Making a Conference Work for You
Learning to glean the most from conference season
Posted Jul 16, 2013
By Katherine M. Zinsser (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Timothy W. Curby (George Mason University)
Conference season is upon us. You must go, even if it means credit card debt.
Why is going to a conference so important? If you choose well, most of your potential employers are going to be there. Other people that want the same jobs as you are going to be there. Future collaborators are going to be there. Why wouldn’t you want to go? That being said, it’s not just about showing up. Nobody is taking attendance; you need to make the most of your time.
Some of you may have work that you’re presenting. That’s wonderful, but it can’t end there. Most of the people that you want to meet are not going to be in your session, so you have to make the conference work for you. Beyond presenting your research and getting that all-important line on your CV, conferences are about networking. There are people that you know you want to meet—the big names in your discipline. But there are others that you don’t know that you want to know, yet. So, spend the money, become a member, and get there, because conferences are important.
How do you ensure that your money and time are well-spent?
- Choose wisely. Find a conference that has people doing work that you’re interested in. Small regional conferences can be a good and inexpensive way to get your feet wet. However, they are not usually specialized enough to attract a large number of key people from a discipline. Larger conferences may require more travel and expense, but offer more opportunities to see important research and meet key people.
- Apply for travel funding. This may be from the conference itself, or from your department, college, advisor, student group, etc. Don’t count on much (if anything), but it is always worth asking.
- Plan ahead. Look through the schedule in advance. Find sessions (including posters) that are relevant to your interests. Find people you want to meet. Ask others what sessions they are going to attend. Discuss your plans with others (like your advisor) so you can get feedback. Ask if they would introduce you to people they know.
- Find some coattails. You are going to want to have someone who can introduce you to others. This can be an advisor, another faculty member, a post-doc, a finishing student, or all of the above. It can be very hard to introduce yourself to important strangers, so tell others that you want to be introduced.
- Be outgoing. As difficult and awkward as it may feel for some of you, you will have wasted your time and money if you are a wallflower. Other people like to talk about their work, so start the conversation. Poster sessions provide a less-intimidating context to ask questions and make connections. However, don’t talk to people unless you have something concrete to say. Simply telling someone that you like their work won’t jumpstart a meaningful conversation. So, if you see someone you want to talk to, have a detail in mind when you start the conversation—some aspect of their work that you want to follow up on. Do your research ahead of time and make a real connection.
- Look good. Check in with people who have been to the conference before, because each conference has its own norms. In general, dress up if you’re presenting and, if not, assume business casual. You don’t want to be remembered as that smart grad student in ripped jeans.
- Make it known if you are going on the market. Simply pointing out that you’re finishing naturally segues into mentioning that you’re going to be applying for jobs. If they have any known openings, they’ll mention it and you’ll remember it. In informal conversations, don’t hand out copies of your CV—that’s just weird.
- Have business cards. It may sound old fashioned, but they actually are really helpful. It gets your name in their hands. Many universities will let you order business cards with the university logo. If not, simply find a site and print some.
- Have an online presence. If someone remembers you (or looks at your business card), they may look you up. So, be on your advisor’s page. If that won’t help you (e.g., the page hasn’t been updated in 10 years), set up your own basic page with your CV. If you can’t set up a page, at least create a LinkedIn account. Also consider setting up Research Gate and Google Scholar profiles if you already have publications. This should go without saying, but clean up your Facebook page, change your privacy settings, etc.
- Crowd-source. You may not be able to do everything. If you've chosen a good, large conference there may be more than one thing at one time that you want to go to. If other people from your program are interested in the same things, you can divide and conquer.
- Have fun, but not too much. Hospitality bars, happy hours, receptions, etc. can be great, but the last thing you want to do is to be remembered for the wrong reasons. A good strategy is to match your behavior to that of the most distinguished person in your social group. Follow the flow of the conversation; if talk turns casual, don’t drag it back to business. But remember, this is not your friend’s wedding, this is work.
- Follow up. Did you meet your academic crush? If you don’t follow up after the conference, they won’t. There is a window of time afterwards when it is appropriate to contact someone about their presentations. If you send a follow-up email, you can maintain that connection. If you don’t, you’re not going to be able to email that person six months later.
With a little effort and forethought, attending the right conference is a worthwhile investment in your academic career. Are there other strategies that you’ve used to get the most out of attending a conference?