How can I get the most out of my first major academic conference?
September 25, 2013 8:11 AM   Subscribe

I'm a second-year grad student in the humanities going to (and presenting at!) my first major academic conference in about a week. I already have business cards, a list of sessions I'm interested in, and a probably absurdly high amount of anxiety. Fellow academics of MeFi, what do you recommend to maximize my conference experience?
posted by naturalog to Education (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Especially since this is your first conference, I wouldn't try to 'get the most out of it', but rather just go experience it. Be friendly and talk to people, but not about your shared subject of interest the entire time. I treat conferences like a fancy party without any alcohol (and if there is, go super duper easy on it). I really, really try to have fun with it. This usually works if I take my nervousness and tell myself (tricking myself, really) that I'm excited instead—it's the same physiological response in the body, and telling yourself you're excited will serve you better. It will come off as enthusiasm (unless you're over the top with it, which might be a bit intense). Either way, temper all things by taking breaks throughout the conference. Go on little walks, take five minutes with the smokers (you don't have to smoke yourself—there will always be smokers, they will be few in number, and they will be happy to talk to you; you'll be surprised at how many non-smokers step outside and wander in small circles at conferences), eat a snack in peace. Those breaks will become invaluable. If you look around, you wlll see loads of people doing the same. Most of them will be getting something small done, pretending to work on a task, or just shamelessly not working on anything.

Really, first conference: go watch people and see how it's done. There are all sorts of conference personalities and there's no one right or wrong way to go. See what might work for you.

And take notes in the abstract booklet during the talks. Even if by notes, you end up with drawings of stick figures (not all talks are great, it happens).

Oh, and the talks you just missed (you don't have to attend everything and rarely does anyone)—ask others how they went. Tell them you were interested in the talk and couldn't make it because of X. Usually people will offer something like, "It was interesting but not my area of expertise because of Y." Then you can respond in multiple ways of course, but you then have the option of saying, "Oh, me too. What is your subject area?" and go from there.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by iamkimiam at 8:39 AM on September 25, 2013

The anxiety's totally normal, but honestly, you don't need to worry. People are usually fairly decent and not interested in savaging the nervous students. When people ask you questions about your paper, try not to hear them as "here is a flaw with what you said, PROVIDE AN ANSWER!" but as "what you said was interesting and here is a detail I would like to know more about, or suggest an author/angle/theory you might not have thought of factoring in." It is very, very rare someone will be trying to catch you out.

Also, you aren't duty-bound to take on board any suggestions someone makes in a question. At least half of all conference questions are someone seizing on an opportunity to talk about their own research, which may very well have nothing to do with yours.

Keep to time when you're presenting. (This likely won't be a problem - students tend to be better at this than people who've been doing it for twenty years!). Time yourself beforehand so you know you won't exceed your timeslot, and you won't need to stress about it while presenting.

There will be people there who have known each other for years and are enjoying the conference as a chance to catch up. That doesn't mean everyone there except you knows everyone else! You can wander around at coffee breaks, whatever, and introduce yourself to people ("Hi, I really loved your paper this morning!" is a decent line, assuming that you did!), join in ongoing conversations that seem interesting to you, etc. And you can slink off to get some time by yourself and recharge whenever you want, too. You are not required to be networking 100% of the time - being on Conference Mode can be quite exhausting.

If the conference is held anywhere interesting, take the chance to go and look around a little bit while you're there.
posted by Catseye at 8:43 AM on September 25, 2013

I'm a satisficer, not a maximizer - but here are some thoughts from years of conference-going, and dredging up dim memories of my earliest conferences:

Rehearse your presentation, preferably with a friend or two, to make sure you don't go over the time limit. Also, though it pains me to say this, expect one or two other speakers in your session to go over time, so unless you're first, note down a few paragraphs you can cut if you're short on time. Academic session chairs are usually not assertive enough about getting a speaker to stop when he or she has run over time. Also: print out your talk or notes in 1.5-spaced, 15 point font (or even bigger). Rooms can be dim, and bigger print is easier to read. If you're reading your talk (the norm in some fields), mark it up like a script, with underscores for emphasis and notes on when to pause, switch slides/transparencies, etc. The most important thing you'll do at the conference is present your work, and you want to make a good impression on the audience.

