You wrote an abstract, submitted it, got accepted (!), and now you’re attending the big event. Conferences are exhilarating, inspiring, and fun, but they can also be exhausting, overwhelming, and anxiety producing, especially for graduate students and junior scholars. The balance between these positive and negative experiences can also depend upon what conference you’re attending. It’s one thing to attend your favorite conference year after year, surrounded by friends and colleagues. It’s another to attend an organization’s conference for the first time—especially if it’s gigantic, a new field for you, or a space where you might know next to no one.
Here are a series of tips for ensuring the most satisfying, productive, and engaging conference experience no matter what conference you’re attending.
Before the Conference
1. Study the program. Depending on the conference, there can be dozens upon dozens of panels to choose from. If you scramble to choose what session to attend the day of (or just follow your friends from session to session or, erm, just see the panels scheduled in the same room all day), you won’t have the best experience. Choose panels based upon presenters you’d like to meet, topics that align with your own research interests, or topics that fill in gaps in your own knowledge. It can also be great fun to attend panels on wholly unfamiliar topics to learn something new. If you have time, google presenters beforehand so you can make the most informed panel selections possible. You can also ask a colleague or mentor for “must see” presenter or panel recommendations.
2. Schedule out your conference. To determine what sessions you’ll attend, you can peruse the online program and/or after you’ve check-in at the conference, mark up the printed program with a highlighter. Or, if available, create a custom schedule in the conference app. Also note breaks in the program where you can schedule meetings with new colleagues, friends, and editors. For folks who you know will be particularly busy, it can be a good idea to reach out weeks ahead of the conference to schedule a meeting.
3. Prep your presentation. If you’re presenting, make sure you are prepared. It’s sometimes unavoidable that you’ll need to prepare your presentation while traveling to the conference (or even while at the conference), but doing so ahead of time can reduce stress at the event and make it possible to get the most out of the sessions. Practice your presentation to ensure that you stick to your allotted time, which is pretty much always less time than you’d like. Still, don’t be that person who goes way over time. In most cases, visuals help, so standbys like PowerPoint presentations can complement and supplement your paper. I find it helpful to include a running footer at the bottom of each slide with my name and contact/social media information. People may come into sessions late, so if they miss your introduction, they can still know who you are. If you’re unsure of the norms for reading papers versus speaking presentations, ask a colleague who’s attended the conference previously.
4. Prep to share beyond your presentation. There’s only so much you can say in a short presentation, so consider ways to provide more for attendees who might want to continue the conversation. If your presentation is part of a larger project (or a forthcoming publication) specifically mention that for context and for promotion. If the conference doesn’t publish proceedings or link to full papers, you can share printed copies or a QRS code or short link to the full paper.
5. Prep your panel. Whether you’re on a pre-organized panel or one created from individual paper submissions, email your fellow presenters to introduce yourself, share the content of your talk, organize your presentation order, and set your time allotments. Decide who will serve as time keeper to keep presentations running on time. It’s also a best practice to gather your panel’s slides together in a single slide deck before your session, which can be easy to do in Google slides. This reduces the chance of technical difficulties and ensures a smoother panel experience for both presenters and attendees—one without awkward moments between papers switching laptops or USB flash drives. Those saved minutes can also allow for more discussion time. If you have a discussant for your panel, make sure to distribute papers/presentations ahead of time to assist them in devising comments and remarks.
6. Pre-network. Connect before the conference with people who you want to make sure you meet for the first time, talk to, or catch up with. Depending upon how you know and have communicated with each person beforehand, you may seek them out with an informal tweet or direct message (“I’m so glad you’ll be at x conference and look forward to meeting you/catching up!”) or a more formal email. If you’re attending a conference in an entirely new field and not sure who to meet up with, ask a colleague or mentor for recommendations and, if they’re willing, to send introductory emails/messages on your behalf.
7. Pack your business cards. We may live in a digital age, but a business card is still one of the greatest networking tools available. Whether you choose a custom design or something simple with your institution’s logo, make sure to include your name, credentials, department, and institution, as well as the ways folks can get in touch with you: phone, email, Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc. You can print on the back of cards too, which can be a good place to list the fields of your research or other pertinent info.
8. Choose your outfits. Even if you’re not a fashionista, thoughtfully select your conference attire, adhering to the formality of the specific conference. (If you’re not sure, ask a colleague who’s attended before, or ask on Twitter using the conference hashtag.) No matter what, you’ll feel more confident presenting and networking if you know your clothes fit, are clean, and make you look as great as your ideas are. Wear comfortable shoes, especially if the conference events involve a lot of walking. Also pack for fluctuating temperatures, as some conference spaces can be very chilly, others too hot, and you want to be as comfortable as possible. If you’re endeavoring to not check a bag, check out my post on packing light for academic conferences.
9. Pack snacks. If you know you’re a person who needs regular snacks (this is 1 million percent me), pack snacks and take them with you to sessions throughout the conference. My favorites are granola or protein bars, dried fruit like apricots or figs, and nut/seed mixes. If you’re attending a conference that offers meal and snack breaks, don’t be afraid to “squirrel away” a small snack for later.
