This is a GradHacker post by Stephanie Hedge, PhD candidate in Writing and Rhetoric at Ball State University, @slhedge
Attending conferences, as a presenter or otherwise, is an important part of establishing an academic identity. It allows you to keep up with current trends and research in the field, make connections and network with other academics, and provides a space for conversation with likeminded scholars. But conferences can be intimidating, especially if you are attending a large national conference, or are new to conferencing. Here are some tips for successfully navigating conference-going.
Look for hidden money
Many conferences offer travel grants, scholarships, or reduced rates for students. Look for these on the conference websites, and ask people who have attended the conference before. Sometimes, departments have travel money set aside specifically for graduate students, so ask an admin assistant, or your program administrator. Conferences can be awfully expensive, but there are often hidden funds for graduate students to help offset the costs!
Try staying at the conference hotel
Some people really like staying at the same hotel as the conference, which puts you right in the thick of action, and lets you rub shoulders with the other attendees. This isn’t for everyone, and is often more expensive, but it’s good to try it once so that you can know what you prefer.
Go to panels
This should be obvious, but when attending a conference, you should make time to attend several panels. There are a few things to keep in mind when selecting what you’re going to attend:
- Try going to a panel based simply on the topic. Even if you don’t know the names of any of the presenters, you might find yourself surprised!
- Try going to a panel based only on a presenter. Smart people will often have smart things to say, even if it’s on a topic that you’re not immediately interested in. Try going to a panel where you think you will learn something new!
- Keep in mind where things are located, especially at big conferences in more than one building or on large campuses. Maybe try to plan morning panels in one location.
- Give yourself breaks. Trying to go to every panel in every time slot is a good way to burn yourself out, and you might find yourself losing focus. Take an hour off to grab coffee and digest what you heard, or take time to hang out with a friend.
Go to events
There will be a number of events running throughout the conference, from townhalls and keynotes to cocktails and meet-and-greets. There also may be parties or dinners or other events that have become “traditions” for a particular conference. It is good to find out what (and where) these different conference events are. You don’t have to go to every event a conference puts on, but going to one or two of them can help you meet other people, and can give you a feeling for the overall tenor of the conference. You’re also likely to find free food at some of these events, which is always a plus! Also, feel free to make your own event. Find a group of people going for a beer and join them, or organize a dinner with some friends and all of their friends. Make sure that you’re spending time out of your hotel room, getting to know other people.
Find a conference buddy
Conferences can still be overwhelming, and having a buddy with you can help make going to panels and events more comfortable. A buddy can be someone to travel and book a hotel room with, and if they have been to the conference before, they can provide you with important insider information.
Talk to people
This is the most important piece of advice that I can give regarding conference. Talk to everyone you see. Wear your nametag so people know you’re with the conference, and say hello to everyone you meet. Stay after panels to talk to the presenters. Chat up fellow conference goers in the elevator, or in the coffee line. Say hello to people at a dinner table. Stop and chat with the person offering directions or doing sign in. Ask questions about the conference, or about the research others are doing. Talk to publishers and grab free books. Walk up to that scholar you admire and talk about their work. Initiate conversations with everyone.
This can be the most difficult part of a conference, particularly if you are a shy or awkward person (like me). But chances are, the person you end up talking to is also shy or awkward, and most people are happy and excited to make new friends or colleagues.
Chatting with as many people as possible is the best way to make connections. You can find a panel of people to present with for next year’s conference. You can make publishing contacts, or find potential employers. You can share your research and get meaningful feedback from others in the field. Being surrounded by likeminded scholars is the most rewarding part of going to a conference, and whether you end up attending any panels or events, chatting with people can make attending a conference worthwhile.
What advice do you have for conference attendance? What do you wish you had known? Share your ideas in the comments!