Also, anticipate questions, especially those that challenge your evidence or conclusions, and try to come up with answers: either rebuttals or acknowledgements that your work in progress doesn't address everything. Be generous with questions, even hostile ones. You don't want to come across like you don't have confidence in your work, but you also don't want to appear to be BS-ing your way out of them, or to be answering a question that was not, in fact, the one that was asked. Treat the discussion as a way to advance knowledge, not to score points. If the questioner was just trying to score points, the audience will recognize that, and will appreciate your gracious response.

More generally:

If it's a big conference (several hundred people), don't try to do everything. Go to sessions that really interest you, but if there's a time slot without a session that grabs your attention, use the time to check out the book room or to chat with someone you met, or to take a walk. If you're planning to visit a local sight, and you've met a few congenial people, see if they're up for it.

If there are big names in the field you want to meet, by all means introduce yourself; the most natural place to do that is after they've given a talk, so you can chat about what they are currently working on, as opposed to the famous book that they wrote a decade ago that everyone reads in seminars but that they may not have thought about for some time. Don't be offended if they don't remember you the next time you meet, though. They meet a lot of people.

But also try to meet your peers and aspirational peers - students and junior faculty at other institutions who are working in your general area of interest. These are the people you'll be seeing at conferences for the rest of your career, if you stay in academe; making connections with them now increases the odds that you'll know people at the next conference, and that you'll have a network outside of your own institution you can draw on for feedback on your work, for organizing sessions, etc.

If you hear a bad paper, note down why it's bad, so you know what to avoid in the future!

If you regularly exercise, try to do so at the conference hotel. I like to get up early and use the stationary cycle, if the hotel has one. It helps compensate for the general stress and for eating lots of prepared or restaurant food.

And finally, if you're like me and have a bad memory for names and faces: from time to time, jot down the names of people you have met--not while you're talking, but afterwards. It's surprisingly helpful to have a list and review it in the morning.

Have fun!
posted by brianogilvie at 8:48 AM on September 25, 2013

What I usually tell first-time grad students is that the great thing about being a grad student at a conference is that within the bounds of normal human behavior it's pretty much impossible to hurt yourself (with a couple of caveats). You can help yourself a lot, but hurting yourself is really difficult.

I mean, say you go to your panel and, in your mind, do a terrible job presenting -- rush through everything and mumble and are fidgety nervous and forget to mention three important things and all that. Like a really bad case of the standard "anxious public speaker" problems. And there are professors out there in the audience, and on the panel with you! Full professors from big name schools who will be looking at your job application in a couple of years! Here is what those profs will think:

"Eh. Grad student."

And 30 seconds after you're done talking, they will have forgotten your existence. Moral of the story: you weren't hurt.

Of course, if you do well presenting, or carry yourself well in a less formal talk with someone, people remember that. But they don't remember grad students acting like stereotypical grad students. That said, if you physically attack someone on your panel, or otherwise behave in an actual no-shit unhinged way, people might remember that.

So anyway, my primary advice would be to just relax, do your best but don't stress about it, and try to be politely friendly to anyone who wants to talk to you. Even -- or maybe especially -- other grad students on your panel or who you otherwise meet.

Caveats: don't be an asshole. That means don't get wasted (since blotto people can easily be assholes) and I'd recommend not hitting on anyone.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:52 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if there's a choice between going to lunch (or for a beer) with faculty/grad students in your area or going to a panel you're interested in... I'd pick the lunch/beer.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:54 AM on September 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't try to do too much each day. I always plan on going to several sessions per day, but often find I am really tired after just two. So, maybe prioritize the top two sessions to attend each day, in case you need time to recharge.
posted by wittgenstein at 8:59 AM on September 25, 2013

logged in just to tell you to put aside some time to visit the book fair if there is one.

don't skip the book fair... the real business is all going on there!

look at all the latest topics and familiarize yourself with all the player's in your field's publishing racket.

