28 Tips for Attending an Archaeology Conference

28 tips for attending an archaeology conferenceI love attending archaeology conferences. Last week was the 13th time I’ve attended the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual conference. I have also given talks at other regional and state archaeology conferences in the past. I discussed some of my initial impressions of #SHA2018 on the CRM Archaeology Podcast, but I wanted to write a post of some general tips for attending an archaeology conference. I noticed there really isn’t much archaeology-specific information about attending conferences out there for cultural resource management archaeologists and archaeology students.

This is a topic I’ve written about in the past. I’m not the only archaeologist talking about conferencing. One of the best blog posts for archaeology conferencing I’ve seen was written by the folks at the Australian Archaeological Association. It contains some tips valuable to all new archaeologists Australia and beyond. I also found some practical information from Dr. Karen Kelsky at The Professor Is In (https://theprofessorisin.com/category/how-to-do-conferences/). This is aimed largely at graduate students on the job market, but there are valuable gems for CRMers who just want to share some of their recent work with a community of committed practitioners. April Kamp-Whittaker and Chris Webster also covered archaeology conference do’s and don’ts in episode 33 of The Archaeology Show (https://www.archaeologypodcastnetwork.com/all-shows/tas-33).

In addition to this salient advice, here are 28 more tips I’d like to add:

1) Take it seriously: Meet other archaeologists. Learn as much as you can about our field. Do some heavy networking. We only come together a few times a year so don’t waste this time. Most of the CRM jobs I’ve ever had were built upon connections I made at archaeology conferences. These are important for your career and intellectual development. If you attend a conference, take it seriously.

2) Don’t get overwhelmed: It is easy to get overwhelmed meeting so many new people and trying to do as much as possible. Do what you can to benefit from attending but don’t make yourself miserable by trying to see every single paper, meet every single CRM company owner, and talk to every professor you’ve ever had. Find a happy medium.

Also, never forget: the most esteemed archaeologist at the conference is still a human being. Some are egotistical but most aren’t. Be humbled but do not be afraid to approach someone you would really like to meet. They aren’t going to bite you.

3) Know it will be expensive: Can your bank account handle it? Expect to shell out at least $1,000 to attend a national archaeology conference. Local and regional ones might be a little cheaper because you won’t need a plane ticket. Expect at least double that cost for an international conference.

This is not a fixed rule but I’ve found this to be approximately how much I spend on most conferences when you include registration, hotel, plane, car rental/car sharing, food, and beer. Of course, there are ways to minimize your expenses (see below).

4) If necessary, try and reduce your expenses: You can reduce your conference-related expenses by splitting them with somebody else or travel hacking (http://www.succinctresearch.com/tag/travel-hacking-2/). Sharing a hotel room is the most common way to reduce your expenses. You can also try a combination of other travel hacking strategies like using air miles and hotel loyalty rewards to get free flights and lodging. Finally, you can ask your employer to pay for part of the trip. In the past I’ve had CRM companies pay for my plane ticket, lodging, and wages for the day I present. This is not always available to all CRMers but it never hurts to ask.

Students: You should always be writing for grants. Getting travel grants is another way I’ve been able to cut my expenses for conference travel.

5) If you don’t have to be frugal, splurge and enjoy yourself: Buy books, eat well, and attend workshops. You can save $20 of each pay check throughout the year so you can enjoy yourself once a year at the conference. I used to use this strategy as a CRMer, especially after I became a dad, and it really takes the edge off of going to a conference.

6) Network you’re a$$ off: As April Kamp-Whittaker said on The Archaeology Show, networking is THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON WHY YOU ARE ATTENDING. Telling others about your work and hearing about the work of others is also important, but connecting with other archaeologists face-to face is why conferences exist and why you are there.

7) Know the “Power Hour of Archaeology Conference Networking”: I’ve recently noticed there is a prime time for networking at an archaeology conference—roughly between 5:00 and 10:00 PM. This is when the main socializing takes place as most sessions have ended and folks are connecting with friends in preparation for dinner or partying. You may connect with other professionals during the day, but the real face-to-face networking takes place at this time. It’s also when alcohol loosens people up enough that they’re actual sentient being instead of nerdy, stressed out archaeology conference attendees. This is the time when we are ourselves. If you are not avoiding alcohol and are old enough to drink, I recommend you figure out where other folks are meeting at this time and join a crowd. I also recommend you visit the bar and see if you can strike up a conversation. You don’t have to drink. Just come down and join in.

While there is a prime time for networking, there is also a prime time when debauchery happens. I’ve noticed that practically nothing “professional” happens at an archaeology conference after 10PM. By 10PM, most archaeologists are fairly liquored up and have entered party mode. That professor cares very little about taking on new students after 10PM. That principal investigator at a CRM firm doesn’t care about your resume after 10PM. Anyone awake after 10PM is mostly interested in hanging out with friends that they don’t get to see the other 51 weeks of the year. It’s very difficult to get much business done at this time so just go with the flow if you’re still awake and mobile. Just hang out with friends, new and old, and enjoy yourself. After 10PM, just have fun hanging with other archaeologists.

