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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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Getting Your Master’s? Go to a Conference.

Finding meaning and value in attending conferences even if you are undecided about a career in academia.

April 18, 2019
 
 

Andrew Bishop is pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @xiongandi.

I recently attended my first conference, and going into the experience I had no idea what to expect. I spent some time gleaning wisdom from the posts of GradHackers from years past. I learned best practices in how to prepare for my experience, navigate the social dynamics, and make the most of my time once I was there. There’s a lot of time, money, and effort that goes into a conference experience, and as a master’s student I wasn’t quite sure if it would be worth the investment. Yet once I was on the ground, I quickly realized that I had made the right choice.  

Even if you are not presenting, a conference is still an excellent opportunity to contextualize your graduate experience within the broader field. Through the conference experience, you will be able to:

1. Gain profound insight into what’s happening at the cutting edge of your field
There is a lot of great work happening in each of our fields. Researchers throughout the country and around the world are often tackling many of the issues for which we have a passion. Yet with assignments and deadlines piling up, it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on elsewhere. A conference is the perfect opportunity to get caught up in a fairly short period of time.

The most rewarding session of the conference I attended came in the form of a panel on rural education. I learned about the research that each of the panelists is working on, and was able to ask questions that helped me see where my own personal work ties into the conversation. By attending this session, I was able to better understand the current gaps in the literature, and see where I might be able to play a role in closing them.

2. Apply what you are learning
When you are going through the day-by-day process of attending class and completing your coursework, it is difficult to see the progress you are making and how it all comes together. Stepping out of your university and into a conference environment allows you to apply your knowledge when listening to presenters and panelists share their research. It also allows you to reflect on how much you have grown.

I’ve taken a number of quantitative classes over the last few months building skills in research methods and economics. These classes have been challenging, and I’ve clocked many hours completing problem sets and preparing for exams. At first, I was worried that I would not be able to understand the quantitative methods discussed at the conference. However, I quickly realized that even if I wasn’t familiar with some of the more complicated methods, I was able to understand the gist of each presentation.

Throughout the conference, presenters referenced papers that I had read for class. When they used regression tables, I was able to interpret them and understand their statistical significance. I could recognize the elements of a strong presentation, as well as the elements of those that needed improvement. I saw my coursework come together, and it reaffirmed my decision to come back to grad school.

3. Look at potential career options
I’ve considered applying to a Ph.D. program and have been weighing the pros and cons. This conference was the perfect opportunity to gain a glimpse into what the research life is like and if this is something I want to pursue. I was able to survey what faculty and grad students from other schools are currently researching. I also had the chance to meet and hear from folks who work outside of academia but are still working in the field. The jury is still out on what I will be doing at the end of next year, but this conference allowed me to continue charting my course.

4. Meet others with similar interests
A conference is a gathering of many of the best minds in your field and is a great opportunity to network. Beyond that though is the chance to just hear from others who are going through the same experience as you are. I traveled to my conference with a number of students who are in a Ph.D. program at my university, many of whom I had not previously met. I was able to learn about their research, career goals, and experiences in the program in a way that I might not have otherwise without the conference structure.

If you are getting your master’s, I highly recommend that you attend a conference. The investment is worth it, and you will see the fruits of your labor.

Are you pursuing a master’s degree and considering going to your first conference? If not, do you have any advice for those who are? Feel free to share in the comments below.

[Image taken and submitted by the author.]

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