A Grad Student Online Starter Kit

If you’re starting an academic graduate program, such as a Ph.D., and you’re hoping to eventually finish that degree with a meaningful reputation in your area of expertise (which is a prerequisite for academic jobs), then day 1 is a great time to unpack your grad student online starter kit. Here’s what I think a Ph.D. student should do in his or her first or second year of graduate school to get the train moving down the tracks.

1. Write a CV. If you don’t already have one, it’s time to start one, even if you don’t think you have “enough” to put on paper about yourself. You’ll flesh it out over time, and having the structure in place on paper will get you in the habit of thinking of your work as part of a larger project to build your reputation and expertise in a certain topic. I have a whole post on CVs. Make sure your CV stays updated and posted online for the world to find.

2. Make a website. Seriously. Make one. Many universities have robust profiles for their grad students, but even still, it’s important for you to control your own website where you can update your profile, post about the work you’re doing, and make yourself available for consulting opportunities. And you get to keep the website after you graduate and move from institution to institution. Get a free WordPress site, a Google Sites page, or something simple like that. Install Google Analytics if you can (it’s free). That way you can be a creeper and obsessively track where all your visitors come from. Buy a URL that represents your name and redirect it to your WordPress site and you’re all set.

3. Make a plan for posting your working papers online. It may seem scary to put your half-baked ideas out there, but the work of an academic is all about making ideas public and enduring brutal feedback. It’s really the only way you’ll ever be able to improve your ideas, too. Publishing your in-progress working papers somewhere public can also lead to early citations of your work and credit for your ideas being first on the market. Sometimes working papers get cited hundreds of times before they get published in a scholarly journal. Lakhani, Jeppesen, Lohse & Panetta’s HBS working paper is a good example of this phenomenon. You can always just post your paper on your own blog and label it “working paper – do not cite without permission” or something, which encourages people who read it to contact you first to see if there’s a more current published version to cite. Or you can start a collective blog with some colleagues and publish working papers there, or you can see if your supervising professor’s lab or collective has a website he/she would be willing to post your working paper to. Some universities have working paper series (this is common in professional schools around the country – business, public policy, urban planning). Some schools also subscribe to services like Berkeley Electronic Press’ online tools, which allow groups to start working paper series (and journals, by the way). But the most common platform where some of the largest and most widely read working paper collections can be found is the Social Science Research Network. arXiv (pronounced “archive”) is kind of like an SSRN for computing and science folks, too. You would be very wise as a grad student to start a presence on SSRN and/or arXiv and start pushing your working papers there.

4. Make a Google Scholar profile. These days, it’s all about IMPACT when it comes to research. As the Internet has allowed new journals to blossom and research to become accessible to people all over the world more quickly and easily, the idea that you demonstrate the value of your work by saying you published it in the “top” journal or the “most respected” journal in your field just doesn’t cut it anymore. You’re better off demonstrating the impact of your research by showing how much of an impact it actually has had on scholarship. That is, how often are people citing your work, at what rates, and in what disciplines? Google Scholar tracks citations for you. It’s not perfect, of course. Small-time conference papers and conference proceedings are probably overrepresented in Google Scholar’s tracking, and citations that appear in books are very much underrepresented, but as a general estimate, it’s a good way to show that, indeed, people are citing your work. Saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal]” is impressive, especially if you’re a grad student. But saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal] and it’s already been cited 10 times in other journals according to Google Scholar” is WAY more impressive. It shows your work is actually impacting the field rather than showing your work is important merely because it is basking in the aura of some traditionally recognized “top” journal (which may or may not actually be having an impact these days). I’m of the somewhat controversial opinion that someone who is getting their article cited is having more of an impact, no matter how top-tier or bottom-tier the journal their work appears in, than someone who has published in a so-called top-tier journal and has not been cited very widely. I have never heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. Most of the time, when people disagree with me on this point, their arguments are founded on nostalgia, tradition, and other feel-good “evidence” that members of a discipline’s old bloc spew forth in knee-jerk response. So do yourself a favor and make a Google Scholar profile and start tracking your citations. (And hooray for me – I got to 600 citations today!)

5. Determine your online thought leadership strategy and do it. Yep, you’re a brand, whether you like it or not. Academics are seen as experts in something, and they get hired as professors because they bring with them a unique identity as an authority or leader on a given topic, however narrow that topic may be. To position yourself as a thought leader on your area of expertise (or, if you’re a grad student, as an emerging, aspiring thought leader), you need to start making your expertise known and trusted online as much as in person. You can do this by getting on some social networking sites and by blogging regularly on topics squarely in the center of your expertise or on topics of tangential relation to your area of expertise. You don’t need to be on every social media tool – this is a common misconception. Just do one or a few social media tools really, really well. If you choose Twitter, then tweet a LOT, and keep it professional and focused (Guy McHendry’s Twitter account is a good example of a focused, thought-leading grad student studying national security, privacy, cultural studies, and other topics). If you choose LinkedIn, then really take advantage of LinkedIn by getting your profile to 100% completeness and using LinkedIn groups effectively. Just find something and do it well. It’s perfectly fine to inject your personality, your sarcastic humor, or whatever into your social media presence (social media is social after all!), but just be mindful to keep your extreme opinions and any pictures of you doing keg stands hidden on your Facebook account or something. Once you start getting papers presented at conferences or published, too, make sure Wikipedia includes citations to your work on the appropriate entry pages. Some people think this is vain, but it’s not – not any more vain than someone writing a traditional encyclopedia article about their areas of expertise for a print encyclopedia. Wikipedia is one of the most valuable places you can grow your thought leadership because it’s so widely read. Make a profile on Wikipedia and add citations to your work (and the work of your colleagues…it’s not ALL about you) as appropriate. Just have a bit of humility and remember that you’re not THE sole voice on a topic just because you’ve published an article on it…but the Wikipedians will surely correct you if you overstep your bounds.

If you do all these things in tandem and have all of these pieces hang together in a constellation that is “you” online, I am confident you’ll have established an online identity and a reputation as an emerging leader in your field by the time you graduate. This will help you get jobs, get you invited to contribute chapters to anthologies, get you invited to speak at conferences, get you media interviews, and land you paid consulting gigs. And it may even make you known to grant teams, who might be looking for someone like you to round out their multi-million-dollar grant application. And forcing yourself to publish bare-bones CVs and Google Scholar profiles may even spur you to be more productive in order to flesh these presences out a bit.

I say this from my own experience. I track what people click on on my website, and I know this stuff matters. It has worked for me. So do it. Consider this grad student online starter kit your first bit of homework in grad school.

Anything else I’m missing here in the starter kit? Leave your comments below.