8) Manage your alcohol consumption: I wrote about the problems archaeologists have with drinking in a three-part series in 2017 (http://www.succinctresearch.com/drinking-and-archaeologists-part-i/). Alcohol and archaeology conferences are nearly synonymous and much of the “wheeling and dealing” at the conference takes place in the hotel bar. Being in that bar is important to your career but make sure you manage how much you drink. Remember, you are always working while at a conference. Don’t do anything stupid because you drank too much.

9) Stay healthy: You are an adult and know what you need to stay healthy. Know that travel strains your immune system. Getting a traveler’s flu is a thing, especially when you’re stressed about giving a public talk and drinking more alcohol than usual. Do the normal things to maintain your health like taking Vitamin C and eating your veggies, and minimizing fried foods. Also, don’t pull “all nighters” unless you’re staying up to make a red eye flight.

10) Dress for the weather: Check Weather Underground or weather.com and bring appropriate clothes. You don’t want to be sweating profusely because you only brought long sleeved shirts or freezing your privates off because you didn’t bring thermal underwear. You will not be indoors all day long and sometimes the conference venue has a malfunctioning HVAC system. Bring clothes that will keep you comfortable in the city in which your conference will be held.

11) Ask others what to wear: I am not a fashionista but you should ask others “in-the-know” about how you should dress for each particular conference. Other professors, advisers, and grad students who have previously attended the conference are your best resource for giving you fashion advice.

I have my own style at conference and I tend to be a bit more traditional (oxford shirt, slacks, tie, polished shoes or boots, sports jacket, or sometimes a suit). This is not the style for all men, so ask around and dress accordingly.

12) Participate: While volunteering is a great way to attend, you should seriously consider going beyond this. Give a paper or poster; or join a committee. Most archaeology associations are volunteer-based, so they’re always looking for people to help keep the organization running. You could be one of those people.

13) You can get a job by going to conferences: Some archaeology associations actually have real or mock interviews at the conference, but it is also possible to talk your way into an interview or job offer through your networking efforts. Do what you can to create a positive image of yourself and always be working the conference.

14) Prepare for travel disasters: Missed planes, Arctic chaos, lost baggage, whack conference roommates. All of these things can happen. Make sure you arrive to the conference the day before it begins. You can leave any time you like, but make sure you don’t miss your talk due to a blizzard.

After having an airline lose my luggage in Amsterdam, I strongly recommend you only travel to conferences with a carry-on. You will have to travel light and minimize, but you will be more ready and able to respond to travel disasters if you carry-on. The bag you use as a carry on does not matter but it needs to be able to hold what you need, not be too heavy, and be small enough that they don’t make you gate check your bag. I prefer a duffel. After shredding through a couple of “inexpensive” duffels while doing fieldwork, I asked Santa for a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 a couple years ago (https://www.tombihn.com/products/aeronaut-45?variant=34039227783). I realize this bag is super expensive but I’ve had it for years now and it’s never failed me yet. My wife uses a roller bag that also never fails her. I recommend you try several bags and see what works for you.

The internet is bloated with advice about carry-on travel. Ultimately, what you bring is up to you. The videos below have some good tips if you’re new to traveling lightly for business:

15) Build a manageable presentation: WARNING: If you’ve seen me present in the past, you know I’m the last person to give advice on how to give a good conference talk. Search the internet for public speaking tips. However, I suggest, for 15-minute talk, you prepare about 12—15 slides, write 8—10 pages double-spaced, and do not use too much text on your slides. Show your tables with pictures. Only read your paper word-for-word if you absolutely must.

You also must swallow all nervousness and apprehension about giving a talk. Practicing your speech extensively beforehand will help, as will giving more public talks (see below).

16) Practice your presentation: Practice at least 10 times before the real deal. You need to be able to give your talk without fail in the time limit be able to talk slow (much, much slower than you think you need to talk). Be able to give your talk with or without your slideshow. You also need to pace yourself so you can deliver your conclusion before time runs out. Whatever you do, make sure you know your sh*t front and back.

17) Back up your presentation in three places: Your talk is important. Do not trust the fickle Gods of Technology. They might let you down. As with any important document, always back up your paper on a USB Drive, your computer, and the cloud.

18) Back up your poster as well: You will bring the tangible rendition of your poster and will probably bring it with you on the plane or in the car. I’ve also had my poster printed in the city where the conference was being held but I only did that because I was going to be staying in that town for a significant time period before the conference was being held. (FYI: FedEx/Kinkos did a great job printing my poster and had it done right on time.)

Regardless of how you get your poster turned into a three-dimensional object, you will still want to back it up digitally on a USB, your computer, and the cloud just in case something happens.

19) Know the conference hierarchy: All archaeology conferences are not equal with regard to networking, impact, and intellectual content. Here is a crude hierarchy of archaeology conferences from lowest impact to highest.

