Conferences and the Power of Networking

Pic: Working together to screen midden during last summer’s sARP field season, as a metaphor for the overall importance of teamwork in archaeology.

Full Disclaimer: This post is built entirely upon my own experiences with conferences (but they’re common experiences that many people report having).

Second Disclaimer: I know that not everyone is comfortable with approaching others, or comfortable in the general social interactions that accompany attending conferences.  You should never do anything you’re not comfortable with. What I want to encourage here is at least thinking about taking a step out of that comfort zone.


With conference season upon us, I thought it would be important to talk about how to use them to our advantage for networking, especially as students and/or early-career archaeologists.  They provide us with awesome launch-spots into the world of archaeology.  The fact that many archaeological conferences also include opportunities for drinking beer (i.e. pub crawls or pub nights) is simply an added bonus.

Conferences can definitely be intimidating places.  Even if you’re not presenting.  To sit in the presence of many names you recognize from publications you’ve read in your classes and/or for your own research is like our own nerdy version of being near a celebrity.  It can be awkward.  Do you talk to them?  What if they start asking you questions you can’t answer?  What if they turn out to be completely different from what you expected?  I’ve certainly seen the last situation play out a couple of times.  And I’ve heard of other stories of it happening.

That last point is actually super important.  Besides being part of the fun of going to a conference (getting the inside scoop on all the drama between researchers), for students thinking of going on to grad school this gives you a chance to actually meet the people you’re interested in working with and deciding ahead of time whether or not you can actually work together.  I strongly encourage students to get up and talk to the professors and/or archaeologists they’re interested in working with.  Start to build that relationship and connection early.  You might find out that you’re not actually interested in working with that person, which will save you a lot of trouble and anxiety down the road.  Or maybe you’ll find out that there’s someone else you’re interested in working with.  Maybe you’ll even hear about amazing projects or fields of research you had never considered before, giving you something new to think about and explore.  If you’re already in grad school, maybe other peoples research will be applicable to your own, paving the way for collaboration.  Never feel afraid to approach someone with questions.  Most of us are friendly, I promise.  I was at a conference in 2015, as the only CRM archaeologist in a room full of academic professors and students.  I stepped out of the room between presentations to grab a drink of water where I was approached by a student who was at the conference (but not presenting).  After explaining that she found me less intimidating than the professors, she wanted to know if she could ask me for a bunch of advice.  We ended up having a really great conversation and I (hopefully) steered her down some good paths towards the goal she had in mind.  But I’m definitely not the only presenter who would be willing to do this and if you’re a student with questions, always ask them!

Presenting at a conference is a whole other ballgame of intimidation.  Personally, I like giving presentations and public speaking, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t go through the same nervousness that everyone else does.  It can be scary putting your research out there.  What if someone challenges it?  What if someone completely disagrees with it?  On the

I’ll be giving a spoken presentation at the Canadian Archaeological Association’s 2017 conference in Ottawa/Gatineau

flip side, what if someone loves it?  What if someone has advice that can help it grow stronger? You should never feel afraid to put your name and your research out there.  You’ve worked long and hard at it, this is the reward at the end of that tunnel.  The ability to share that knowledge.  Plus, like I’ve just mentioned, you could get some really positive and useful feedback out of it to make it even better.  It also opens more doors to meet new researchers and possibly develop some really awesome collaborations.  If you’re not comfortable giving a spoken presentation, that’s totally ok, give a poster presentation instead.  I love making posters, I love the creativity that goes into putting them together.  Figuring out the right flow of diagrams and text boxes.  What kinds of colours I should use.  How big should it be?  (Look online for standard size information, though after being at the Archaeological Institute of America’s conference in January there seems to be a movement towards using supersized posters).  You don’t actually have to speak if you’re presenting a poster, you’re just required to stand beside it at certain times to answer any questions people might have.

What’s the common theme in what I’ve just written?  Meeting people!  Conferences allow you to meet new people, or in other words, to network!  That’s the real power of a conference.  Sure, you get to see some awesome presentations and posters, maybe pick up some new swag (some conferences have merchandise areas for books and other things), but the real importance is in networking.  Not only are you getting a chance to meet researchers you may be interested in, but you’re also putting your name out there.  You’re introducing yourself, your interests, your skills, and your knowledge.  You’re putting yourself onto everyone’s radar and opening yourself up to the endless possibilities that accompanies that.  And let’s branch out for a second to the digital sector.  I won’t go into too much detail here because that’s coming for a future post.  But through digital media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and blogs, you’re continuing to build your networks for the same reasons I’ve outlined above.  Conferences can be super expensive to attend, so take all the same advantage of digital media for networking.  A new trend actually is entirely digital conferences through Twitter.  There’s even an archaeological Twitter conference being proposed (the Public Archaeology Twitter Conference, #PATC1).  Through conferences and digital media aligned, the world is your oyster.  You could be invited onto a large project (happened to me).  You could meet your future school supervisor or employer (happened to me).  You could be invited to speak at another conference or event (happened to me).  You could be invited to contribute to blogs or other writing platforms (happened to me).

And perhaps most important of all, through networking and meeting new people you get

Working together to screen hydrovac mud in Edmonton, AB

to be part of a team.  Teamwork is at the heart of every archaeological project.  Archaeology is never successful when it’s attempted alone.  You need the support, skills, and knowledge from a vast variety of people involved in your projects, just as they need your support, your skills, and your knowledge.  Networking at conferences and online is the perfect opportunity to build that support system.  So, whether at a conference or online, never be afraid to ask questions and open a dialogue.  It’s a necessary part of being a successful archaeologist.

TL; DR Summary

Networking is a powerful tool that everyone should take afraid of.  Whether it’s at a conference or online, never feel afraid to introduce yourself, ask questions, and open a dialogue.  You never know what amazing opportunities may come out of it.

2017 Conferences to Keep in Mind

March – Society for American Archaeology – Vancouver

April – American Association of Physical Anthropologists – New Orleans

May – Canadian Archaeological Association – Ottawa/Gatineau

October – Canadian Association of Physical Anthropologists – Edmonton

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