is a card I custom-ordered on a site like Moo.com, Vistaprint.com or Snapfish.com — it has my cell number, the web address to my professional website and no mailing address. It’s more personal than the first card. Which one I hand out depends largely on the context. If you’re interested in bringing a scholar to your campus for a keynote address, you might want to give them the more personal one and tell them they’re welcome to text you. Sometimes coordinating this way is more personable.

Ask open-ended questions. People love talking about themselves and they love taking their story in directions that are most comfortable for them. Instead of asking what you might want to know, think about what people might like to tell you. Something like, “I’d love to hear about how you got where you are” is open-ended and allows people to tell you the version of the story they are most comfortable with. It also means you don’t risk pigeon-holing anyone into talking about something they don’t want talk about.

Set up the next steps before parting ways. Before saying goodbye to someone, clearly establish what the next form of communication will be. “Would it be okay if I sent you an email to get the .pdf of the article you were just talking about?” or “If you’re free later this week, could I give you a call to talk more about the collaboration we were just discussing?” This is especially useful if you’d like to get something concrete out of the connection. If not, a simple, “Are you on LinkedIn? I’m going to look for you on there” would probably suffice.

Before signing-off, I’d like to stress that networking is not easy if it doesn’t come naturally to you, that’s okay. It doesn’t come naturally to me at all, but I’m committed to taking it slowly as I fine tune my approaches to each of the above. You should do the same, because stressing out too much will inevitably make networking more challenging. (No one who is tense is easy to talk to.) Each time I give these things a try, it feels slightly more comfortable than the previous time. And if you have a technique you’d like to share that I haven’t already thought of, not only would I welcome the input, I’d probably benefit from it! Best of luck with your next national conference!

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