When I attended my first major academic conference as a graduate student, I made myself somewhat notorious within my grad program. While in the audience at a presentation, I leaned over to a friend, muttered a snide remark, left mid-presentation, and walked 30 blocks to a Manhattan fly fishing shop. The presentation was indeed terrible, but my real problem was that I hadn't yet learned how to attend a conference strategically.
What I should have done was save my snide comment for later (in my defense, I was very quiet, and nobody overheard me), and quietly slipped out to try another session that, ideally, I would already have scouted in the program and marked for quick reference. As long as you are quiet and discreet, there’s nothing rude about leaving a presentation. I left, but I blew off the whole conference for the whole day instead of finding another session. It is less rude to leave a session in between speakers, but, particularly at large conferences and in a large audience, one shouldn’t be shy about politely leaving.
Grabbing an aisle seat will make it much easier to make a graceful, unobtrusive exit if necessary.
Leaving in the midst of a session is somewhat more awkward at small, intimate conferences, and so I’d use more discretion at those. Similarly, I’ve often decided not to attend brilliant sessions because they were too crowded. Especially if someone I know is presenting, it’s not worth it to me to wander into a room, realize that it’s crammed, and spend the next hour and a half standing and sweating. If it’s someone I already know, I can catch them later. (Incidentally, people I know are very split on whether to attend all your friends' sessions, to support them, or to venture into the unknown. I try to do a bit of both.) I’ll slip out to a less crowded session. So, be willing to leave, politely and quietly and discreetly, but you need to have already identified some alternative sessions to quietly and politely arrive to late.
One reason I enjoy conferences more now than I used to is my note-taking. I take notes on speakers and presentations in conference programs. Basically, I rate the individual speakers I see in my copy of the program, along with a note to myself for what made them a good or bad speaker. Now that speakers have developed reputations in my own mind, I refer to these past programs before attending a conference, and make a point of avoiding speakers I’ve previously categorized as "bad" and seeking out those I’ve identified as “good.”
Basically, I’m saying that it is better to go see a good, smart speaker on a topic of only tangential interest than a bad speaker who is talking about exactly the thing you're most interested in (in most cases). Making use of such a system of course also means that you check out the conference program ahead of time. I love the routine of going through a program very thoroughly as I fly in to a conference, if I can get an advance copy. It allows me to use my own time at the conference more judiciously.
I have come to feel that small but elite conferences are the best ones to attend. Every field has its major conferences, and at least early in one's career, it’s probably necessary to attend the majors, if only for networking purposes or to interview for jobs. Networking, as much as the exchange of information, is really the function of academic conferences. Small conferences are by definition more intimate, and I feel that this intimacy leads many presenters to think more thoughtfully about their contributions, and their interactions. The smallness also makes meeting and socializing with new people more possible, less awkward, and less intimidating. I recommend hitting a few small, focused conferences, even if they aren’t necessarily in your primary area of expertise. Part of the fun of conferences is learning that you’re interested in something that you didn’t know you were interested in.
On a related note, it is simply important for graduate students and junior faculty to attend both small and large conferences within their field. Conference attendance is an important part of acculturation into the discipline, and one of the best ways to learn what people at other programs are doing and thinking about, one of the best ways to get out of the insular bubble that is your own program.
I never was, and am still not, a fan of conferences designed specifically and exclusively for graduate students. They are largely empty gestures, and generally don’t help students learn by observing more experienced experts. About the only thing graduate student conferences are really useful for is getting the experience of presenting, but even then, you can get that experience at a real conference, one that will count for something more on your C.V. and help you to meet new people in the process.
It’s also important to leave your comfort zone and introduce yourself to new people at conferences. I’m not very extroverted, and it has been one of the hardest parts of conference attendance to practice, but introducing myself to others and forcing myself to meet new people has made the experience of attending conferences better, and helped my career through the new connections I’ve made.
Finally, a pet peeve of mine, and many others I know, concerns the question-and-answer period of a conference session. One of the most obnoxious conference attendees is the one who asks a question at the end of a panel, usually eagerly, and uses the moment as an opportunity to: a) recite their own esoteric and usually irrelevant knowledge; b) mask some sort of comment in the guise of a question; c) baldly self-promote; d) disparage the presenter; e) all of the above. In short, don’t be that person. It’s fine to ask a tough question, as long as it is relevant, asked politely, and doesn’t involve any grandstanding. As a presenter, I prefer a tough, even combative, question to having to deftly parry some mope who’s done nothing more than spend two minutes reciting everything he’s ever read in order to make a comment on my paper that I can’t quite determine the relevance of.
Quick Tips for Productive and Pleasant Conference Attendance:
- Socialize with people from within and without your own program, no matter how daunting it may seem. Introduce yourself to people, or ask friends in common for introductions.
- Take notes on presentations and presenters, preferably within the conference program (whether analog or digital).
- Don’t try to attend every session, but ...
- ... attend a meaningful number of sessions.
- Get to popular sessions early.
- Be respectful to those you meet, but don’t be a sycophant with anybody.
- Try to attend those sessions that seem to directly address your own areas of research. Take notes.
- Follow a lark – attend a session that doesn’t on the surface appeal to you on the recommendation of a friend, or simply on your own whim. If it’s absolutely awful, politely slip out and to a session you’ve designated as a backup.
- Ask questions at panels, but refrain from comments. And keep your question CONCISE. The question-and-answer period is not a time to advertise yourself.
- Attend a combination of panels within and outside of what you think your areas of expertise/interest are.
- Enjoy a nice or local or exotic meal if you can, preferably with others.
- See some of the city you’re in, but perhaps not by conspicuously walking out during the middle of a session.