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Ten Simple Rules for Attending Your First Conference

Conferences are a mainstay of most professions, where professionals of all career stages come together to share cutting-edge ideas and approaches. Chances are you will attend one or more conferences during your career. Conferences can be a microcosm of their profession, and while conferences offer different perspectives in different disciplines, they all offer experiences that range from a casual chat waiting in line for coffee to watching someone present their wildly successful project. Read on for tips for students, interns, and emerging professionals so you can make the most of your experience.

Rule 1: Select a conference that aligns with your goals

Why go to a conference? There may be more than one answer! Consider the experience and how it will help you develop intellectually and professionally. Conferences are a place for professionals to gather, present, give feedback, engage in professional development, and network with one another. While some conferences provide a large overview of an entire academic discipline with thousands of attendees, other conferences focus on specific subdisciplines in an informal and personalized setting. Smaller conferences are excellent venues for networking, sharing your knowledge informally, etc. Some conferences are national or international in scope, while others have a regional focus. All of these variables impact factors such as the conference location, scope of sessions, the cost of attendance, and more.

If you are planning to attend a conference, you might also plan to present. You and the others who have worked on a project or research would make this decision before the conference, often many months prior, and you typically submit materials to be considered for presenting. The APA-IL holds a Call for Sessions each year to gather proposed sessions.

In addition to presentations, conferences provide formal and informal opportunities for professional development and networking (see Rule 7). Review conference opportunities ahead of time and make plans to attend things that sound interesting and align with your goals.

Rule 2: Find others to foot the bill

Organizing and running conferences cost money, and attendees usually pay to attend these events. In-person conferences can get expensive quickly due to additional costs associated with travel, room and food expenses, appropriate clothing, etc. Virtual conferences tend to be less expensive. Funding sources are often available to offset some or all of your costs and identifying those sources exist early on will help you take advantage of the opportunities.

First, some conferences offer discounted registration for students or those with fewer economic resources. Often, these funding opportunities are made possible by the host or by sponsorship funds. An in-person conference might have volunteer opportunities where you are compensated with a waived registration fee. Second, many academic institutions have funds intended to support student travel or may have a budget to support their students’ attendance at a conference. Sometimes, these opportunities are not widely advertised so always ask. Another place to look is student clubs and organizations (like your Planning Student Organization). Third, for national conferences, those organizations may provide support for student travel. Some of these opportunities are dependent on student demographics such as being first generation, a student from a historically underrepresented population, or a woman in the field. Be sure to visit the organization's website to search for potential sources.

An important note: sometimes awards and funding opportunities will require that you front the money and then get reimbursed after the conference. This means you would need to put things on your own credit card and then submit receipts for reimbursement. If this presents a hardship for you, reach out for help. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the organization or your school has encountered this problem so you should not hesitate to ask for assistance in navigating this process. Keep track of all itemized receipts for the conference and ask the funding provider for details about reimbursement.

Rule 3: Know your logistics

It is important to be aware of the Who, What, When, and Where logistics (see Rule 1 for Why) to ensure a smooth experience.

Who do you know will be at the conference? Housing and transportation costs for conferences can be expensive, complicated, and/or both. Consider traveling together with people you know and sharing housing costs by rooming with classmates, acquaintances, etc.

What will you need to bring to the conference? It is usually preferable to pack light, and pack for the situations and weather you will encounter (see Rule 4). If you are presenting, make sure that your presentation materials travel safely with you. Make a few different backups of slides and media (store on a thumb drive or in the cloud) in case your computer is lost, stolen, or broken.

When do you need to make key conference travel decisions? Chronologically, these include writing and submitting a session proposal, having proposal accepted, registering for the conference, making travel and housing arrangements, and actually traveling to the conference and presenting. Because deadlines can fall several months ahead of the meeting date, it is important to be aware of deadlines for conferences in your field. When scheduling travel, make sure that you arrive before, and leave after, your scheduled presentation date/time. If your travel has multiple legs of transportation, give yourself enough time to make each connection.

Where is the conference, and where will you stay while attending? Depending on the scope of the conference (see Rule 1), housing may be easily obtainable at the conference venue, or a mad scramble between all 30,000 attendees to find a room near the convention center. Conferences will typically contract at nearby hotels. Pay attention to deadlines and reserve rooms early. Acquaint yourself with the transportation options to and within the conference host city. Conferences will usually send information and tips regarding transportation, housing, and the like.

Rule 4: Prepare for the environment

A good rule of thumb is to dress as if you might meet your future employer at a conference (which you might do!). At the same time, wear something you are comfortable in. Different conferences may have a variety of dress code standards. Attendees who are presenting may wear more formal clothes, but many people will dress as they do in the office.

