Dan Drezner blogs some advice for attendees of academic conferences. His suggestions are fine, but I have some of my own.
First, some general perspective for those of you who are lucky enough not to have to go to these things. Attending an academic conference is like being a teenager again. This is why they can be so awful. You hang around trying to attach yourself to a group—preferably the cool kids, but in the end any group will do—and then these groups hang around waiting for something to happen. Groups exist in a permanent state of failing to decide what to do. Where should we go to dinner? Are we still waiting for someone? I heard there was a good party in the Berkeley suite. Where’s Ann, wasn’t she here a minute ago? As with teenagers, attendees secretly (and falsely) believe that other groups are having a much better time. Thus, they scan the area (e.g., the hotel lobby) in case the present group needs to be ditched for an apparently more interesting one. Your conference strategies should therefore be geared towards counteracting the tendency to re-live your teenage years. (I think some of the following suggestions come from a forwarded email I read years ago. They’ve stood up to empirical testing.)
- Arrange to meet people in advance. Don’t rely entirely on bumping into people by accident.
- If you have the option of going to dinner with some people now or hanging around a bit longer in the vague hope of eating with some more famous people later, go to dinner now.
- When you have the opportunity to introduce Bigwig A to Nobody B, do it in that order. Say “Bigwig, do you know Nobody?” rather than the other way around, because otherwise Nobody is forced to stammer “Well, uh, yes of course … um…”
- When talking to someone you do not know, always assume they are a faculty member, even if they do not look old enough to drive. Grad students will be flattered. Prickly professors will not get in a huff and use you in an anecdote later that evening.
- Be careful what you say in elevators. (I find this rule applies in life generally.)