Conference Rookies

December 08, 2008

Question: This is my first year on the job market, and I'll be attending the Modern Language Association convention this month in San Francisco. I'm not sure what to expect. The tales of those who've gone before me have only served to make me nervous. Any tips on how get the most out of a large conference and interview successfully there?

Jenny: If the thought of attending a large conference fills you with trepidation — whether it's the annual meeting of the MLA, the American Historical Association, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science — you are not alone. The task of presenting papers and interacting with professionals in your field can be daunting. When first-round interviews for faculty jobs are added to the mix, the atmosphere can be intense. For this month's column, we spoke with several new faculty members who gave us some useful tips about attending conferences.

Julie: One of the first worries of many junior scholars attending these meetings is financial — the costs of airfare, meals, and a hotel room add up quickly. One new faculty member said such costs are unavoidable and advised, "Resign yourself to spending more money than you'd like to." You will probably have to make plans to attend a conference long before you'll hear from institutions interested in interviewing you. So what happens if you spend more than you can afford only to find that you have no interviews? Should you cancel your trip?

Jenny: Not necessarily. If you've never attended a large conference in your field, it may be worthwhile to go. At the very least, getting a sense of what it's like will make you more comfortable and better prepared the next time around.

If you've attended big conferences in the past and are waiting to hear back from search committees, think carefully about how you can make the meeting useful whether or not you get any interviews. Make plans to meet colleagues at other institutions, ask an adviser to introduce you to other scholars in your field, attend talks that can help you move your own research forward, and talk with the editors of scholarly presses at the book expo about next steps for your work. Devising concrete ways to salvage the meeting can help you cope with the frustrations of the job market.

Julie: For those of you who do have interviews lined up, we've heard differing advice as to how much time you should dedicate to conference activities. It can be challenging to know what's right for you, especially if it's your first time attending a major meeting. For some would-be academics, giving a presentation, planning to attend others' talks, and meeting with potential colleagues can be energizing and can enhance their interview performance.

Jenny: Other new faculty members felt their performance was stronger when they focused on interviewing and didn't participate in other conference activities. One faculty member told us, "I never gave a paper at the same conference where I was interviewing, and I don't think I ever would. You don't need any extra pressure when you want to concentrate on the interviews. In fact, both times I stayed as far away from the conference itself as I could. I just went to the assigned rooms at the time of the interviews and otherwise kept myself busy in the host city, getting together with friends from grad school for coffee and dinner."

Again, what works for you may not work for someone else. It's important to have a sense of how you respond to stressful situations, and decide which strategy is the best fit for you.

Julie: Many new professors said the most useful advice they can offer focuses on the basics — things that junior scholars might forget in their desire to make a good impression. "The most important advice I can think of is kind of mundane," said one faculty member. "Wear comfortable clothing and comfortable shoes. Seriously. And make sure you eat properly."

Another new assistant professor said, "I came with a supply of PowerBars and string cheese, which was very helpful the day I had four interviews in a row and didn't have time for lunch."

We strongly suggest candidates follow that advice. Feeling physically comfortable, in addition to being mentally prepared, is an important factor in successful interviewing. So if you have an interview scheduled, try on your clothes and shoes well beforehand, to make sure you're comfortable. In the weeks leading up to and during the conference, be sure you're taking care of yourself physically, so that you're feeling your best.

Jenny: Once you begin hearing from search committees, schedule your interview times at the conference carefully. We've heard from many job candidates who've regretted scheduling six interviews in a day, or not taking into account the time it would take to get from one hotel to another.

That assistant professor who had four interviews in one day said, "I scheduled them with at least an hour between each, which turned out to be a good thing since the conference took place in three different hotels, with a 15-minute walk between them."

As departments start contacting you to set up conference interviews, keep track of the details — the time, the location, the names of your interviewers and your contact person. And if a department doesn't offer any of those details, ask. Keep the information handy during the conference.

Julie: At large meetings, many interviews are held in hotel rooms or in the sitting area of hotel suites. Because of that, departments may not be able to give you a precise location in advance. That's why it's so important to clarify the details with your interviewers beforehand. Make sure you know how to contact them before your interview. And make sure you're on time, early even. You don't want to arrive at your interview out of breath and disheveled. We cannot stress enough how important it is to give yourself a nice cushion of time between interviews.

Jenny: One candidate who found a job her second time on the market said that she learned a lot that first year, when she had one conference interview followed by a campus interview. The second year she was a stronger candidate and had six conference interviews and one campus interview afterward. During that round of six interviews, she found that having her materials organized and with her made her look like a more serious candidate: "I brought a binder with extra materials I'd selected for each institution, mostly sample syllabi and teaching evaluations. That's a nice thing to have, because it makes you look organized, serious about the job, and it gives you a concrete way to talk about teaching.

Julie: That same candidate offered another important piece of advice: She made several gaffes at her first conference interview but was enthusiastic about the position and well informed about the institution, which, she said, was a key reason why it invited her for a campus interview.

Jenny: When it comes to interviewing, practice makes perfect. You may have a good deal of success your first time on the market. Or you may find that this year's convention will be one to learn from, in terms of both your interview performance and your ability to handle the stressful atmosphere of an academic conference.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of graduate-student career development at Columbia University's Center for Career Education. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press), reissued in an expanded edition last summer. If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to