How to Protect Your Time

One of the most common common phrases that came out of my colleagues’ mouths as I approached the end of graduate school and began life as a tenure-track professor at a research-intensive university was “be sure to protect your time.” Or it was some variation of that: “don’t take on too many service obligations–protect your time for research” or “protect your time–be sure your teaching doesn’t detract too much from your research.”

I’ve been asked to sit on a few “how-to” advice panels for graduate students, too, usually focused on the What to Expect After Grad School theme or the How to Manage Your Time as a Young Professor theme. On these panels, too, the common sentiment from fellow panelists seems to be to “protect your time.” A dean’s promise to “protect you in your first year or two” is a common sales pitch for hiring, too.

I have never liked this whole idea of protecting oneself from other obligations. I don’t like the protection-from-threat metaphor, and I especially dislike what it implies about the value of teaching and service in the academy. Contrary to the title of this post, this post is actually about what “protecting your time” means, and why you should largely avoid the “protect your time” advice.

Protection from What?

As a professor, you have to balance the three-legged stool of research, teaching, and service (note: three-legged objects always inherently balance. Things with four or more legs tend to wobble when they are out of alignment…but anyway). In a research-intensive university, such as the one I work for, the expectation is that you should spend the majority of your time doing research, less time on teaching, and the least amount of time on service. At a regional state school, teaching and research obligations may be more equal, and at liberal arts schools or community colleges, teaching will probably take a front seat. At a research-intensive university, I’ve heard all kinds of percentages for how much time you should devote to research, teaching, and service, from 85%, 10%, 5%, respectively, to 50%, 30%, 20%.

Because so much of your tenure case at a research-intensive university is based on the research you’ve done, it makes sense to focus your energies in this area. It is true that you never really feel like your teaching is perfect, no matter how many times you’ve taught a course or how prepared you are for each lecture, and so in that sense teaching can come to dominate a lot of your time. And service is kind of a constant thing that you can get drawn into, as there are always committees that need members and journal articles to review. When people talk of protecting themselves so they can focus on research, they are mostly talking about the threat of teaching and service on their research time. Ick.

Say Yes, Because Yes Brings Opportunity

The actor Rob Lowe was interviewed last spring about his success. The stand-out point in the article is that he has learned that saying “yes” is the best way to open doors professionally. Here’s my favorite line from this interview:

“Yes is the beginning of the road. And the road hopefully leads to you staying relevant.”

When you say “no” to things, you’re turning down opportunities. You know that cheesy quote about how you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take? It’s true.When you’re asked to teach a new course, you may see it as a burden because you’ll have to do all this prep work to get up to speed on how to teach the course. But really it’s an opportunity to brush up on some stuff you may have forgotten about, an opportunity to teach a new stream of students you don’t normally get a chance to teach (i.e., different majors, underclassmen), and an opportunity to broaden your teaching portfolio, which will only make you more valuable to your department in the long run.

When you’re asked to serve on a search committee to hire a new professor, you may see it as a burden because search committees take a lot of time, require a lot of poise, and can sometimes lead to a lot of conflict through tough debates with colleagues. But, really, serving on a search committee is an opportunity to have a say in who your future colleague will be, an opportunity to shape the trajectory of your department long-term, and an opportunity to get to know colleagues at a deeper level, even if that does mean getting into some arguments with them over who to hire.

Teaching a new course, serving on a search committee, advising a student club, reviewing papers for a journal – all of these things require a lot of time, but they bring tremendous opportunities. They don’t eat into your research time. Rather, they can enrich your research if you know how to cull the value out of these non-research opportunities.

Ultimately, too, professors – like actors – are just hoping to stay relevant. They want to be seen by their peers as contributing in fair ways to a department culture and continuing to innovate in the classroom and publish groundbreaking research. Saying “yes” more often provides many more opportunities to stay relevant and useful.

Say Yes, Because Saying No is Selfish

I cringe when some colleagues say you should only put enough effort into your teaching so that you’re not a total disaster in the classroom. And I also cringe when colleagues say you should say “no” to as much service as you can, unless you are asked to serve in high-profile, powerful committee roles or if the scope of service work is ultra-specific to what your research interests are.

No one gets everything they want, and professors have a reputation as out-of-touch prima donnas already. Saying “no” to teaching and service obligations is outright selfish, in my opinion. It shows you think you’re above your colleagues when it comes to pitching in or doing your fair share of the work. It shows you think your research is more important and/or deserves more time and attention than everyone else’s work. And it shows you want to stay in your bubble and avoid opportunities to grow and develop and reach outside your domain.

But at a much higher level, especially for professors working at public universities, saying “no” is a waste of taxpayer money. Professors are civil servants in many ways. They are charged with the responsibility of educating the citizens of a state to be competent employees and critical thinkers. You can’t produce great students if you don’t put serious effort into your teaching. The taxpayers also expect professors to be collegial, to be efficient (as any government agency is expected to be), and to work hard. You can’t make the wheels turn in an academic organization if professors are always opting out of service. Professors are not independent contractors who have been blessed with a life of introspection and self-serving intellectual exploration. Professors are, at their core, teachers and members of cohesive organizations. They profess what they know, and they serve citizens as much through public service as through publication and the creation of knowledge.

Professors have very comfortable lives (well, the tenure-track and tenured ones do, at least. Adjuncts are still chronically underemployed, but that’s another post). They make good livings, they get summers off, they get to be around young people in well-maintained buildings and campuses, and, after tenure, it’s nearly impossible to fire them for speaking out in any way they see fit. For these great occupational comforts, professors owe it to the people to be productive, to burn the candle at both ends if they have a crunch of research to do in combination with a taxing teaching load and service obligations. They do not get to shake off these responsibilities. They are supposed to find ways to take on more responsibilities.

When to Say No, or, How to Protect Your Time if You Really, Really Need to

In two years as a professor, I have said “no” twice. It was painful and difficult to muster the courage to say no, but I did it – once to teaching a class and once to advising a student’s graduate thesis. I taught an online class once, then said no to teaching it again because I very honestly couldn’t take on the burden. I was set to launch a journal, travel a bunch for conferences, and pursue more than one book publishing opportunity. I very truly had a full plate. The “no” to the student was a similar case at the same time. Plus I had never met the student before and didn’t see even the slightest overlap in our interests or my abilities to advise the project. So…two “nos” in two years. I consider that a pretty good record, actually.

Sometimes you do need to say no. If your fate depends on having a certain number of publications on your CV and you’re far from reaching that goal, then it’s fine to say no just a little bit in order to pour more time into research. This still does not mean it is OK to say no to everything you simply aren’t interested in. It means that if you’re behind in your work, then you need to focus on your work. But there may be a deeper problem here. If you feel like you are running on all cylinders and saying no to teaching and service obligations and you’re still not being as productive as you need to with your research, then maybe you should reconsider being at a research-intensive university. Or maybe you need to start letting your work life eat into your personal life. I’m serious.

