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ISA Survival Guide for Grad Students: the essential clothing, food, shelter, and networking dos and don’ts

March 24, 2013

blog1It is time again for the International Studies Association Annual Conference. With thousands of attendees, a phone book full of panels, and a slough of receptions, dinners, meetings, and opportunities, the whole thing can be a bit overwhelming as a grad student (and for everyone else too!). You’ve likely received advice on how to present your work in 10 seconds or less- but what about the rest of the conference? Here are a couple of key tips for surviving the four days and getting the most out of the experience.
Before we get to the real essentials (food, shelter, and clothing), let’s start with networking:
In addition to all the obvious tips (always wear your name tag, ask your supervisor to invite you along to some key dinners/meetings, hang out in the common areas and just generally act like you are speed dating, but for a job and contacts rather than for a mate) here are some more unconventional tips for making an impression:

  • Do get up and head down to the lobby if you have jet lag and can’t sleep at 4am. There is always the potential that you’ll be invited to join a tequila tasting/debate on the norm diffusion/poker game, or that you’ll see your academic idol passed out in the lobby- who wants to miss that for reruns of ‘What Not To Wear’ in the hotel room?
  • Do Google image all of your academic idols. If you end up behind Ole Waever in the Starbucks lineup you don’t want to miss the chance to (quickly) introduce yourself and tell him you use his work in your thesis. Also, if Ole comes to your panel, and you don’t recognize him, and he asks a difficult question about securitization (hey, it is possible!) you don’t want to a) accuse him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about b) go into detail about what an idiot you think Ole Waever is c) ask him if he’s related to Kevin Bacon because there is something familiar about him. On that note, Don’t (ever) use the coffee lineup, receptions, or the bar as an opportunity to ask someone like Ole to explain what they mean by social security or to tell them what aspects of their theory you think they got wrong. You may be right, and you may be brilliant, but there is a fine line between making an impression and burning a bridge/looking like a total douche.
  • Don’t follow the advice “ask a question at every panel, but start by talking about your research first.” People who tell you to do this want you to fail. Yes, you should ask questions if and only if you have a strong, relevant question- let’s be honest, that won’t be at every panel. And, yes you should always introduce yourself first. But no one wants the Q&A time hijacked by someone pitching their own research- save that for the bar or receptions.

Ok, on to the other essentials:

Choosing what to wear at a conference can actually be quite difficult as a graduate student. You want to look professional, you have no money, and you don’t want to end up looking like a little kid dressed in his/her parent’s business attire. So…

  • Do remember that a full-on formal business suit isn’t necessarily the standard for men or women- especially if you are under 25. I cringe thinking about the big boxy androgynous-looking suits I wore to my first ISA. I thought I was so cool and professional but I’m sure I looked like the ‘professional’ clearance rack at Filene’s Basement threw up on me. Think- ‘what would I wear to give a guest lecture at my university’ NOT ‘what did Russel Crowe wear in a Beautiful Mind or Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile?’ Remember, navy is not mandatory, no one carries a leather briefcase with code locks,  and everyone can tell the difference between real and fake pearls.

Food and Booze (or, how to get through the conference with less than $200)
The obvious ‘do‘ is to attend as many receptions as possible through the conference and graze the food. What you should also know, is receptions rarely have enough food for all the attendees, so arrive early. In fact, you can hit up one or two receptions before they actually start, fill your belly (and grab some wine) before you eventually settle on the final destination (the hotel staff setting things up recognize your ‘help me, I’m a broke grad student’ smile and leave you to fill your plate in peace). Oh, and the Feminist Theory Gender Studies reception ALWAYS has the best food (and, my opinion is also the most welcoming reception and best place to meet great and interesting people- even if this isn’t your area). Also,

  • Do sign up to participate in any pre-conference workshops that seem remotely relevant to your topic. These can be a great way for you to interact with people in intimate settings- and they provide food!
  • Don’t overdo it on the booze. Yes, it may be free at some receptions (not many!) but it is tough to network and hand out your card when you are completely blotto. In fact, though most aspects of the conference can be enhanced by a glass of wine or two, I recommend grad students stay sober. You’ll be 10 steps ahead of your woozy competition and you’ll actually make it to the 8am panels. There will be plenty of time to indulge when you have a job and the last thing you want to be remembered for is blurting out “I f@cking love feminism” to Ann Tickner or  “I think norms are an urban myth” to Kathryn Sikkink.
  • Do keep a stash of protein/granola bars, fruit, yogurts in your room and in your conference bag. This can help you avoid the $4.99 cake/cardboard muffins on offer in the halls and keep you from passing out before the receptions.

At this stage you’ve already secured accommodation…..right?
Well in case you haven’t, Do offer to share with fellow grad students to cut down costs; however, Don’t think that stuffing four grad students into a single room will necessarily be a success. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best ISA memories involve late nights chatting it up with my ISA roomies, but unless you are discerning on this, you could end up with a snorer, an alcoholic, an insomniac, a ‘What Not to Wear’ addict, and limited access to the shower. Sometimes the best option is a single room at the hostel down the road from the conference.

What are your ISA survival tips?

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.