P.s don't forget breath mints and hand sanitizer
posted by ServSci at 9:07 AM on September 25, 2013

I'd also say that putting effort into meeting the community is the hardest, but probaly the most rewarding thing for your first conference. Make time to talk to exhibitors and don't skip out on things like mixers and open panels. I see too many students duck out of these things, and yet the side conversations in the halls and over lunch are often the most valuable ones.
posted by bonehead at 9:10 AM on September 25, 2013

This depends a lot on the size of the conference, but in general...

If you are a poster presenter, stand by your poster when you are supposed to.

If you are a platform speaker, yay for you!

Research the abstracts early and often. Hunt down the people (or posters) you want to talk to or see. Talk to them, see them!...ask about their work as much as you talk about yours.

Ask questions of the speakers. If you don't want to do this during the talk, hunt them down and do it afterwards. Sometimes it is a little odd when someone that no one recognizes keeps asking good questions, but guess who ends up with their own grant several years later!

Remember that you represent your adviser at conferences, so definitely mention them. You would be amazed at how many people went drunken bowling or got caught in an airport blizzard together while you were still in middle school.

Then after the conference...

Follow up emails with the people you talked with or asked you questions. Papers, collaborations, invitations for reviewing articles, future job opportunities may come of it.
posted by BearClaw6 at 9:36 AM on September 25, 2013

Get business cards.

See if you can get a list of the attendees before you go. See whether there are any that are particularly relevant to you and you might be able to spark a conversation with. Push yourself to do it with senior people as well as junior people if you have something you would like to ask them.

Go through the schedule for the whole event. Pick what speakers are interesting to you then select sessions on that basis. Give yourself permission not to attend a session if there is nothing particularly interesting to you. Go off and do something else, shopping, eating something that you might not get at conference meals etc., visiting something interesting nearby, whatever.

Go to anything with free drinks, it will be the best attended event of the conference.

Ask a question. Maybe more than one, but start with one - put your hand up and say something in at least one session.
posted by biffa at 12:47 PM on September 25, 2013

Go to anything with free drinks, it will be the best attended event of the conference.biffa

Oh, yes, this. Don't drink too much, though. Some conferences also have a grad student mixer; junior faculty often crash it, which can be fun for both. (Heck, some years ago at the History of Science Society it wasn't unusual for senior faculty to crash the mixer.) At a really big conference there might also be a drop-in room for grad students. The one at the American Historical Association has (or at least, had) free coffee and bagels.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:15 PM on September 25, 2013

Are any of your advisers or faculty members attending? Try to tag along with them to things, if they are amenable, and pay attention to whether they introduce you to people. If they do, be prepared to talk to those people. If they don't, abandon them and tag along with a different adviser/faculty member until you find one who will introduce you to people.

This is a trial run for when you are on the job market. The professors who introduce you to people are the ones who either know more people or are more willing/interested/suited to help you make connections. You don't want to wait until after you get your degree to find out your adviser isn't going to be instrumental in finding you a job.
posted by OrangeDisk at 4:44 PM on September 25, 2013

In my experience at humanities conferences (including some of the big ones) nobody had business cards. People scrawled down names and email addresses in the notebooks they carried.

If you have a mentor or supervisor who you get along with, get them to introduce you to people. Try to come up with a question at every panel you go to, and if you are genuinely interested in the answer, ask it. But try to have a good time. A large number of people there will be present as much to catch up with friends and colleagues as they will be to present research.
posted by synecdoche at 6:08 PM on September 25, 2013

I asked a "my first conference" question specific to presentations here. Months later I ran across this resource.

Good luck! I've had the most interesting conversations talking to fellow grad students over the free food...
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:42 AM on September 26, 2013

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