If you do need to say “no,” though, I recommend you be proactive about it rather than reactive. Let your dean or some more senior mentor colleagues know you’re struggling to get your research done and that you need to teach the same prep again next semester. Or that you can’t really take on anything else for the next few months. This lets your dean or your mentors know in advance you may be struggling, and it can spur them to action to figure out ways to help. It also demonstrates that you’re in control of what you’re doing, you’ve assessed your productivity, and you’ve come to a decision that you need to say “no” in order to stay productive on the research front. This is better than the reactive approach, which is you saying “no” when asked to do something and seeming like you’re complaining or weaseling out of something when the time comes.
As always, this is just my advice, not some set of rules that governs all departments out there. The point of this post is to start encouraging a healthier discussion of the “three-legged stool” of professor life and get away from the phrase “protect your time.” It’s also a call to consider your duty to your colleagues and the public when you decide what work you will and won’t take on, and how many opportunities you may be missing when you say “no.”

Defining Online Community Management

[This is a re-post from the Culture Digitally blog. Enjoy!]

New technologies make new economies, and new economies make new jobs. As a response to this, some of the most forward-thinking academic programs aim to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and more programs should follow their lead. Students of strategic communication–a catch-all term that includes public relations, advertising, integrated marketing communication and the like–should take note of a whole new class of jobs that has emerged in recent years focused on the effective management of online communities (see, for example, the Google Lunar X PRIZE’s recent job posting for an “experienced online guru” to manage the project’s many social media presences).

I predict we will see many more of these jobs that fall under the broad umbrella of “online community management,” and I offer this post as a first attempt to define this emerging profession and make a case for the relevance of strategic communication planning in this new domain.

Let’s take a look at “online community management” word by word:

  • Online: Online community management happens online. It may include offline, face-to-face or phone work, but it is, at its core, work that takes place via the Internet. Coordinating online stakeholders and customers is qualitatively different from coordinating face-to-face stakeholders and customers. Online communications can take place at far quicker speeds, across larger geographical expanses, asynchronously or in real-time, and under the veil of anonymous or pseudonymous cover. The volatile flows of the online mediascape require a different set of skills.
  • Community: Communities are both real and imagined. They have their own internal governance structures, lingo, and norms. They are simultaneously collective wholes with a common vision and interconnected individuals with specific needs. Members in the community may also come and go without notice, and online communities may collapse entirely with a mass exodus of participants.
  • Management: Management implies a strategic, purposeful coordination of resources to meet specific objectives. Managers are both secretaries and shepherds, taking note of the community’s needs and wants while moving the group toward a common goal. Effective strategic management also requires research, planning, evaluation measures.

The Centrality of Strategic Communication in Online Community Management

Relationships between an organization and its stakeholders (customers, clients, donors, employees, etc.) are usually “strongest when they are mutually beneficial and characterized by ‘win-win’ outcomes” (Heath & Coombs, 2006, p. 5), when they are symmetrical and two-way in the flow of communication (J. E. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992; L. A. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992), and when they are at the core of strategic communication practice (Ledingham, 2003).

The strength of seeing project and organizational management functions through the lens of communication is the emphasis on process rather than on preparations and outcomes or inputs and outputs. Strategic communication, then, involves investing in the process of maintaining relationships with stakeholders in order to achieve management goals. Because so many companies and nonprofits (and even government functions) rely on the maintenance of healthy, productive, and sometimes sizeable online communities, strategic communication is an apt framework for understanding how organizations can maintain relationships with these communities.

Generally, strategic communication practice follows a common campaign process. Described through a variety of acronyms, including PIE (Planning, Implementation, Evaluation) (Bobbitt & Sullivan, 2009) and RACE (Research, Action, Communication, Evaluation) (Marston, 1963), I prefer the granularity of Parkinson and Ekachai’s (2006) ROSTE method for strategic communication planning: Research, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, and Evaluation. Adopting a ROSTE approach ensures that strategic communication practitioners follow a deliberate, step-by-step process in the planning, execution, and ongoing maintenance of a project. This approach can work for the building and maintenance of online communities, too. Here’s how:

  • Research is an important first step – and an ongoing concern – for any online community manager. He or she should know the background of the community (demographics, etc.), its motivations, its history, and so on. He or she should also know about other case studies in online community growth and management, in order to learn the lessons of other practitioners and communities. Discovering this information requires undertaking situational analyses (e.g., SWOT analysis, social/political/economic analysis), gathering secondary/background resources, and conducting original empirical studies of the community.
  • Objectives should always be in place and should be revised regularly to respond to situational changes and organizational goals. Objectives should always be measurable and have defined time frames, and they should be informed by research. An example of a measurable objective: “To grow the online community by 20% in the next 3 months.”
  • Strategies are the ways in which the online community manager will approach these objectives. This includes overall messaging or plans of attack. Strategies are crafted to meet the objectives, should be grounded in research, and should involve creative problem solving.
  • Tactics are the on-the-ground methods for implementing the strategies (in order to meet the objectives, which are based on research. See how it’s all connected?). Tactics are the tools and means for executing the process.
  • Evaluation is as important as any other step in the process. Since objectives are always measurable, evaluation plans should seek to assess whether objectives were met. Evaluation might entail passive data gathering (e.g., through Web analytics) or active empirical methods (e.g., surveys, interviews, content analysis). As objectives are evaluated as successful or not, these findings become part of the future research file, and the cycle begins again. Though a linear or cyclical process described here, these processes are frequently smashed together, are iterative, and are constantly being revised to meet changing circumstances. The point is to remember that it’s a deliberate process with discrete components that connect to each other.

Tools of the Trade

Online community managers make use of a number of tools/tactics to do their job effectively. These include using message boards and chat spaces (anywhere the community members are communicating), using the tools of traditional media relations (press releases, etc.), and using customer service techniques for dealing with issues in the community in rapid fashion. Tools also include research and evaluation tools, such as social media monitoring software (e.g. Radian6), Web analytics (e.g., Google Analytics, Omniture), and a whole host of research methods (e.g., archival work, surveys, interviews, focus groups, online ethnography, case studies).

Why Good Online Community Managers Matter

Online communities are bubbling with creative potential. Online communities may be collectively intelligent, too, able to accomplish more than a host of individuals working alone might. It’s important for online community managers to know what motivates these communities, what their potential is, and how they can leverage these communities for business purposes or for the public good. We see this taking place today in crowdsourcing arrangements, in public participation programs for governance, and in a number of other co-creative activities.

Online community managers have a duty to make the best of these communities, and I believe the perspective of strategic communication has a lot to offer this emerging profession.


