One of my intentions for the summer is to step up my networking. I want to reach out to more people, both those I know and those I don’t yet know, to have conversations about their work and mine. I’d like to know more about the professionals who work in and around universities, especially as it relates to graduate education. This means speaking with coordinators of graduate-level programming, career services folk, researchers and policy analysts, and independent consultants, among others. I’m already part of this broader community, and I’d like to learn more about it.
I had this intention vaguely in mind recently when I attended the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the annual gathering of more than seventy Canadian scholarly associations. I went to Ottawa because I was invited to speak at the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education’s graduate student pre-conference; I stayed to network.
When I was a graduate student myself, I never went to Congress. My doctoral research was in American and Russian history, so the Canadian Historical Association never had any draw for me or most of my colleagues. The first time I went to Congress was last year, when I was part of a panel discussion organized by Mitacs. I didn’t stay very long, travelling to and from St. Catharines, Ontario in one day. This year I lingered on after my presentation, originally planning on hanging out out with my parents. Instead, I spent most of three working days at Congress.
What’s striking for me about this experience is how little time I spent at actual conference sessions, and how much networking I did instead. During my PhD student days, going to a conference meant, well, going to the conference: attending sessions, sitting through lunch-time keynotes and dinner-time award presentations, joining in evening group activities. When coffee breaks ended, I hurried into a session. I remember once skipping an afternoon to go to the Columbus Zoo. I felt like I was breaking a rule — and probably only did it because a professor of mine instigated the outing. I realize now that I treated conferences like they were courses: a graduate student doesn’t simply skip classes; why would I act differently at a conference?
I’m embarrassed to write this, because I suppose many — most? — of you will be shaking your head at me. “Conferences are for networking, silly!” Well, I didn’t fully grasp what this meant until now, not really. I thought networking was when you showed up and paid attention, then conversed intelligently in the breaks. I didn’t understand the importance of the beer tent. Yes, Congress has such a thing. (Ha! Another thing I didn’t know about.)
Now that everyone’s back home, I’ve got follow-up emails to write and conversations to schedule. I’ve learned an important lesson: Going to a conference means so much more than going to the conference.