Surviving Your First Conference: Tips for Anxious Newbies

I get a lot of questions about the Academic Conference from junior academics. Conferences are daunting! Even for more senior people. But they are an essential part of your academic career, so the sooner you get comfortable, the better – and honestly the only way to do so is just to jump in and go. And the thing is, the task here is to do the conference without acting like a grad student! This post gives you tips on how. And, check this medium post for a few more tips (not from the academic world, but useful nonetheless, inc.: don’t stare at your phone!)

Just to be clear: conference participation is one of the core elements of the competitive academic record – both giving papers and organizing panels. Later in your career serving as discussant also shows seniority and stature. On the other hand, posters are, for most disciplines, the “kids’ table” of the academic conference, and count far less on the CV (although please note that this does not hold for a lot of STEM fields where posters are highly regarded, so please confirm with your field advisors). 

Giving a paper doesn’t just get your research out to the scholarly community, it also gives you experience with handling live Q and A, which has a major learning curve. Meanwhile, organizing a panel (assuming your association allows students or junior folks to do this) is one of the very best networking strategies there is –  by inviting people slightly senior to you to serve on the panel, you guarantee a larger audience (who will come to see them rather than you) and better time slot than you’d likely merit on your own; you also get the chance to engage with the senior person you invite as discussant, and further, you can probably organize a panel lunch or dinner that allows for deeper conversation, more lasting connections, and maybe even future collaborations. 

Lastly, conferences give you the chance for participating in the life of your discipline, by going to business meetings, or open bars, or other subgroup events, where you might even take on an administrative role (within limits, and never if it interferes with your writing!) that gives you access to a wide network of like minded scholars.

In short, conferences show that you are a serious scholar and are an ideal time to maximize opportunities for networking, self-promotion, professional skills training, and building a public intellectual identity. 

This is all in addition to the basic function of presenting your work, and maybe interviewing for jobs – stressful!

To avoid the wallflower experience, plan ahead. Like, way ahead–by a month or more, but even a couple days will do in a pinch.

Check the program and schedule out the panels you want to attend. Give yourself a couple hour block at the book exhibit. Then, with that done, plot out your breakfasts, lunches and dinners, as well as coffees and cocktails, and consider whom to invite to share those with you. Rather than standing listlessly about in the lobby at 5:30 while everyone around you rushes off to their evening plans looking fabulous, make sure you have planned stuff for yourself to do. If you invite people ahead of time, especially senior people, you have a much greater chance of getting time with them than if you tried to spring something on them at the last minute.

Once there, be sure and follow conference Twitter using the main conference hashtag, as well as other thematic conference hashtags relevant to your interests. Don’t forget that panels often have their own hashtags, especially when they are around higher profile or controversial topics. As you follow the live-tweeting of the event from various attendees, you’ll not only enrich your own understanding of it, but you’ll get an instant insight into the communities of scholars active in the discussion. You now know who to follow, based on what they say. And not only that, you can tweet your own thoughts! Some of the very best real-time commentary and critique happens on hashtagged conference twitter, and these convos are so dynamic and in the moment, that they often catalyze spontaneous face to face meetups.

Also check if there are field-specific events to attend. Back in the day when I was just getting started, I learned that the Japan anthropologists would always meet up for a dinner at the Asian Studies meetings; once I figured this out (just by keeping my ear to the ground at Japan-related panels and by lurking near Japan-related books at the major press booths (U of California Press for example, at the book exhibit) I knew to expect and plan for that event every year. 

Another tactic, check in with your advisor and other faculty members from your department. If you know they’ll be attending, and they’re generous sorts, and open to the idea, ask to tag along to a meal or drinks that they have planned. Not all advisors are willing, but some are. 

Some departments or campuses host events or open bars, so be sure to ask grad students and faculty if there is plan for a meet-up. On the subject of which: free food and wine can often be found at some of the high profile book launch receptions at the book exhibit! Be sure to look for signs on the first day, so you can plan ahead!

Lastly, show up for interest groups. If you’re queer, you can likely find a “LBTQIA Reception” happening at some point or another, and usually this will actually be on the formal program. Same for events for scholars of color, and so on.

Some might advise you to get a Conference Buddy, so that you don’t end up staring forlornly at your online program while eating lunch alone in the hotel restaurant. However, as tempting as this is, I don’t recommend it. You need to use the conference to meet NEW people. That’s the point of networking. So, it’s ok to have your buddy on call for an evening if you both find yourselves at loose ends, or for a breakfast perhaps, but the bulk of your days really should be used to push yourself out of your comfort zone, meet new people, make new connections. And remember, nobody is likely to approach YOU if you are deeply ensconced in conversation with a good friend. So as hard as it is, keep yourself open to fresh encounters.

    And this brings up the issue of the Elevator Pitch. You really do need this, and not just for elevators. The bread and butter of academic conference conversation is, “oh and what do you work on?” You absolutely need a 2-3 minute version of your research.

Sentence 1: Broadly speaking, my work examines…  

Sentence 2: Specifically, my dissertation looks at…. 

Sentence 3: So, I study this specific STUFF (these novels, these chemicals, these populations, these historical documents, etc.) and I study it in this specific WAY (theory, method). 

This is the basic Elevator Pitch. THEN, assuming the person’s eyes have not glazed over, and/or they have made polite “Oh, really?” noises, you then continue with:

Sentence 4: I am finding that… and I basically argue XXX. 

Sentence 5: this actually changes the way we view XX; the field tends to see it as X, whereas my work shows that it’s really Y.

And that’s it.  These sentences are all very short!

 And one last sure fire conference technique. If you find yourself standing next to someone, and your mind freezes from panic, remember: the default politesse of the academic conference is this: “Are you having a good conference?”  The level of enthusiasm in the response signals whether you have the go ahead to keep chatting, or if you’re about to be ghosted. Take both with as good a grace as you can muster, and move on. Remember, you have places to be! (because you already planned them!)

Good luck, conferencers!