Bobbitt, R., & Sullivan, R. (2009). Developing the public relations campaign: A team-based approach (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Grunig, J. E., Grunig, L. A., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). The excellence theory. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds.), Public relations theory II (pp. 21-62). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). Excellent public relations and effective organization: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Heath, R. L., & Coombs, W. T. (2006). Strategic relationship building: An ethical organization communicating effectively. Today’s public relations: An introduction (pp. 1-40). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Ledingham, J. A. (2003). Explicating relationship management as a general theory of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 15(2), 181-198.
Marston, J. (1963). The nature of public relations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Parkinson, M. G., & Ekachai, D. (2006). International and intercultural public relations: A campaign case approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

It’s that time of year when students ask teachers and employers for recommendation letters. Well, it’s always that time of year, isn’t it? References are important, whether you’re hunting for a job, internship, scholarship, or a spot in grad school. There’s a right way to ask someone to vouch for you, and I hope this post makes your future reference-asking go more smoothly.

References or Recommendation Letters?

Many jobs/internships/scholarships/schools may require you to provide the contact information for any number of references (if they don’t say a number, you can always ask what they’d prefer, but the default is usually three) rather than to provide full letters of recommendation. This is ideal, I think, because it’s less of a drain on the whole of society than having people write full letters, especially for highly competitive programs. Let me explain what I mean by “drain.” When I was applying for professor jobs–and I applied to quite a few–most of the schools required three full letters of recommendation. Now, in this job market, any given professor job may get 50 or more applicants. Some search committee/employer will have to sort through these applicants, and they will probably make a short list of 10 or fewer applicants they think are worthy based on their resumes/CVs. It is only at that point that the committee will actually turn to the letters to read them. So what does this mean for, say, the other 40+ people who weren’t shortlisted? It means that each of their three recommendation letters essentially goes to waste. That’s 120 letters. That’s 120 different people out there who spent maybe as much as an hour preparing and writing your letter of recommendation. That’s 120 hours of human intellect and labor wasted. It’s a big drain on society in general. I much prefer organizations that only ask for the contact information of references up front. This is much easier to provide (i.e., it only involves the person providing the recommendation to say “yes, put me down as a reference” initially), and it’s a lot more respectful of people’s time than the full letter charade. The reality is that employers will probably call these references anyway for additional commentary beyond the letter they wrote, so might as well just cut the letter part out entirely and stick to the phone calls.

But I digress. Back to my point.

Some application processes ask for a list of references, and some ask for full letters. Either way, you need to ask the person who is recommending you if they’re comfortable doing so. This means you need to get prior approval to use their name before you start spraying your application around on Monster.com. And if they give you full access to use them as a reference widely, it’s still a nice gesture to send them a quick list of jobs you applied for. That way, when the recommender gets a call, they have some kind of clue that it’s coming. Full letters of recommendation require a lot more work on your part. That’s what the rest of this post is for.

Asking for a Recommendation

When you approach someone to write a letter of recommendation for you (or if you ask if you can list them as a reference on your application), you need to make sure you’re not just asking for “a letter.” You need to ask for “a positive letter.” This is a picky point, but there are some people out there that simply say “sure, I can write you a letter,” and then they write a lukewarm or even negative letter. After all, you didn’t ask them to write a positive letter, did you? (I know this is crappy, but it happens. It happened to me once, and I found out about it and learned my lesson.)

The best way to ask, I think, is to meet with the recommender and tell them a little about what it is you’re applying for and why you think you’re a good fit. You don’t need to put on a salesy pitch about why you’re the right fit for what you’re applying for (because they don’t get to make the decision, you know), but it’s important to give some kind of a rationale for why you’re pursuing the thing you’re pursuing. Then, actually ask the following: “I think you can speak to my strengths and my fit for this [scholarship/internship/school/job], and I would appreciate your support. Would you feel confident providing a positive letter of recommendation for me for this?” When you phrase it this way, you give the recommender the opportunity to answer you frankly. If they don’t feel confident writing for you because they think you suck, then you’ve given them the opportunity to tell you right then and there that they’re not up for the task. If they don’t feel confident writing for you because they feel that they don’t know enough about you, then you’ve given them the opportunity to ask you for more information before they agree to write your letter. And if they do feel confident writing a letter for you, then you’ve kind of boxed them in to writing only a positive letter, which is what you want.

The majority of the time, though, the person you’ve asked to write a letter for you likes you, respects your work, and they don’t have a problem vouching for you. Let’s move on.

Who to Ask

First and foremost, the people you ask to write letters of recommendation for you need to really know you. They need to be able to write a detailed, personal letter of support, not a generic letter that they write for all students. This means that if the best person to recommend you is a Ph.D. student who taught you in their class rather than some distinguished professor who you barely know, then you ask the Ph.D. student. It’s ideal not to have an entire slate of letter writers with “lowly titles,” but a detailed, personal letter from someone lower in the ranks is much more valuable than a generic letter from someone who has a big title or some kind of political prominence. And, of course, the ideal ideal scenario is to have a slate of letter writers who are both powerful/respected/have big titles AND who know you well enough to write a detailed letter.

Second, you want to aim for some breadth, too. If you’re applying for a graduate program, for instance, it’s OK to have a letter or two come from people NOT in higher education. If you have an employer who can write a good letter, include it. But if it’s for a graduate program, you definitely need at least one (and ideally a majority) of your letters from someone in academia. Try to build a collection of letters than can speak to your many strengths. If one recommender knows your research ability really well, one knows your teaching ability well, one knows your work leadership experience, and one has taught you in a class, then you have a great collection of letters that speak to the whole picture of who you are.

When I applied for professor jobs at research universities, I had letters from my dissertation advisor (who was kind of expected to write a letter for any professor job I applied to…it’s a red flag if your advisor doesn’t write you a letter), a professor from another discipline I had worked on a grant project with, a professor from yet another discipline who knew my research well, and a professor who knew my teaching and service very well. For professor jobs at teaching-oriented universities, I asked a slightly different crew to write for me, focusing more on my teaching abilities and less on my research prowess. Think of the image you want to put forward. Find the people to bring together to help you put forth than image. Have them write the letters.

When to Ask

As soon as possible. People need at least a week to write a letter of recommendation. Two weeks or more is preferred. And if you ask more than a month in advance, it’s worth following up closer to the deadline to remind them. Asking for letters less than two weeks before a deadline ain’t nice.

Be Organized

Once you’ve got some people on the hook to write letters, you need to get them the info they need. At minimum, this means sending them some information about the scholarship/school/job you’re applying for and instructions for where/how to mail the letter, including a deadline. Ideally, though, you should provide as much material as possible about the scholarship/school/job AND about yourself so that the letter writer can tailor their letter. Remember, the goal is for your recommenders to write detailed, personal letters, so let them know more about you and your reason for applying. Give them a copy of your application or goal statement or writing samples if you’re comfortable sharing that with them.

