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Making Contact: A Guide to Conference Mentoring

One-on-one networking programs can support association goals and provide career-changing advice for young members.

Education may be the main motivation for attending an academic conference, but networking can help attendees get the most out of the event—and have far-reaching influence on the rest of their career. One simple way to encourage young people to attend a conference, or ease socially nervous attendees into networking opportunities, is to provide a mentorship program.

Mary Elizabeth Walters, a predoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas, Austin, participated in a mentorship program at the Society of Military History annual conference in 2018. Walters says, “It is a wonderful opportunity for graduate students to get a one-on-one with some of the biggest names in the field of military history. They can be very generous with their time, but young academics tend to find them too intimidating to introduce themselves to outside of a formal structure.”

David Silbey, associate director, Cornell in Washington, and adjunct associate professor, Cornell History Department, is responsible for managing SMH’s mentorship program. He shares his best advice for attracting and connecting young scholars.

MeetingsNet: What is the origin of the program at SMH?
David Silbey: Jennifer Keene, who was president of the Society at the time, suggested it.  When she mentioned it, it spurred my memory of being a newly-minted graduate student at my first conference and not knowing anyone. Helping folks like me become engaged just seemed like a spectacularly good idea. We first did it at the 2017 SMH conference in Jacksonville.

MN: Who is the program aimed at?
DS: We’re really aiming to give folks at the graduate student/early career stage the chance to sit down with a senior scholar who can give them guidance about the society, about their career, or about anything specific they might want to ask.  The Society has always prided itself on welcoming new members and this is a way of formalizing and reinforcing this.

MN: Do you really buy them a coffee for the first meeting?
DS: Yep!  Really—any non-alcoholic drink people want, to make sure everyone can take advantage of it. It seems like an excellent way to support everyone in a way that is substantial and comforting.

MN: How do mentors/mentees sign up?
DS: Originally, we put out a call for mentors and mentees via email.  This year, we incorporated it into the registration process. We ask what folks are interested in, what they’re studying, and what they hope to get out of the mentorship.  That makes placing them easier. We’ve gone from 21 pairs in 2017 to mid-40s in 2018 to 67 this year out of around 770 conference attendees.  So, it’s growing pretty quickly.

MN: What are the main logistical challenges?
DS: Getting the mentors and mentees paired up. We focus on getting people who are congruent in terms of experience, employment, and life history. Area of expertise is somewhat less critical because the program is more about career, life, and seeing the path forward, and for that, we want to have mentors who can answer questions and give advice in those areas.
Also, there is the actual legwork of getting the coffee vouchers into the correct conference packets.  

 MN: What advice would you give other meeting planners who want to implement this program?

  • Let the mentors and mentees figure out meeting time and location to give them maximum flexibility, but ask that it be in a public place.
  • Make sure to work with the registration team as early as possible.  
  • Don’t worry too much about creating a perfect match between mentor and mentee—the important thing is making sure everyone gets paired.

MN: What feedback have you had?
DS: We run an evaluation survey of the program every year with a chance to rate it and give feedback.  It’s been almost entirely positive (100 percent positive last year; 96 percent positive this year).  The feedback has helped us improve the program, for example, by adding the opportunity for early career scholars as well as students to participate as mentees and have a chance to ask about job hunting.

Former mentee Walters agrees that targeted mentoring options are particularly useful for young academics. “Participants can request a session to focus on making the most out of the conference, which is especially useful for grad students attending their first SMH conference,” she says. “Or mentees can request mentoring on alternative careers with a historian working outside of academia.”

That’s a lot of advice for the price of a cup of coffee.

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