Stephanie Hedge is a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Ball State University who specializes in Digital Literacies and is a permanent author at GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @slhedge. 
A few months ago, I did a post on hacks for successfully navigating an academic conference . Many of you sounded off in the comments and on Twitter with more advice for conferencing, and there were so many good ideas that I decided a sequel post was in order! This post is Successfully Navigating Conferences II: The Revenge!
Academic conferences can be overwhelming, but they are often a necessary part of academia. They provide a means for you to engage other scholars, and to work on your scholarly identity. They are awesome networking opportunities, and a great place to test out new research and challenging ideas. Below are a list of (more ) hacks for successfully navigating the academic conference gauntlet!
Be a Prepared, Respectful Presenter
Our previous article was focused on the conference as an attendee, not a presenter, but many times we are attending a conference because we are presenting. Make sure that you follow these key tips when presenting:
- Have backups for all digital media. Don’t rely on a powerpoint or other presentation software; make sure that your presentation can still proceed (smoothly) if the tech goes down.
- Make sure you have rehearsed and timed your presentation, and plan to come in at least two minutes shorter than your allotted time.
- Have a short handout with your name, session title, and contact information. Handouts can be valuable for people who want to get in touch after conferences, and can act as positive networking tools.
- Some presenters have started offering unique Twitter hashtags for their panels, or displaying their Twitter handle for questions; this is a good way to concentrate conversation in the Twitter chatter, and can broaden the discussion to audiences beyond your room.
- Don’t go over time. Don’t be that guy.
Be an Engaged Audience Member
You’ll get the most out of panels that you attend if you are an active listener; take notes as the presenters speak, or live tweet their talks. Plan questions that you want to ask, and make sure these questions are focused on the presentation. There is one person at every panel who asks a long winded question to show off their own knowledge—don’t be that person. Ask genuine questions of the panelists. Not every question has to be brilliant, as any question will further the discussion and exchange of ideas. If you are too shy to ask a question in front of the large group, stay after the panel has finished to speak with the presenters one on one. Exchange contact information, ask about their future projects, and share your own ideas and work. Try asking a question in a panel outside of your expertise, and learn something new!
Be Active with Scholars you Respect and Admire
Several commenters mentioned that it is important to talk to everyone, including scholars you admire who may be intimidating. Many of these scholars are instructors at their own institutions, and are used to students talking to them about their work. Be enthusiastic, but respectful (don’t interrupt private conversations or dinners, for example). Don’t let shyness prevent you from making exciting connections!
Go to Meals (with everyone!)
In the previous article, I mentioned that it is important to attend events put on by the conference, but several commenters mentioned that (often impromptu) meals specifically provide a good opportunity to meet people and to engage in conversation. You can tag along with a group going for food, or find strays and create your own! As one commenter mentioned, don’t be afraid to be the person who announces to the room after a panel “I’m going to grab lunch, who wants to come?”.
Get Your Elevator Speech Down
As interested as you are about the work that others are doing, they are equally interested in your work! Make sure that you are prepared to talk about your research. If you are dissertating, make sure that you have your “Elevator speech” down: be able to describe your project to a colleague during an elevator ride (so in 2-3 minutes). Even if you are just starting with your graduate work, spend a few minutes thinking about your research and be able to talk about your interests and your current work. What are you writing right now?
(As an aside: some of the best conversations and opportunities I have had at conferences have been in actual elevators. You never know where you’re going to meet people!)
Follow the Conference on Twitter
More and more, academics are turning to Twitter to document conferences. Some conferences are establishing official conference hashtags, which people will be using to talk about the conference. But even at conferences without an official hashtag, people will be tweeting, so pay attention to other people who you know are attending. Twitter is a great for live tweeting panels, so you can see who is talking about what, to share details about great local food or events, and to plan meet-ups with other attendees. If you aren’t on Twitter, conferences are an excellent reason to hop on the bandwagon.
Also: if you have a Twitter handle, you can write it on your name tag, so other people from Twitter can find you, and you can make quick connections with conference-goers!
Have Something to Write With
Make sure that you have something to write with everywhere you go. You never know when you will want to write down contact information, the name of an article to read, or directions to the bar. Always have at least one pen on hand, and always have some paper with you. Many conferences have spotty internet connections and cellphone service, so try not to rely on handheld devices too much.
Talk to Book Reps
Make sure that you talk to any book reps at the conference. There are often free books available, and there may be resources or opportunities for graduate students, so make sure to ask. This is also an opportunity to discuss any book projects you may have, and even if you have nothing concrete in mind, you can get a good feel for the kinds of scholarship currently being published.
See the City
One of the best things about large conferences that move around is the opportunity to visit different cities, states, and countries. Make sure to take at least one opportunity to visit something local: museums, landmarks, local restaurants, or performances. Take advantage of the opportunity to explore a new place. As one of our commenters mentioned, conferences provide a unique travel opportunity, and take you to places you might otherwise never have visited. Don’t miss out on local fun!
Each conference has a different standard for dress, but most conferences tend to be more professional than less. Make sure that you are dressed professionally. As well, ensure that your actions echo your dress: don’t interrupt panels, don’t be rude, don’t get drunk and cause a scene. Make friends, but remember that you are with colleagues, and act accordingly. As another mark of professionalism, you can think about getting business cards; they’re a great way to hand out your contact information quickly.
Talk to Everyone
This list ends the same way the other one does: with the advice to talk to as many people as possible. Don’t be discouraged if people already seem to be in groups—be patient, persistent, and friendly. Try to leave the conference with the contact information of at least two new people, and make sure that you email them when you get home!
So, what did we miss this time? Share your conference thoughts in the comments here, or on Twitter!