If you ask for multiple letters for various things you’re applying for, I also suggest providing the letter writers a spreadsheet or calendar with deadlines. When I asked for a bunch of letters when I applied for professor jobs, I sent each recommender an Excel spreadsheet listing details about each letter. For each letter, I provided the following information:

  • the name of the department and university I was applying to (e.g., University of North Carolina School of Journalism & Mass Communication)
  • the name of the actual position I was applying for (e.g., assistant professor public relations)
  • the contact person to address the letter to (e.g., “Dr. So-and-So, search committee chair” or if there isn’t a specific person listed, just “search committee members”)
  • the job description (e.g., a link to it if it was online)
  • a few notes about the position (e.g., insider info you may have, whether you met the employer at a job fair a few months ago, who you may know at the company, and so on)
  • a few notes about what you’d love the letter writer to say (e.g., I put things like “for this letter, I know they’re looking for someone with new media expertise in addition to public relation competence, so I’d love for you to really emphasize how my research addresses new media and society”)
  • who else I had asked to write a letter for me (this helps the letter writer see who else is writing for you. If they know, for instance, that you’ve asked someone else who knows your teaching skills better than they do, then they feel less pressure to cover that issue in their letter)
  • instructions for submitting the letter (e.g., an email address to send it to; an online system to upload it to; whether the envelope needs to be sealed, signed, and given to you to include in one large application packet; a mailing address if it needs to be mailed; and so on. Providing them a pre-printed envelope with postage on it is a nice touch, especially if you’re asking for tons of mailed letters from people, but generally your recommenders can spring for the stamp)
  • the deadline for sending the letter (and if it’s a “received by” deadline vs. a “postmark deadline,” you should explain this, too)

Following the Rules & Following Up

Follow all the rules for an application process. If they absolutely do NOT want more than three letters of recommendation, then don’t send four. But if they just simply say “three letters required,” then you shouldn’t necessarily feel boxed in to just three letters. If you think a collection of four letters speaks to your strengths the best, then send all four. But try not to send five or more for a three-letter application.

If your application and letters are submitted as part of an online system (which is increasingly common), then you can probably track your status to see if/when letters are uploaded and your application is complete. But if this is not the case, it is perfectly acceptable to inquire with the employer/scholarship/school whether the letters were received and your application is complete and valid. If you know all of your letter writers mailed their letters in a week ago and you haven’t heard from the employer/school/scholarship that they’ve received them and your application is good to go, it’s OK to shoot someone at that organization an email and ask. This isn’t an opportunity to sell yourself; it’s just an opportunity to innocently ask if your application was received in good order.

If you follow these guidelines for asking for a letter of recommendation, you’ll be in good shape. And I certainly know if more of my students used this format, I’d be in good shape. I’m interested to know if this information is helpful. Leave a comment here if this was useful for you.

Elements of a CV

Talking with some grad students over the past few months, I’ve made some off-handed comments like “put that on your CV” or “that’ll be good for the ol’ CV.” And I was surprised to hear responses such as “Heh. I don’t have a CV” or “yeah I’ll get around to making a CV if I ever have something to put on it.” These responses are problematic for grad students, I think, because it assumes one isn’t doing “CV-worthy” work yet or that one isn’t quite “advanced” enough to have “earned” the right to have a CV. I think every academic – including the newest grad student – needs to have a CV and needs to maintain that CV regularly. This post is my attempt to explain what a CV is, why you need one, and what should be included on it.


Who cares what the right terminology is regarding a CV. There are really boring debates on the interwebs about whether “curriculum vita” or “curriculum vitae” is the proper Latin spelling for CV. It essentially translates to “course of life,” a document that should track all that has been done relative to one’s academic career. You’ll see different spellings of CV in many venues, with even the most seasoned scholars differing on the spelling in official, published documents. It’s not worth worrying about. Just try to call it a “CV” as much as possible to avoid having to spell it. And then move on.


A CV is intended to be a single document that can explain everything you’ve been up to in the world of academia in an organized fashion. It is different from a resume (I’m too lazy to put the accent marks on “resume”) in at least four ways:

  1. CVs are exhaustive and lengthy and do not need to be confined to a page or two like resumes. The mantra of “no more than a page for a resume” makes no sense to an academic (and is making less and less sense these days to the business world), so don’t be shy about having a multi-page CV even as a grad student. Many senior scholars wind up with CVs upwards of 20-50 pages, depending on font and spacing. But who’s counting?
  2. CVs generally emphasize academic accomplishments and educational feats over professional experience. In a resume, you’re trying to demonstrate that you have the work experience necessary for a given job more than the theoretical or educational training. Thus, a resume will focus on past employment and professional highlights, often relegating academic achievements (e.g., degrees earned) to a few lines at the end of the resume. CVs usually feature degrees in the first or second part of the document and push professional experience deep into the document (except for professional-track professors, who are employed as academics precisely because of their professional experience. These folks have different looking CVs).
  3. CVs do not generally contain objective statements, references, or descriptions of job duties at various employers. Unless it’s absolutely necessary or it makes for an unusual story, CVs usually don’t detail the day-to-day job duties of a professional position. The position is simply listed. CVs also shouldn’t list references or people available to provide letters of recommendation, but some CVs do, especially CVs of those actively seeking employment. And, most certainly, CVs never contain objective statements like the ones seen at the top of professional resumes. Sometimes you see research statements or teaching interests and what-not, but not often.
  4. Lastly, CVs exist all the time, while resumes exist only when one is actively seeking employment. Resumes are constructed in a way that sells the individual to a potential employer, and the language in the document reflects this tone. CVs, on the other hand, chronicle the work of an academic all the time, so the tone may get a bit sales-y when someone is hunting for a new academic job, but generally CVs are objective lists of one’s accomplishments. Resumes are sales pitches, and CVs are detailed records.

When to Start a CV

You should start a CV now. Even if you’re a first-year master’s student, you have enough to start a CV, albeit a modest one. You can list the degree(s) you already have (your bachelor’s degree) and the one you’re pursuing (your master’s degree) in the education section of your CV. You can list courses you’re a TA for in a teaching section. You can list papers you’re working on for presentation or publication in your research section. And so on. Even if you don’t have much to put down, and much of it is speculative and your research “in progress,” at least you’re getting in the habit of keeping a record of your work. Being responsive to a CV and regularly updating it keeps you focused as well. I heard Danielle Endres say once that any time she puts in more than three hours working on anything, she finds a way to get it on her CV, whether through publication, submitting it to her undergrad alumni newsletter, or incorporating it as a handout in her classes. This is a good mindset for time management. If you’re pouring a bunch of time into something interesting, it better be a productive use of time in the end. If you find yourself never feeling like you have enough hours in the day and you spend countless energy working on various scholarly projects, and yet you’re not building your CV in a similar pace, then you’re not focusing your energy on being productive. Also, having a skeleton CV that has a section for service with nothing in it should encourage you to seek out some service opportunities to add to that section. Make the structure of your CV an agenda for your work and you’ll end up a balanced, productive scholar come job-hunting time.