During the Conference
10. Engage with content. Just like when you attend classes, lectures, or seminars, don’t just sit and listen. Take notes or live tweet each presentation’s main ideas or interesting findings. Live tweeting conferences is also a service to the broader community, as it makes the conference content available to anyone unable to attend the event in person, which could lead to great online connections for you as well. Check out this guide for live-tweeting tips.
11. Connect with presenters. For any presenter who you haven’t formally scheduled time to meet, find other ways to connect. Ask questions during the Q&A and/or speak with presenters after their session. If you’re shy or feeling nervous, send the presenter an email, tweet, or direct message instead. It can also be great to attend those early morning panels. Presenters dread being assigned those spots and often worry about drawing a tiny crowd, so there’s more opportunity for discussion with a small group of dedicated folks.
12. Promote your presentation. Share the details for your talk or panel (topic, day/time, and location) on social media using the conference hashtag. You can even create an eye-catching visual to catch a bit more attention. If you’re on a panel, encourage all members to share and promote it to ensure a nice-sized crowd.
13. Rock your presentation. If you’re presenting, here’s where your preparation hours pay off. Connect with your fellow presenters. Speak confidently and clearly. Make as much eye contact as possible, even if you’re reading your paper. Welcome questions from the audience. Answer them succinctly and directly. If the audience doesn’t ask questions of all panelists, find ways to connect your answers to fellow panelists’ work to draw them into the conversation. If possible, follow up with the people who ask you questions after the talk to continue the conversation.
14. Shop for projects. As you meet with other scholars, ask about their current projects. Everyone loves the opportunity to talk about their own work—and who knows, there could be an opportunity for you to collaborate or contribute.
15. Read name tags. Pay attention to who folks are: in the audience, sitting next to you at lunch, or standing in the hall. If you’ve read a person’s book or paper, but have never met them before, it’s easy to start a conversation just by saying that you’ve read their work, sharing how and why you enjoyed it and found it meaningful to your own research. At the same time, don’t be the jerk who loses interest in someone when you don’t recognize their name or are always looking for someone “better” to chat with.
16. Network old school style. To be honest, events created to promote networking, like mixers, make me feel like a door-to-door salesman and I get all awkward and Willy Loman all over myself. If this is you too, set small achievable goals, like, “I will make two meaningful connections at this event,” meaning you have a conversation or exchange business cards with just two people. After you get started, you might gain some momentum and meet many more people.
17. Don’t skip out, too much. Conferences can be exhausting and everyone gets to a point when they want to (or start to) ditch sessions and events, maybe to sightsee around the conference city. Find the right balance for you, but the more sessions, workshops, field trips, ceremonies, and meals you attend, the more opportunities to meet people. A conference is not about your presentation, which could be just a handful of minutes long. It’s about all the other moments when you’re meeting people and building your network. If the conference is in a city you’d like to explore, try to arrive a day or two early or stay late, since trying to sightsee and conference at the same time can be tricky.
18. Quietly skip around. As long as you aren’t disruptive to the presenters and the conference doesn’t have strict rules against it, you can skip around during panel sessions. If you want to see the first talk in one session and the last in another, seat yourself near an exit so you can head out without disturbing the presenters and attendees. Similarly, if you end up in a session that you’re not enjoying, skim the program or check out the conference hashtag to see if there’s a more engaging panel to skip to so you can make the most of your conference experience.
19. Make new friends. Conferences are a great opportunity to meet well-established scholars in your field, but they’re also the perfect place to make new friends from institutions across the country and around the world, who can relate to your current joys and challenges as new faculty, graduate students, parents, etc. Try to branch out from your current group of friends and seek out new, likeminded colleagues.
20. Make introductions. If you’re more senior in the field or well-known at a particular conference, consider sharing your connections with graduate students or folks newly attending the conference. If your conference offers a mentoring program, volunteer a few minutes of your time to meet a new attendee, learn about their interests, and help introduce them to folks in your network.
21. Rest up (and responsibly caffeinate). Some folks can conference for 12+ hours, but know yourself and your limits. Try to get enough rest to be alert and engaged throughout the conference. During the day, conferences are essentially sitting and listening for hours on end, which can be exhausting both mentally and physically. If you’re dozing off during a session, you’re missing the action. Plan for caffeine and physical activity breaks. Some folks schedule short naps. If the conference offers a morning exercise session, consider attending. And during sessions, don’t be afraid to get up from your seat and stand in the back of the room to rejuvenate yourself.
After the Conference
22. Post-network. For any business card you secured or meeting/chat you had, send a follow up communication, whether by email or social media to keep the relationship growing.
23. Don’t be a missed connection. If there was someone you wish you had met or spoken to at the conference, but somehow didn’t, it’s not too late! In the days immediately following the conference, reach out to those folks. Tell them how much you enjoyed their presentation, loved their book, or regretted that you weren’t able to meet in person. See if there might be opportunities for you to meet on their home turf or on yours if they’re traveling near you for another conference or event.
24. Plan for next year. It’s never too early to start planning for next year’s conference. While it might be too early to approach presenters you don’t know well, make notes of people who do work that complements your own and brainstorm potential panel topics so that when next year’s proposal deadline comes around, you’re not scrambling.
What are your favorite tips for having a great conference experience? Please share them in the comments!
Top Photo Credit: Emily Contois, 2017