The lowest impact/level of archaeology conference is university and/or student conferences. Next in importance/impact are local or statewide conferences (ex. Arizona Archaeology Society or Society for California Archaeology). Then comes regional meetings (ex. Northwest Anthropological Conference) and at the top are National and/or International conferences (ex. Society for American Archaeology). These rankings are not steadfast but, rather, a generalization based on my personal experience.

Each of these conferences has their benefits and drawbacks. Bigger conferences bring larger community, but make it harder to network because everybody is there. It is easier to network at smaller conferences but you have a smaller audience. You need to attend conferences at all levels when you’re trying to break into the field, but you really don’t have to keep going to conferences if you’re already established or a busy CRMer.

20) Loose lips sink ships: This is for real. Be careful what you say in your talk or while hanging out with friends and networking. Words will follow you throughout your career.

21) Realize you are at the epicenter for your field: This is probably where all THE experts in your area will be. Take advantage of the critical mass of intellectualism caused by a conference.

22) You must chill: While it is always intense for conference-goers who are looking for a job/internship/research/connection with a lead scholar, you must not, under any circumstances, let the stress turn you into a freak. You must find a way to chill. You must chill.

No matter how many presentations I give, I am always nervous. It never goes away. I have also had the worst things possible happen as a result of giving a conference talk and I survived. You will too.

I’ve also been so desperate to land a job that I spent most evenings thrusting my resume and cards into the hands of CRMers I wanted to hire me. They could smell my desperation and it left a bad taste in their mouths. Don’t be like I used to be.

It took years but I finally learned how to chill (somewhat). Learn a lesson from me and enhance your calm from the start. That way you won’t make the same mistakes I have.

23) Let your partner know conferences are work: If you bring your partner and/or family, make sure they know you will be working while you are at the conference. This is not entirely a vacation. Networking and connecting with others in your field is not something that can be strictly scheduled. You will not be available at all times because you are working. Politely and compassionately let your partner in on this aspect of conferencing so they can decide whether or not they want to stay in the conference destination while the conference is still going on.

I have had this discussion with my spouse and children before, so it isn’t a problem. My wife has only seen me give an archaeology talk only once, back in 2005. It was so boring she vowed never to watch me speak about archaeology again. Twelve years have gone by and she still hasn’t seen me give an archaeology presentation. However, she has accompanied me to the cities where my conferences are being held since then. Now, as a parent, sometimes I bring the whole family (Message or email me if you want to know more about conferencing as a parent). My family knows that I won’t be able to hang out during the day while the conference is going on and I am probably going to miss out on some family adventures. It’s only 3-4 days without my constant attention and the separation is only for part of the day. We see each other at night and in the morning. Once the conference ends, my family can have me back again.

24) Actually attend sessions: I know many people who “attend” conferences but do not sit in on any of the presentations. This always seems like such a waste. Networking is #1 but intellectual stimulation is a close #2. Almost every conference has at least one session that you could benefit from attending. Do your best to balance your networking with learning more about our craft.

25) Take notes during good presentations: You never know when a presenter will toss out an intellectual gem and you never know who’s going to do it (Hint: It’s almost never the most influential attendee). Make sure you take notes on your phone or paper whenever you hear something interesting so you can follow up or use this in your own work.

26) Get inspired: Hanging out with a bunch of other archaeologists is exciting because most of our other waking hours are spent around non-archaeologists. It’s good to know there are others out there with similar interests and can be inspiring to hear them speak. When the conference is over and you’ve returned to your desk, spend a few minutes reveling in all you did and saw. Do what you can to let this feeling of aliveness going for as long as you can.

This is particularly important for CRM archaeologists who will spend 200+ days doing compliance and only three days hanging out with other practitioners. Let this feeling keep you going through the hard times.

27) Send thank you emails: You will probably harvest a bunch of business cards from other conference attendees. One way to keep in touch or reach out is by sending them an email once you get back to your desk. Believe me, people will remember this little extra step.

28) Get published: Conference presentations and posters that do not turn into a digital or paper format are essentially lost to time. Treat each presentation and poster like a research topic that will be turned into a peer-reviewed journal article or a technical report. At bare minimum, you should publish your paper on academia.edu, LinkedIn, or a blog somewhere. Don’t let all that effort evaporate into the ether without some additional documentation.

Bonus Tip—Reach out to someone you don’t know: Conferences are full of people who have never met each other. You may have your friends, but there is a whole population of students and other archaeologists who are traveling alone and don’t know anyone else at the conference. Please be compassionate. Reach out to people that seem safe and invite them to watch a session or have lunch together. Be safe, but do what you can to help newbies seem welcome.

(IMPORTANT TIP: Make sure you are not doing something that could endanger your safety or your career. Do not put yourself in a dangerous situation like going on a late night drinking session in a sketchy part of a new city with some dude you just met or bringing a rando to your room for a nightcap. That’s not what I mean by “reaching out.” Invite lonely archaeologists you’ve just met to an event in a public place and always be aware of your surroundings.)

This post is designed to cover some of the basics that I’ve learned from attending a number of different archaeology conferences at different levels in North America and Europe. This knowledge is simply my own opinion but I’m always interested in learning more. Please send me an email or write your comment below if you have anything else to add.


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