Style of a CV

There is no right or wrong style for a CV, so long as you’re internally consistent and thorough and you make the document easy to navigate and read. Pick a citation style that makes some sense for your discipline (e.g., APA or MLA would be appropriate for communication folks; I like APA) and do it correctly throughout your document. CVs are plain, on white 8.5″ x 11″ paper, without any decorations or weird fonts or colors or photos (photos are sometimes appropriate if you’re an artist or something, but in that case you’ll have a portfolio anyway).

Elements of a CV

The best way to make a CV is to find a CV or two that you like. Pick a scholar you admire and mimic their CV format. I initially created my CV in the style of Helga Shugart’s and Brian Ott’s CVs. Be consistent in the way you list your accomplishments chronologically. For instance, if you want your most recent publications to be first in the list, list everything else in your CV in reverse chronological order as well. Reverse chronological order makes the most sense to me, because, after all, when you’re a senior scholar and your latest publications are a dozen pages into your CV, it’s going to look weird. So here are some sections for your CV, with some commentary about each one:

  • Top matter. The top of your CV should have your full name, as well as any nickname you go by. This name should be the same one you use in publications, so if you go by “Daren C. Brabham” in publications, make sure the “C.” is at the top of your CV too. Also at the top, you should include your contact information. Phone, office/mailing address, and email address are a must, and social media screen names, Skype names, and other new media handles are becoming common sights now too. It is a good idea to include a date to indicate when the CV was last updated. This can go in the top matter, in the header, in the footer, or at the end of the CV entirely. I think it’s best to have this date visible somewhere on the first page for the benefit of the reader. Don’t include personal information, such as marital status, race, a photo, nationality, birthdate, gender, and so on. This is generally not acceptable in the U.S. (though it is more common in Europe and elsewhere). This is especially true if you’re follwing a style guide (e.g., APA) that is strict about gender neutrality, having research stand on its own merits, etc.
  • Academic positions (optional). This section is often first for scholars who are beyond grad school and have some positions to actually list here. Fully tenured folks, deans, department chairs, and those professors with affiliations to various labs and groups generally have enough to include in this section. Each line in this section should include the position (e.g., Assistant Professor), the department, the university, and the dates served, and each line should be consistent in style. If it’s a current position, put somethig like “2006-present” or “2008 – ” to indicate that you’re currently serving in this role.
  • Education section (a must). The education section should list all degrees earned and should list any degree currently being pursued. The name of the degree (e.g., “M.A.”), the subject or department, the university, and the dates should be listed. If a degree is currently being pursued, you should be sure to indicate that the degree has not actually been earned yet by listing “in progress” or “expected 2011” or some other text. Not including this information is misleading and inflates your CV. Because Ph.D. students have various stages and a long process of “done” to account for, notes about defense dates, thesis approval dates, and formal graduation dates should be listed when appropriate. If you had some kind of advisor or supervisory committee during your degree, you should list as least the chair or primary advisor’s name (and, in my opinion, everyone else too). If you wrote a thesis or dissertation, the title of it should be included too. A note about GPAs: Don’t include your GPA for a given degree, even if it was a 4.0. This is tacky, and, ironically, it’s a bit meaningless in the academic world. A GPA might have mattered in your bachelor’s work, but it doesn’t usually matter in the master’s or doctoral degrees. The first reason is that these degree programs have pretty inflated grades anyway. In my Ph.D. program, for instance, you were in danger of being booted out of the program if you made Bs, which means that anyone who completed the program had a really high GPA. Second, master’s and Ph.D. programs often have thesis hours included on transcripts as well, and, essentially, if you successfully defend the thesis, you wind up with a bunch of As for these many thesis hours, further inflating the GPA. And third, performance in class assignments has little bearing on one’s success as an academic. I ended up publishing most of the papers I wrote in the classes I got the lowest grades in, and these publications mattered a lot more than the added boost of the grade on my GPA. And, frankly, seeing someone list their GPAs feels like they’re boasting a bit, and for someone who has never had a perfect GPA since high school, I don’t care to know anyone else’s GPA. But if you want to show off your success in an academic program, you can do at least two things: 1) win some kind of award for your hard work. Nothing says “awesome master’s student” quite like a “top master’s thesis” award or “best grad student” award. Or, 2) list the relevant academic honor that accompanied your high GPA. At most schools, having a really high GPA probably means you graduated cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude, or you were part of some really prestigious honor society or part of a high dean’s list. You can certainly indicate these things in the education section (and/or in the honors and awards section) of your CV, like this: “B.A. summa cum laude” or “B.S. (Phi Beta Kappa)” or “M.A., valedictorian.” But just don’t put your GPA on your CV. Also, don’t put anything about your high school on your CV.
  • Research section (a must). If you’re gunning for a research-oriented academic job, or if you’ve got more stuff relating to research to be proud of, then the research section should come next in the CV. Otherwise, the teaching section comes next. The research section should be subdivided in a clear, logical fashion according to publications, presentations, grants, and works in progress. How this happens is entirely up to you, but try to emphasize the stuff that’s more important first (e.g., books are generally more important than journal articles, and all publications are generally more important than presentations). These should be listed as citations according to the style guide of your choice and should essentially look like a bibliography of your work. Items should be as complete as possible, including dates, volume/issue numbers, and, if possible, links to the works online. If your published work starts to become a mix of peer reviewed and invited work, you should indicate that somehow as well, either with asterisks and notes or by separating peer reviewed from invited work in the structure of the research section. Depending on the style guide, your “in progress” or “submitted for review” work may end up looking like completed, published papers. This is the case with APA style. Be careful with this, and always lean toward disclosing the truth about a paper (e.g., that it hasn’t been published anywhere yet or that it hasn’t even been fully written yet) rather than lean toward making the paper look like it’s already in print. Lastly, if a paper is under blind review at a journal or a conference, don’t list that your paper is under review at a particular journal on your CV. This defeats the purpose. You can always tell your tenure committee privately where your work is under review at, but don’t make this public if the process is supposed to be blind reviewed. Finally, be ethical when it comes to listing a co-authored publication. I frequently see folks list a publication, and then at the end of the citation, in parentheses, they will put “with John Doe and Sally Jones” as a way to indicate co-authorship. This is misleading, I think, and a better way is to put “first author, with John Doe and Sally Jones” so as to indicate exactly what order the authors appeared in the official publication. Author order matters a lot to folks in the social sciences. “Jones, Smith, and Brown” is a lot better for Jones than it is for Smith and Brown, and solo-authored work matters even more to some people. And, if it was “Jones, Smith, Brown, White, and Stevens,” then “Jones et al.” becomes the citation throughout most of the manuscript. This seems petty, but the honest way to list a co-authored work in a CV is to list the order of authors upfront in the citation.
  • Teaching section (a must). The teaching section should indicate the courses you’ve taught on your own, the courses you’ve been a teaching assistant for, and any guest lectures you’ve given. Be specific about these entries and be honest – if you were a TA, then you didn’t actually “teach” the course on your own, no matter how absent your supervising teacher was. Specific instances of guest lecturing are important to note, but when you start amassing a lot of teaching experience or start giving a bunch of guest lectures, it may be a bit too exhaustive to detail every instance in your CV.
  • Service (a must). Teaching, research, and service are the three pillars of academic work, so make sure you include service along with teaching and research sections. Subdivide your service section in a way that makes sense. Some tenure committees will want to see a distinction between service to a professional association, service to the university, and service at the department level. Contributions to media, through interviews or guest appearances, are also considered public scholarship in the service vein, so list these occurences. The point of service is that you should make it clear that your role as a lonely, independent scholar isn’t actually so cloistered. Academics are supposed to give back to the community and to the institutions they operate within. That said, don’t get too carried away with service. If you’re devoting too much time to too many committees and causes, it may get in the way of teaching and research. Though it shouldn’t be this way, service is often seen as the third most important thing of the three pillars, so make sure it doesn’t impede in your other work.
  • Professional experience section (optional). If your professional experience is relevant to your academic work (e.g., you are a former marketing professional now working as a communication professor), then it is importat to include this information in your CV somewhere, albeit briefly. It may also be important to include professional experience if it relates to your research or teaching interests in some interesting way (e.g., you’re a former zookeeper and your research now concerns the ethics of zoos). Use judgment here, but generally you don’t want to include every little job you had through college to pay the bills, even if you did pour a lot of sweat and tears into your bartending gig.
  • Honors and awards section (optional, but encouraged). If you have some relevant honors and awards you want people to know about, these should go in your CV. If you don’t have Pulitzers, Nobels, honorary doctorates, and other really really high awards, you should consider putting your awards section toward the end of your CV. But by all means if you do have a Nobel Prize, put your awards section a little higher up in your CV. I’ve heard competing views on the awards issue. Nearly everyone agrees that you should only list awards relevant to academia (and in some cases really high public service accomplishments), not mundane awards from your professional career or church activities. But people differ in terms of how far back to reach with awards and whether or not scholarships (even undergrad ones) are important enough to list. For instance, if you won some really high award as an undergraduate, do you list it on your CV? And, it may make sense to list a prestigious graduate scholarship or fellowship in your awards section, but do you list undergraduate scholarships too? In my opinion all important sources of funding deserve attention, even if it is weird. I list my undergrad scholarships because they were actually very important for me being able to attend the college I did. And I list an award from my undergrad days because it was a really high honor at Trinity, given once a year to one person in the whole school for leadership. So I guess it’s about judgment. At some point it may make sense for me to drop some of the “less important” things in the past off of my CV, but hopefully that’ll mean I’ve added a bunch of new “more important” stuff to the document since then.
  • Affiliations (a must). Usually one’s professional affiliations conclude a CV, and I think this is important to list. People want to know what professional/academic associations you belong to, and it’s good to belong to at least one. This also gives readers a sense of where your interdisciplinary interests lie. A journalism professor who is a member of a political science association or a computer science association is intriguing, more intriguing perhaps than a journalism professor who only belonged to communication societies.

