Networking at Large Conferences | Advice from Professors

Larry David

Michael Burawoy

True ASA story: I (Meg) am riding up the escalator in Caesar’s Palace, when I notice that just about four moving steps behind me is Larry David. I’m star-struck. And torn: Should I alert him that the stairs up which he is traveling lead only to a conference full of sociologists and not to the nearby Coliseum at which his old pal Jerry Seinfeld would perform that very evening? I opt not to say anything; perhaps this is a private back-route he’s been told to use avoid people like me. But when we get off the escalator, Larry David heads the same wayI’m headed: to the opening plenary of the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. And he’s heading there quickly, charging by me as if I were standing still, entering the giant conference room, beelining for the front, and taking the stage. Larry David does ASA! Only moments later, “Larry David” is introduced as Michael Burawoy, as in the (Burawoy 2005) citation that I snuck into as many paragraphs of my second year paper as I possibly could. I missed my opportunity to talk to Michael Burawoy. Rats!

I leave the plenary and head down the escalator. And lo and behold, just about four moving steps behind me is Michael Burawoy. And once, again I’m star-struck.

Now even if I had thought of something to say there on the escalator, I know I really wouldn’t have been “networking” with Michael Burawoy. But whether the conference goers I meet are superstars or just super cool people to have conversations with, “networking” at huge conferences is daunting. So we solicited some thoughts from the pros (the profs) about their conference experiences, and about what they’ve found to make a productive meeting with colleagues (thousands of them) old and new:


1) Once you know generally what your interests are, find groups with whom you can interact — thereby strengthening greatly your social network.

2) Join regional and/or national professional associations that reflect these interests.

3) Once there, if possible, join sections or smaller groups which make attending larger meetings more manageable, pleasant, and productive.

4) Attend these smaller group social gatherings and/or business meetings; don’t be afraid to volunteer to participate in their activities whatever they are (e.g., being a student representative or organizing a session for a forthcoming meeting).

5) Bug your mentor (or faculty who share your interests) to introduce you to people at meetings and/or get you hooked up with opportunities to be involved in them.

6) Agentic behavior (on your part) and a certain amount of self-promotion are necessities!


You want develop a 30 second, 1, 2, and 5 minute statements about your work. For the 30 second statement, what would you say if you were on an elevator with a scholar whose work is similar to your own? Write the statements down and revise them over time.


Back in the days when I taught Contemporary Theory, and Robert Merton was regarded as a contemporary theorist, I used participation patterns at professional meetings to exemplify the difference between manifest and latent functions (I am an unreconstructed functionalist). People get department support to give papers at professional meetings. That’s the manifest function. Most of the important work of staying at the cutting edge of your field (and of getting/changing jobs) is accomplished in informal conversations with others in your field. That’s the latent function. The latter requires the former because the department won’t give you support to go to places like Las Vegas to have coffee or beer with colleagues and talk about your research.

Since my graduate school days at Chicago and my early faculty days at Michigan, mentors and senior colleagues have taken the responsibility of introducing me to the senior people in the fields in which I was doing research. I regard that as one of the tasks of mentorship. I have tried to do that with my own graduate students. The important lessons I have learned are:

— Do use professional conferences as venues for meeting people in the areas in which you work;

— Do not be hesitant to ask mentors and other senior faculty to make introductions;

— These relationships are generally easier to build at regional conferences or conferences of specialized research communities than at national or international conferences of major learned societies. People tend to be busier at the latter.

— When such introductions take place, be prepared with something to talk about, e.g., papers of theirs that you have read.

— This may elicit questions about what you are working on. Be prepared with answers.

— Have business cards with your contact information printed up. Ask for theirs. They increase the likelihood that contact will be maintained.

Thank you, professors!


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