Conferences as Crossroads

Early in my career, I thought of academic conferences as being primarily about scholarship. I was so proud to have that first paper accepted for presentation, as I felt like a genuine member of my professional guild for the first time.

Very quickly, however, I came to understand that conferences are important crossroads for job searches too. A few anecdotes from over the years:

  • A search-committee member heard my presentation. I had made the committee’s short list the previous week, and after the session, he asked me to do a first interview that evening over dinner. I didn’t get the job, but it was an invaluable learning experience.
  • A search-committee member caught me at a reception and gave me behind-the-scenes insight into the impact of a budget change that had intruded into their deliberations. It was the first time I ever understood that sometimes searches butt against fiscal realities that have nothing to do with you.
  • In an elevator, I realized that a member of a department to which I had applied for an open position was standing next to me. I kept my mouth shut and kicked myself later for missing the opportunity to make a personal connection.

The best one, though:

  • A co-panelist served as a department chair and had an unexpected last-minute opening several months later. He called and asked me to send him a résumé, which led to my first tenure-track position.

When an applicant crosses paths with someone connected to a search at a conference or other gathering, it’s a dickens of a dilemma. How much to speak, if at all? What kinds of questions can be asked without seeming obnoxious? The same can go for search-committee members who recognize names on passing name tags. Should they remain silent? Should they be chatty and provide a little information on where the search process is?

I, for one, always enjoy it when applicants catch me at a meeting and introduce themselves. I don’t like it, however, when they turn into high-pressure self-salespersons, and I really don’t like it when they press me for details. First impressions last, and these coincidental conversations can go a long way toward moving an application either up or down in the proverbial stack.

This cuts the other way as well, as search-committee members can be haughty or even obnoxious, and turn off a promising candidate.

What advice would you offer to job candidates or search-committee members about how to handle conference crossroads?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user University of Exeter.]

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