There are other sections to add to a CV as they begin to make sense and occupy a significant portion of your time, but the three pillars (teaching, research, service), as well as education, make up the crucial foundations of a good CV.

CVs take a while to write, so it’s best to get one going and to maintain it regularly than to scramble to write one from scratch when someone asks for it out of the blue. Plus, checking in regularly on your CV makes it glaringly obvious that a project in your “in progress” section of your CV isn’t progressing, which should make you reassess your priorities or abandon the project entirely. I’ve abandoned many projects that lingered on my CV too long as “in progress,” and I’ve remembered to wrap up some projects from having to see them in the “in progress” queue too long. CVs can be effective time management documents if you approach them with that mentality.

I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.

The Purpose of Conferences

While I was a senior at Trinity, Harry Haines took me to the Western States Communication Association (WSCA) conference in Albuquerque. I had already applied to master’s programs (and was already starting to get quick rejections), so checking out WSCA was a way for me to get my feet wet in the world of academia and, frankly, to put my face in front of some admissions committees at the schools I applied to.

I loved WSCA, and I went to WSCA every year for the five years after Albuquerque – San Francisco 2005, Palm Springs 2006, Seattle 2007, Denver 2008, and Mesa 2009. I presented my first two papers and my first roundtable panel in Palm Springs, and I still remember vividly the feedback I received from the likes of Dave Natharius and Arne G’Schwind. The feedback was especially good. It was thorough, critical, but also constructive. Natharius and G’Schwind had taken careful notes, and in their role as respondent on these two paper panels, they presented their prepared commentary in the way a teacher would respond orally to the strengths and weaknesses of a student’s paper. I watched a lot of professors in the Media Studies Interest Group and Communication & Instruction Interest Group at WSCA provide serious, thorough critique in their roles as respondents. When you presented a paper at WSCA, you were guaranteed to walk away with constructive feedback to make your paper truly ready for submission to a journal.

As a regional conference of NCA, WSCA is largely a speech communication conference, and as my research veered away from rhetoric, it was difficult to justify going to the conference anymore. I also now live on the east coast, so WSCA makes little sense for me now.

WSCA is a shining example of what an academic conference should be. Papers are strong, people actually attend panels (even the ones at weird hours), and respondents take their job seriously. It’s also a hell of a social event, and the folks at WSCA are a close-knit group. I’ve heard similar positive appraisals of other regional conferences and small, boutique conferences like COCE.

But large conferences, in my experience, fail to provide what WSCA does. I’ve attended NCA and AEJMC and have not quite seen the level of quality in the respondents’ work. NCA is especially bad. At NCA, many of the panels have fewer than 10 people in the audience (and some don’t have an audience at all), and respondents roll into the panels with scant scribbles on cocktail napkins. The feedback is very light – a lot of “I like how you did this in your paper” and other empty reflections. Presenting a paper at a conference without a respondent publicly critiquing it is a pointless exercise – why not just post the paper online and call it a day? Why spend all the money (and for a grad student it’s a lot of money) to travel to some usually very expensive city with expensive convention hotels and present a paper without feedback to an empty room? (I should note that AEJMC is better than NCA in this regard. There are frequently sizable audiences, and a lot of the time respondents do their job).

I’ve heard my colleagues say bluntly that conferences aren’t really about presenting research, but rather they are about schmoozing. Yuck, I say. But they’re kind of right. An hour at a cocktail party, especially if you’re outgoing or have your advisor present to introduce you to people, is as valuable as an hour presenting cutting edge research on a panel. It’s a shame that this is the case, as a conference could definitely be about BOTH socializing and presenting research (like WSCA).

