The ISA Survival Guide: Everyone needs some Crack Pie

21 March 2014, 0448 EDT

bday duckISA is coming, like winter for the Starks; it’s always just around the bend.  Luckily, I almost have nothing but fond memories of ISA.  It was my first conference and will be the one I remain loyal to for as long as I remain able.  The key though is to maximize your experience.  I know too many academics who never leave the hotel, never leave panels, and don’t see the world.  And please, take off your badge if you do leave the conference.


My start with ISA was not auspicious since I ended up 20 minutes late to my own panel due to a mix up with the conference buses.  This leads to the first piece of advice, always stay in the main conference hotel or preferably (but not for the conference organizers) one within one or two blocks of the conference (a trick is to put the address of the main hotel into the search engine, not that I suggest you forsake hotel loyalty points).

There is a nice post by Mims and Nisen on attending a conference without paying (h/t Joe Young).  Thankfully the post is much better than the title, which sounds daft.  Attending a conference without paying is not advisable, especially if your University is likely at least paying the registration fee.  All those tote bags and cheese receptions don’t come free; the organization needs your support.  In any case, the post is useful.  Let’s go through the 11 points in turn; some are obviously more useful than others.

  1. Don’t go to any talks, panels, demos, and sessions.

This point clearly does not apply to ISA.  ISA is one of few conferences that typically is on point with interesting speakers and panels.  That being said, I will suggest you be judicious with your time.  Only go to the panels that directly relate to your work and interests.  Be supportive of your friends and mentors, but going to one panel after another, all day, in any area will be useless.  They will all blend together and leave you little time for the other activities.  Others may have different advice in this regard.  It might be important for a new PhD candidate to attend every panel they can, but the majority of us will be get the most benefit out of being selective about our attendance.

2. Fill most of your schedule with one to one meetings before you arrive.

3.  Start reaching out early

Point 3 is key to Point 2.  I will not rehash the great networking debates of 2013, but only state that it is important that you schedule your meetings early.  For ISA, early March is advisable.  Our schedules fill up quickly.  My Wednesday at ISA is so packed I had to block off an hour to remind myself to relax at some point during the day.

4. Get introduced wherever possible

An important reminder, although a bit unfair for those who do not have connected mentors, but introductions are key.  It always seems a bit odd when someone just joins a group with no introduction.  I admire their bravery, but since no one generally knows who they are or why they are there, they are always remembered as that weird guy who showed up to the poker game in 2007.  Use your connections to lead to other connections.  Don’t be bossy, don’t be pushy, just be normal.

5. Believe in the breakfast meeting

Bacon, I believe in bacon, therefore I go to breakfast meetings.  Not to mention eating breakfast is an important step to washing away any of the prior night’s ill advised behaviors.

6. Skip (most of) the parties

Are there ISA parties?  If there are, I don’t want to know about them (except the Duck awards party, I am spiking the punch).  Generally this advice is horrible and perpetuates the nerdy academic stereotype.  Don’t avoid networking opportunities because it involves drinking and missed sleep.  You can make up for the missed sleep next week.  Sessions at the bar might be some of the most important settings at ISA.  The friendships, connections, and alliances you build after hours will last a lot longer than a simple cup of tea ever will.  That guy you saw fall through a glass window will always be on your side.  We are a band of brothers after all.  But we must also remember that social networking tends to be exclusive to certain types.  Strive to invite others who might not otherwise be invited.  Make sure your group is broad and diverse.  If you don’t drink or don’t drink much, don’t let that be an obstacle, no one will notice if you just keep one drink all night.  Get a rum and coke, coke only (with a lime and a short straw for deception).  Obviously if you have a problem being around alcohol, bar settings are something to be avoided.  No sort of advice is ever meant to be universal.

7. Leave space for serendipity

I don’t really know what serendipity means, besides being the title for a bad John Cusack movie, but I did schedule a nap on Thursday. Does that count?

8.  Know when to approach people

Goes without saying, but some of us might be a bit socially, umm, under-developed.  Don’t approach a group eating dinner uninvited.  Don’t interrupt an intense breakfast meeting.  Tact, a word many of us need to learn.

9. Don’t eat most of the meals at the conference.

Luckily this is not a problem for ISA.  I will say Tripadvisor, Yelp, and Zagat are your friend.  Why would do you a massive amount of background research in your work but not even Google the restaurant you pop into?

10. Do attend at least one thing completely outside of the conference

Can’t say this enough, see the world.  If you end up somewhere new, explore it.  This is always great advice, but a bit problematic with Toronto.  Jimmy Kimmel ran a segment driving around Toronto.  Nothing happened at all, but it did look nice.  I can’t even remember what Toronto was like based on my last visit, but I do remember going to the Blue Jays game against the Yankees (damn you ISA for scheduling this too early for baseball).

11. Follow up quickly with the people you meet.

Viable point, if you mention a paper you wrote to someone, go ahead and send it right after.  I see no reason to not make your connection “Facebook official” after meeting someone in real life.  In fact, I probably would forget the whole thing if not for Facebook.

12. Crack Pie, yes, Crack Pie

Number 12 was added by me, but its very important.  Do something really odd every conference.  At this stage in my life, eating something called a Crack Pie with a questionable calorie content counts.  Crack pies became famous at Momofuku in NYC, who just expanded to Toronto.  Just right around the corner from the Hilton and Sheraton actually.  You can get your Crack Pie at the milk bar, a place I will be really disappointed in if it does not look like this at 2am.

Enjoy ISA, enjoy your conferences.  Make connections; roam the halls of the book exhibit and the lobby.  Laugh at the big name Professors who find the combination of hurricanes and karaoke irresistible (oh New Orleans, we miss you).  Remember this is a professional meeting and you have professional duties.  And as always, never do as I would do.