Guidelines for Meeting with Experienced Scholars at a Conference

For graduate students or those new to a field, one of the most anticipated parts of going to conferences is meeting with other scholars from the field. Knowing that all those people – whose books you have read, lectures you have listened to, and ideas you have benefitted from – will be there is exciting. But, this is also a very anxious experience because we often don’t know how to go about meeting them! Can I really just contact them and expect them to meet with me?

In this post, I want to outline how to meet with scholars at a conference. This is from my own experience (read failure) and I would love feedback from others.

Three Types of Meetings

It is important to determine what kind of meeting you expect with the person. Failure to do so can lead to some awkward moments.

1. Meet Them – This is the easiest encounter to pull off, and the easiest to ruin. Your real desire is to meet the person, with no real need to talk to them other than to say “Hi.” Be honest, the ultimate goal is to tweet your friends that you just met “So and So!” If this is the goal, and it is OK to admit it, do not contact them about meeting while at the conference just make it happen during the conference. Here are a few ways:

1. Check the conference schedule and find a session where they are involved. If interested, attend the session and before or after walk up and introduce yourself.

2. Find them at one of the main gatherings and introduce yourself.

3. Please be careful here, this starts to border on creepy! You see them at the conference center, hotel, dinner or wherever and want to approach them. So, you follow them discretely waiting for your chance to pounce. If you choose this route, a few suggestions: remember if you are doing it so are others; in this setting they just like you are busy doing something, even if it is just leaving; and get in and get out.

“Meeting them” is quite easy at a conference like SBLAAR. Just understand the goal – you just want to say you met them and there is no expectation of conversation or for them to even remember you.

2. Introduce Yourself – This level is also quite easy, but does require some planning. These people you want to talk with about your work, but only at a very basic level. For example, I am interested in the same topics or I have really benefitted from the broad scope of your work. In this encounter, your hope is not to have an in depth discussion but to open the door for further contact. Thus, you will need to do the following:

1. Contact them before the conference to set up a meeting time. This type of meeting will not take more than 30 minutes (15 minutes is probably the best).

2. Your initial contact should state you would why you want to meet (Example from an email I sent this year, “I would enjoy having the opportunity to talk about the common objections to the use of cognitive linguistics in biblical studies.”), and offer a few times that you can meet (this will show them how long you plan on meeting). Keep it short and to the point.

3. Before the meeting, prepare a few things: first, a one-or-two sentence explanation of you interests/research; a couple of questions that will allow them to opportunity to talk; if you don’t have a business card, something that you can hand them with your contact information; and finally ask about contacting them in the future for more conversation.

4. After the conference (with SBLAAR being week of Thanksgiving wait until the next week), send a follow-up email saying thanks for the time and with your contact information one more time. Also, mention that you look forward to talking again.

“Getting introduced” is fairly easy at most conferences, but remember the point – to open up avenue for further discussion. Do not take much of their time, or try to accomplish more than getting acquainted. This has been one of my common mistakes, moving “in for the kill” to quickly. Take the long view and use these times to foster ongoing relationships.

3. Deep Discussion – The third level of meeting is the hardest…it takes time, a place conducive to discussion, and the most preparation. You should only try to have a couple of these during any one conference and it should probably be with those you are already acquainted.

1. Like above, contact the person and be specific about intentions.

2. Once meeting is set, follow-up (assume through email) with more information about meeting. Give your interests and specific questions you have for them.

3. At them meeting, be ready to remind them of material in previous contact and have an agenda prepared (can be as easy as list of prepared questions). It is OK to spend a few minutes catching up/getting to know but this is a meeting about something specific. You must be focused on getting your questions answered in the amount of time you have with them. Remember, the meeting is about getting their ideas not talking through your own. After all, your ideas will still be there when you get home! Also, it is your job to make sure to end the discussion on time. No matter how good the discussion is going, when the time is up offer the opportunity to leave! If they choose to stay all bets are off, but you do not want to be in the situation of getting shut down. It leaves a bad taste and makes it hard to contact them in the future.