Grad students at conferences

The purpose of conferences for grad students is to get exposure, whether that is through presenting research or schmoozing, and to observe how the industry works. Showing up to an interest group’s business meeting is important for grad students, too. Sometimes just being present can land you an officer role in an interest group (AEJMC divisions, for instance, have graduate student liaisons, and WSCA sometimes lets advanced Ph.D. students sign up to review papers for next year’s conference or, in desperate situations, to be elected as a secretary in the group).

As a grad student, it can be intimidating to approach a small group of professors having a conversation at a social hour, especially if you’re still kind of star-struck by some of the “big names” in the game. A good way to do this is to email someone ahead of time. I’m a big fan of cold-calling and cold-emailing. Shoot someone an email ahead of time and ask if you can buy them some coffee at the conference. Tell them you want to pick their brain about some things and to connect over some common research/teaching interests. Professors are generally kind people who enjoy mentoring, so the worst that will happen is you’ll get an “I’m already booked at the conference, but let’s keep in touch through email” response. This is good enough, as you’ve at least succeeded in introducing yourself.

I’ve wandered a bit in this post, but I’ll part with some quick tips for grad students thinking about breaking into the conference scene:

  • Find a conference that suits you. Write a good paper and figure out where it belongs. Regional and boutique conferences tend to be a bit easier to get into than national conferences, but it also depends on the interest group. Ask around to see where your paper might fit in terms of conference and interest group. Also, if you’re more interested in good feedback but feel like you have to go to XYZ conference for the networking opportunities, you can always circulate your paper around to your peers for additional feedback.
  • Figure out funding. Will your department pay for your travel and your registration at a given conference? Do you know if there are matching funds available through different offices on campus to fill any gaps in funding? Can you truly afford to fill the gaps? Conferences can be enormously expensive, so be prepared. A conference in San Francisco costs a lot more than a conference in Albuquerque, and if the conference hotel is overpriced, are you able to walk or take a cab from a cheaper hotel? There’s also the cost of materials. If you submit a paper to AEJMC, for instance, you could be slotted into a poster session instead of a paper panel. Poster sessions are just as legitimate as a paper panel (and in many ways a lot more fun, relaxing, and networking-friendly), but the cost of producing a respectable poster can run anywhere from $20 to $200, not to mention the burden of lugging a poster tube on a plane and to the conference the day you present. There are a lot of things to think about in terms of cost.
  • Submit your work. This can’t be emphasized enough. If you don’t submit a paper, you can’t get a paper accepted to present at the conference, and this will likely mean that your department will not fund your travel. Write a paper you’re proud of. This will make it much easier to present without being nervous and insecure about your work. Or, team up with some colleagues and submit a panel proposal, a roundtable talk, or a workshop.
  • Dress the part. Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues what the attire at a given conference looks like. WSCA is pretty casual, AEJMC is a bit more formal, and I hear ECA is quite formal. That being said, you can never really go wrong with a good pair of slacks and a jacket (for men), and if you’re presenting a paper you may want to dress up just a bit more the day you present. It depends on the conference whether a tie will be necessary, and you’ll be fine in jeans at some conferences. Be sure to iron your clothes when you unpack. Ask around about attire.
  • Prepare your materials. Many conferences say to bring 25 copies of your full paper with you to give to people in the audience who ask for it. Don’t do this – it is ridiculous and wasteful and it adds about 20 pounds to your luggage. You’ll end up handing out one or two copies. Instead, have a few copies (2-3) on hand and connect with those interested in your paper in other ways. If someone asks for a copy of your paper, exchange business cards (or email addresses) and send your paper after the conference. This is better anyway, as you can provide your paper AND make a connection. That being said, you also need some business cards. Even if your title is just “master’s student,” you still need business cards. Ideally, these cards will have your university’s branding on them (check with your campus’ printing office to order these), and ideally you’ll also include a link to your website. Prepare a website to act as your virtual resume ahead of time and keep it up to date (more on building an online presence in a future post). Also have a pen on you at the conference.
  • Set up appointments. When the conference program becomes available online, build your personal schedule for the panels you want to see, and, of course, build in some meal time. Don’t just attend the panels you have a topical interest in. Also attend panels where people you admire are presenting. Observe these folks and learn the practice of good research from their performance. And, of course, walk up and say hi at the end of their panel. In your free time slots, try to set up some coffee meetings with people. Email them ahead of time and try to schedule a time to hang out at the conference. Bring your business cards.
  • Wining and dining. Have some cash on you at the conference. Always be prepared to split a check or pick up someone’s meal, and having cash on hand makes that process easier. Odds are, if you’re a grad student, some professor you’re eating with will try to buy your meal (because you’re poor and professors pity you), but you should at least attempt to pay your way. If you drink, then have a drink at the conference, but conferences are not the place to get drunk. That is, of course, unless you’re at WSCA, which prides itself on its parties. Even then, use good judgment. Cash bars are expensive, too, so have cash on hand. If you didn’t pay for the special lunch/awards dinner/banquet, don’t worry. If you linger around the entrance to the ballroom around the time the meal starts, you might just get handed some free tickets. A lot of folks opt out of these meals last minute, and you could find yourself waltzing in to a free meal and another opportunity to network and meet new people. Sometimes there are even fishbowls by the doors to these ballrooms full of tickets people are donating to starving grad students. Don’t be shy. Grab a ticket.
  • Know yourself, be yourself, ask questions, and relax. Figure out what exactly you’re into, as people may ask you many times over what you’re interested in researching. Then, be honest and true to yourself. People don’t like it when you’re nervous, so just try to relax and enjoy yourself. Professors aren’t stiff, generally, so don’t feel like you have to be quiet, stand at attention, and act like you’re in a job interview all the time. Don’t try to perform some alternate (better) version of yourself; it’s fake and off-putting, and people don’t like that stuff. And ask people a lot of questions about their interests and career path. You can learn a lot if you just talk to people.
  • After the conference. Shoot some thank you notes or emails to people who agreed to meet with you, bought you drinks, or gave you some great feedback on your paper. Continue the conversation with these folks into the future and link up with them at next year’s conference. If you were not able to make it to a particular panel to hear a specific paper, email the presenter and ask for a copy of the paper anyway. Connecting with people can lead to a lot of opportunities and some great friendships. You can find mentors, publication opportunities, friends, co-authors, jobs, etc. at these conferences, and it all comes from the human interaction you pursue. Also, after a conference, carry your research to the next level. Incorporate the feedback you receive and send that paper to a journal! And remember that you don’t have to present a paper first in order to publish it.

I’m curious to know if anyone else has some tips to add to this list. Feel free to comment.