Attending Conferences: Tips for Grad Students to Maximize Opportunity

By David Papendorf

As many graduate students know, conference activity is both important professional experience and vital for being seen in your scholarly community. But, for graduate students, conferences are big, expensive, and inconvenient trips that can mess with deadlines.  However, I want to encourage students (myself included) to continue to press on and attend conferences.  Based on my experiences – both good and bad – I’d like to offer some observations and suggestions:

First, continue to take initiative.  Look for conferences year-round.  For my field, often some of the smaller conferences will take place during the second semester.  Though attracting fewer presenters, the smaller community gives you an opportunity to speak with more scholars in a more meaningful and substantial way. My suggestion is to spend some time looking around online for conferences.  Start with the journals you read and consider their conferences.  You can also look at faculty pages of scholars you admire for ideas.  Often they have a CV that shares where they present.  Get a little stalker-y and see what people in your field are doing.  If you would like a chance to meet someone, go to a conference that they routinely attend.  Chances are other important people will be there too.  I actually sent an unsolicited email to a scholar I admire concerning conferences and, not surprisingly, received an extremely helpful reply in return.  Simply put, get out there and take initiative.  Conferences are not going to find you, you have to find them.

Second, conferences are more for networking than anything else. You will present a paper that people will really only remember by its title and basic content (if you’re lucky). Most scholars treat conferences as opportunities to receive peer reflection upon their current or future writing projects rather than as an opportunity unveil brand new ideas. Conferences are a great place to vet your research.  If you are at a later stage in your PhD, it can be a great place to propose the premise and basic evidence of your dissertation chapters.  Getting comments and questions from colleagues can be very beneficial. But, remember, you only get about 20 minutes to present your paper, and over the course of the conference you will only manage to take in some simple research profiles. Therefore, the real benefit is meeting people and seeing their research process.  Do not be afraid to go up to someone and chat with them concerning their research.  A great way in is to tell them you enjoyed their paper, and most scholars are happy to engage from there. Most scholars are happy chat with you.  Also, send a follow up email with the people you have conversations with for more than five minutes.  This solidifies the connections and gives you an in next time you’d like to speak with this person.  Networking can be hard especially if you are more introverted, but it is so important.

On that note, when you find a conference that is important for your field or beneficial professionally be sure to go again.  Plan to have a “home conference” that you attend every year.  If you go more than once, your likelihood of being recognized is much higher.  Imagine what consistent attendance will do for your recognizably.  I have friends who have reminded me that this is how they got writing projects.  Just this past weekend, I got an offer for a multiple book review from a prestigious journal just from being around and talking to people at the conference.  If you consistently present on a topic, you get known as a person who does research in that area.  You never know when someone will contact you or speak with you about a project you’re doing and see if you can write an article/chapter/entry or something else.  It is important to think this way – parlay your conference experience into future writing projects.  On another level, consistent attendance gives you the opportunity to organize panels for future conferences and be even more connected with scholars and researchers in your field.  Who knows, you may hear of open positions for which you can apply.

Hopefully these words of advice from my experience are helpful.  I’m still learning on how to do conferences well myself.  To get to more conferences in a cost-effective way, try to piggyback trips together with research ventures.  Or, find a colleague that can go with you so you can share gas/lodging/meals, etc.  Your experience with conferences can be rewarding if you have have high expectations and prepare in advance.  If you are proactive in talking to scholars and selecting your work for presentation, you can make experience beneficially personally and professionally.