This level of contact is hard because conferences are already a busy time. If you desire to meet with someone in this manner, contact them well in advance of the conference, secure a place that feel is conducive to meet, and offer, if able, to pay for coffee or meal.

Well, that is my advice. What has worked for you?

As for this year, I have zero of the first encounters (took care of my list at a conference early this year), 3 of the second encounters, and 2 of the third encounters.

And if you are going to SBLAAR leave a comment or send me a tweet, be a pleasure to meet you.

Approach for SBL National Conference 2012

I am trying a new strategy at the SBL National Conference this year…

Usually my approach to conferences has been to see what is offered in the sessions, pick those that interest me the most, and then use other time to hang with old friends. This method has always been enjoyable. Yet, it has also been frustrating, as I encounter so much stuff but much of what I “learn” is forgotten or ends up being interesting but not relevant.

This year I am taking a different approach and setting specific goals for the “learning” portion of the conference. Ultimately, it ended up being two goals but the intent is the same: I am going to focus on two very specific areas of my research and everything I do “officially” will help to accomplish these goals. The sessions I plan on attending are all related to these goals and each scholar I have contacted for a meeting is working on these two areas.

I am interested to see how it works out, but here are my thoughts as I prepare to leave this week.

1. It has made scheduling much easier. There is so much to do, to see, to hear at a conference such as SBLAAR it can be quite overwhelming and with no specific goal, I can (and have) get lost in the shuffle…hear quality paper after quality paper (OK they are not always quality!), and still have no real results for my efforts because there was no real purpose for attending the paper. I am still looking forward to attending the sessions, but I decided to only attend sessions that fit with my goals. A bit of a draconian stance, but at this point appreciated.

2. I am not the first to say this, nor will I be the last…it is OK to ask people to meet. If there is someone you want to meet, by all means contact them and ask to meet. After all they are free to say no, although I have yet to find one person who just said “No”. This year, one did say he was not attending, a couple instances unable to find times when we were both free, but even in these circumstances they offered to find other ways to converse. The overwhelming response, however, has been “Sure, when would you like to meet?” I am going to do a follow-up post on how to meet with scholars at a conference on Tuesday.

3. Planning this way has made me think about the conference. This may sound strange, but I often just show up and go with the flow! The money spent to go to the conference and the time away from my family can be a sacrifice, so need to do more than just wander around hoping to catch lightning in a bottle! In planning, I have found that my expectations for the conference are higher, but also realistic. Furthermore, it has freed up time to spend hanging out with old friends, and this time guilt free. After all, conferences are as much about catching up and refreshment as they are about research.

Projected SBL Schedule (#SBLAAR)

Saturday (November 17th):

9:00-11:30S17-120 –SBL Pauline Epistles Section: Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (MPW-192B)

1:00-3:30S17-202 -SBL African-American Biblical Hermeneutics Section: Grace and Ethnicity in Paul (MPW-179B)

4:00-6:30 – S17-327 –SBL Mind, Society, and Religion in the Biblical World: Cognitive Science of Religion (MPS-501BC)

Sunday (November 18th)

10:00-11:00 -Meet with Bonnie Howe (TBA)

1:00-3:30 -SBL Metaphor Theory and Biblical texts Consultations: Current Metaphor Theories and Their Applicability to Hebrew Bible and the New Testament Texts (MPN-427B)

5:00-6:00 -SBL Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity Section (MPS-104B)

6:30-8:00 -Dinner with Thorsten Moritz (TBA)

9:00-11:00 -Duke Reception (TBA)

Monday (November 19th)

7:30-8:30 -HBU Breakfast (TBA)

10:00-11:00 -Meet with Emerson Powery (TBA)

1:00-3:30 -SBL Cognitive Linguistics in Biblical Interpretation Section (MPN-131)

4:00-6:30 -SBL Pauline Soteriology Group: Paul and Jewish Identity (MPW-180)

Tuesday (November 20th)

9:00-11:30 -SBL Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom Section: Enslaved Persons as Persons (MPW-175C)