While summer might be the best time for students and teachers to take a break from the fast-paced life of the academic school year, for graduate students and professors, it is also the best time for working on research projects without the distraction of attending and/or teaching classes. In my opinion, it is also the best time for attending academic conferences, as it is much less likely that attending a conference will interfere with any teaching responsibilities.
Luckily for those of us in the children’s and young adult literature field (ChYALit), our major annual conference takes place during the summer months. The Children’s Literature Association Conference (better known as ChLA) usually takes place in June (at least, for the past few years in which I’ve attended). ChLA began in 1973, and it is just one of the conferences I have attended and presented at during my time as a graduate student. As I just returned from presenting at the 2017 conference this past weekend, I decided to devote this new blog post to offering tips on the best things to do when attending and/or presenting at an academic conference. I know I was very nervous leading up to my first conference experience, so I hope anyone new to this aspect of academia (or someone who just doesn’t seem to be having good experiences with it) benefits from reading this post. So, with this introductory information out of the way, let’s get down to my tips. I’ve listed them from least to most important, so make sure to at least skim through until you reach #1 on this list of tips for attending an academic conference.
5. Use networking tools, like business cards and social media.
While business cards aren’t a must-have for every conference attendee, they do make sharing your information with others much easier. Let’s say you start up a conversation with the person next to you while waiting for a panel to begin. Or, you are mingling with a group of people during the opening-day reception. Or, an audience member comes up to speak to you after your (amazing) presentation. In all these situations, it’s likely that your networking will come to an abrupt end, rather than having enough time to exchange information by writing it down on a piece of paper or typing it out on a cellphone. Maybe a panel presentation begins before you fully finish your conversation, someone you’re talking to needs to go get ready for a panel, or you yourself are interested in attending a panel immediately after your own. Instead of hampering your own actions or those of your conversation partner’s, you can just quickly take out a card and pass it to them with a quick, “We can talk more later.” Even if you don’t see them in person again, you know that they have your information. And if they use this tip as well, then you also have a way to keep in touch with them after the hustle-and-bustle of the conference dies down.
If business cards are a bit too low tech for you (and even if they aren’t), I also suggest using the official conference hashtag when posting about the conference on social media. Twitter has become a major networking tool; every conference I’ve attended in the past few years has included an official hashtag in the conference program that’s given out during registration. By using this tag, you can give your peers glimpses into what you think about the presentations and what particular topics/texts are of interest to you. By searching for tweets with this tag, you can find new people to follow throughout the rest of the year. This is not only a great way to network, it’s also a great way to find resources for your own research.
4. Attend the conference for as many days as possible.
This tip might seem obvious, but many conference attendees do not attend the full conference due to either time or economic constraints. Even if the conference you’re attending takes place in the summer, you might find yourself needing to balance other activities that take place around that same time. Or, you might decide to only attend on the day you present (or if you’re not presenting, the day with the most panels that interest you), because it is much less expensive to pay the one-day price. If you do not have these constraints, though, I highly suggest arriving before the conference begins and staying until the very end. Even if there is a whole day in which none of the panels interest you (unlikely), if you pass by the conference area, you will find plenty of your peers going in and out of panels and looking for people to talk to. Conferences are often well-located, too, giving you the chance to explore a new or interesting city by yourself or with a new conference friend. You’ll never know what spontaneous experiences might occur during a conference, especially if you are not there to stumble across those opportunities.
3. Finish creating your presentation before the conference begins.
I must admit, more often than not, I do not take my own advice when it comes to preparing for a presentation. This is a pretty common circumstance during conferences. You’ll invite someone to dinner the first (or second) night and they’ll turn you down because they need to finish (or start) writing their presentation. In the reverse case, you’ll find yourself invited to something that sounds like tons of fun (or a great networking opportunity) and you’ll need to calculate if getting any sleep that night is possible if you attend the activity while still needing to finish your presentation. The solution to this dilemma is completing your presentation (including any visual aids) BEFORE the conference begins. Trust me, it’s a much more enjoyable experience when you’re not forced to make decisions based on needing to complete your presentation.
2. Attend scheduled and unscheduled social events.
As someone who definitely considers herself an introvert, attending social events in general is not on top of my ‘to-do-for-fun’ list. However, at conferences, I always try my best to attend at least one of the scheduled social events, if not more. These events are great opportunities to talk in more casual settings with other attendees. Your conversations don’t have to stick to academia. Chat about your favorite TV shows and that new book you just started reading. Suggest great places to go in your hometown if they have an interest in visiting. Of course, you can also spend this time talking about your teaching, research, and the like, if that’s what works best for you (and your conversation partners). All the conferences I’ve attended host a casual reception on the first night. ChLA also includes two award events (a reception and a banquet), themed lunches (professional development and ChYALit topics), and at times, game nights and dances. Just check the schedule and pass by during event times. If they aren’t for you, it’s easy to get up and leave. I think new attendees might be surprised by how fun social events can be during an academic conference.
1. Attend panels! If there’s a conflict, pick the ones that best fit your responsibilities.
First, if you’re going to a conference, make sure to attend as many panel sessions as you can. Most (all?) conferences only happen once a year; you’ll have plenty of time to rest once it’s over. Of course, there might be a session or two when none of the panels really strike your interest. These are great for break times and casual discussions with others who are just passing the time outside the session rooms. As for sessions that take place quite early (8:00 a.m.), I decide on whether to attend one at that time based on my schedule for the rest of the day. I’m not a morning person, so if I plan on attending all panel sessions between 9:30 and 12:15, then I’ll use the first panel session time as my breakfast period, so I can eat enough to last me until lunch.
Second, at almost every conference, multiple panels will be taking place during each session. Often, you’ll find yourself interested in attending more than one during the same time period. When this is the case, my suggestion is to attend the one that most closely matches your research or teaching responsibilities. If the second panel during the same time is more of a personal interest topic, look up the names of the panelists and then keep an eye out for the name tags of the people you pass. If you recognize a name, introduce yourself to them and mention that you’d love to talk to them about their paper, or better yet, read it. Offer to give feedback and most presenters will be happy to share their work. If you don’t see them in person, check for them on social media (Twitter or Facebook) and ask digitally. Some conference programs will include the email addresses of presenters, making them easy to contact. You can also ask about panels you don’t attend while talking with other attendees during breaks and social events. If you prefer taking any panel notes digitally rather than by hand, I’ve created some digital notebooks that can help you keep all your notes organized in one PDF.
So, these are my top tips for attending academic conferences. I’ve only been going to them for a handful of years, though, so if any of you have additional advice to give to any newbie or not-so-newbie attendees, feel free to add them via the comments section below. It should also be noted that the conferences I attend have either a literary or popular culture focus. I don’t know how conferences outside my areas differ from those in fields like STEM. I’d be interested in reading about the differences between conferences like ChLA and those in other fields, so feel free to share tips about those conference experiences, in case anyone else in those areas happens upon this blog.
Do you have any tips about attending academic conferences? Share them in the comments section below!
P.S. If you’re interested in seeing additional information about my conference experiences, check out my “conferences” page.