When you are packing for an in-person conference, check the weather before you go, since you may be outdoors. Conference venues are notoriously cold so layering is important. Between moving around the conference venue, seeking out meals, and mobile workshops, you will spend a lot of time being active. Wear shoes and clothing that allow you to comfortably do all these things. If you have any questions about ADA accessibility at the conference, contact the conference organizer. Some conferences have an app (see Rule 6) with all this information. Finally, conference days can be long—bring a water bottle to stay hydrated, a light snack to sustain you between meals, and a comfortable bag to keep belongings.

Rule 5: Learn how to take in the information

The dissemination of information happens in a variety of ways at a conference. There are almost always formal and informal mechanisms for learning and presenting information. Some speakers give keynote or plenary presentations, which often provide a perspective of the field from one individual. Other speakers are selected to give technical presentations or hold panel discussions. Usually, all forms of presentations provide time for asking questions at the end, and attendees may line up in front of a microphone or raise their hand depending on the number of people.

But wait, there’s more! Many conferences offer tutorials, workshops, or special sessions that are held either right before or right after the main conference, usually at the same location. These topics may be even more narrowly focused than those at the conference or involve emerging concepts in the discipline. Note that some of these may require registration beyond the main conference.

So, how do you actually take in all the information? First, know that it is often impossible to see everything—the conference may have concurrent sessions, the days are quite long, and you need to take time to rest and recharge. As you make a conference plan to prioritize what you want to see (see Rule 6), let the conference program be your guide. Find a way that works for you to take notes on what you learn throughout the conference. Strategies could include a notebook, using Google Docs, writing in the conference program, taking notes on smartphones, making sketch notes, and even sending ourselves emails. In addition to the information, take notes about whom you meet—you never know if you will meet them again or if you might want to connect with them after the conference. Find something that works for you. Some conferences may have rules about taking digital photos or videos so be sure to check beforehand if you want to do either.

At in-person conferences, there are many ways to interact with speakers. Speakers and general attendees have a common need for caffeine, and coffee / snack breaks are a staple of every conference. If you are not a coffee drinker, there are often other warm beverages and snacks on hand. Conferences may also offer breakfast or lunch, and each break or meal is in an invitation to meet someone new (see Rule 7). If the conference has a big-ticket event, it is not one to miss! There may also be a career fair, special meetings for first-timers, or meetups for special interest or affinity groups. Take advantage of these to find other attendees with similar interests, backgrounds, and experiences (see Rule 8).

Rule 6: Make a conference strategy

The idea of a conference—uninterrupted learning about fascinating ideas and exchanging insights with other like-minded folks might sound like a dream come true! The reality is that conferences can be exhausting if you do not have a plan for selectively attending activities that will provide you the most benefit. This is especially important for neuro divergent attendees who may get overwhelmed by the amount of information conveyed during a conference. It’s good to make a draft plan several weeks before the conference in which you prioritize the sessions and events you want to attend. Having a written (or conference app-built) plan which gives you a solid framework that you can tweak on the fly as new opportunities appear. If you intend to participate in pre- or post-conference events, it is important to factor in extra self-care. Activities all day can be exhausting!

How do you prioritize what to attend? First, it is good to attend keynote, plenary, and panel discussions as they provide perspective into the wider concerns of your field and often are forward looking to emerging challenges. Second, definitely attend technical presentations related to your specific area of focus in order to know what research is being done and become part of that community of researchers. Reading papers or watching videos in advance and thinking of what questions you might like to ask about the work are great ways to prepare so that you can contribute to the discussion in a positive way. Third, if the conference offers any first-time or new attendee events, plan on attending those as you will make some connections with other attendees that will make the conference more enjoyable and less lonely. Finally, attending the networking events (see Rule 7) helps you get to know your colleagues as individuals on a personal level.

Working self-care into your plan is essential—but how? First, if you have a daily ritual, such as exercising or going for a walk, keep that schedule as much as possible during conference days. Find out if the hotel has the equipment you need for exercising; many downtown gyms or community centers sell day passes. Second, recognize that your brain is going to need breaks between talks. If the conference is not in your native language, your brain may be working overtime to process the information. Determine time slots when the presentations are not of particular interest to you, and plan on taking a walk, getting a coffee, or doing some other activity that will help you recharge. Attendees do disappear for stretches of time for exactly this purpose. For many of us, traveling to in-person conferences is a way to experience new parts of the country or the world. It is fine to take a short break to experience local destinations.

Rule 7: Make new friends but keep the old; be ready to communicate

Conferences, especially when well organized, offer a great opportunity to exchange ideas, network, and potentially form collaborations with other researchers. Networking opportunities can be organized or spontaneous. Organized networking events may include events such as socials, affinity group meetings, or mentorship opportunities. Many researchers also make efforts to meet with current or prospective collaborators at meetings. In addition to organized events, lots of networking happens spontaneously—waiting in line for coffee, at a presentation, etc. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet lots of people who are interested in sharing their information and forming new professional connections.

