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Deidra Faye Jackson earned her Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford. She is the interim director of the UM Tupelo Campus Writing Center and teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

One week ago, I attended a three-day regional writing centers conference, which drew academics, administrators, graduate and undergraduate tutors, and other staff. I had initially envisioned writing a cautionary tale about the darker sides of partaking in these scholarly symposia, where grad students and their peers often share spaces with the researchers they study and cite. I would lament the long lines to retrieve cheap swag and to self-serve lukewarm buffet lunches and dinners, and grumble about speakers’ illogical presentation slides and lack of audience engagement. I could disparage the lack of breakout sessions for student researchers to talk to the academic scholars, who would keynote some of the sessions.

But, mercifully, this conference demonstrated none of that. The food was tasty, the presenters and presentations were compelling, and, except for a few talks, the slides were minimal and enlightening. Save for functional plastic water bottles, there was no cheesy swag, which I’m sure greatly minimized costs. Most importantly, the scheduled academic sessions and fun receptions encouraged positive and constructive interactions between students and seasoned scholars.

This was a conference at which grad students, attendees and involved participants alike could benefit. Here, grad students were centered as featured speakers, moderators and promising scholars with opportunities to engage with established research scholars in their field. This was a supportive atmosphere where nervous student presenters gradually relaxed as they received encouraging support from audiences of peers and professors who, through their questions and comments, established an empathetic rapport.

Attending such student-centered academic conferences offer ideal openings for student researchers to advance their own research. Other Gradhackers have offered solid advice on attending and presenting at conferences here, here, here, and here. I have some other tips, based on my recent observations of the meetings I attended.

  • If the prospect of attending or presenting at a conference literally makes you ill, don’t go. If you’re not in the right head space at the moment to anticipate the event, the experience will be unpleasant. If you can combat any pressure to register, do so and join the next conference that would benefit you and your research. Also, don’t be afraid to bow out if you can’t afford to attend, even if you’ve been given a stipend or travel funds that pay a portion of your costs. Always seek travel money from your school or department, especially if you’ve been invited to present your research.
  • It’s fun to attend a conference with your crew. However, instead of all of you rolling up into the same seminars, split up and attend different sessions. Get the most mileage from your numbers and share your meeting notes with one another. In addition, going separate ways gives you the opportunity to shift your focus, hear about new research and veer outside your comfort zone. You might make new acquaintances who share your field of interest and who offer you some new related research insights.
  • After the conference, don’t pass up the chance to contact a presenter or new colleague who offers to share their research and resources. Of all the conferences held in different parts of the country and world, it’s serendipity that brought you together. Take them up on their cordial suggestion, especially if their research could be consequential to your own scholarship or if a meaningful academic collaboration could be born. Gradhackers here and here have talked about how best to handle all those business cards you collect; after you leave the conference, here’s your chance to put them to good use.
  • Try not to let your nerves get the best of you when deciding whether to reconnect with a new academic acquaintance. All-encompassing pre-, mid- and postconference angst, social and professional, is real. Another Gradhacker, here, gives some great advice on how to alleviate research conference stress.

You can benefit from academic conferences, especially if they center student researchers. Trust your instincts, attend as many different sessions as you’re able, meet new peers and presenters along the way, and don’t be reluctant to reach out to the scholars who reached out to you first.

What are your strategies for attending conferences? Do you have any conference experiences to share? Share your thoughts in the comments!

[Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash.]

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