Preplan to meet few people at the conference. A good way to find people is to look at the conference program or app, which contains presenter names and sometimes includes a full list of attendees (see Rule 6). Start with the area you are interested in. Read their work before the conferences and prepare questions to start a conversation. If they have a website, they will likely have a headshot picture. Find out what they look like in advance. In-person conference attendees usually wear name badges which helps if you’re trying to meet someone whom you’ve never met in person. If they are giving a talk, try to attend; following up with the speaker after their talk is a good way to strike up a conversation with them. If you did not get a chance to talk with everyone you wanted to, you can always follow up with them over email or through LinkedIn (see Rule 10). Use the conference to make it not feel like a cold email—tell them you attended their session and ask any questions.

In-person conferences have many opportunities for informal networking, but it still may feel awkward to strike up a conversation. If you are coming to the conference with a company or institution, agree to introduce one another to whomever you are speaking with. Breakfast, snack breaks or evening social events are a great way to meet people in a more relaxed environment. If you are feeling overwhelmed or out of place, which is normal (see Rule 8), it is okay to spend time with people you already know.

Rule 8: Prepare to (safely) get out of your comfort zone

For most of us, meeting new people or joining a new community can be nerve-wracking or intimidating, even when you have a lot in common with people in the community. Things can be even more challenging if you come from a historically underrepresented community and do not see yourself represented at the conference. Imbalance in representation is gradually being acknowledged by assessing the demographics of invited speakers and members. If you are feeling out of place, know you are not alone and that it can take some time to feel comfortable. Try to meet new people and make new friends. You will likely see the same people if you attend the conference or events by the same organization again. And, the more conferences you attend, the easier it gets. Some conferences host affinity group events, which is a good opportunity to meet and network with other attendees in a safe and welcoming space.

Come up with a plan for how to talk about your interests and research. Have short elevator pitch prepared for your initial introduction, and be prepared to switch into a slightly extended version of that pitch if the other person expresses interest. Because it is important to learn about the other person (people love good listeners), make sure to ask them about their jobs, research, or interests, including asking follow-up questions after their initial answers to show your interest. If the exchange goes well, create a note of their names and affiliations for use later. Also, if you see them later in the conference, acknowledge their existence with a smile, wave or head nod.

Rule 9: Take charge of your social interactions

Conferences bring together many people from all over the world, and navigating a complex professional yet social environment can be challenging. All members of a professional community have a responsibility to help make a welcoming environment and should, in turn, feel welcomed. As a conference attendee, you are a member of the professional community. At the same time, we acknowledge that power imbalances may be prevalent at the conference, often reflective of career stage. Many organizations have established codes of conduct to which attendees must adhere to, and the conference should include a contact if you witness or are subjected to troubling behavior. Above all, you should never feel unsafe or pressured to participate by anyone. You may need to also prepare yourself to adjust to the cultural norms of the conference location, if it is notably different from your home, academic or office environment. While there are social events, remember to keep it professional.

Rule 10: Tie up the loose ends after the conference

After attending a conference you will likely want to come home and collapse but you have a few more things to do before you are done. First and foremost, update any notes you have about the conference itself before you forget. Conferences can be a blur, so make sure to record any feedback you get on your work so that you have it when you are ready to make improvements. Updating your resume and/or curriculum vitae (CV), if you didn’t do that before the conference, is another update you should complete quickly after the conference. In addition to any presentations you gave, you should also add any volunteering or awards you received.

Next, follow up with people you met at the conference. This helps to solidify the relationships you began at the conference. Email people you are interested in speaking with and ask for an opportunity to meet. If you spoke with companies or potential job seekers, follow up with an email containing your resume and statement of interest. When you attend a conference, you meet so many people that it is hard to remember everyone. By reaching out with a simple note or a LinkedIn invitation, you will be helping people to remember you which can lead to future collaborations and/or job opportunities!

If you received a travel award (for an in-person conference, for example) that requires reimbursement, you will need to carefully follow the instructions and/or rules of your funding agency. Reimbursements can take quite a while to process so the faster you get it done after the conference, the better. Pay special attention to rules regarding the submission of receipts (itemized receipts are required in some cases) and deadlines for submission (some organizations require reimbursement documents be submitted within a certain time period after the conference ends). Make a note to yourself to follow up on reimbursement; if you do not hear back about your reimbursement within 2 weeks, go ahead and reach out to inquire about your paperwork.

Finally, you should take time to write thank you notes or emails to anyone who supported your travel to the conference whether that be financially, in conference preparation, or in your research. This not only helps you to further strengthen relationships with those people, but also helps future students receive these awards by leaving a good impression with the awarders.

Conferences can be transformative by serving as invaluable opportunities for learning and networking. With preparation and active participation, they can significantly benefit your professional journey.


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