How to get the most out of a conference

There really is no ideal time to drop everything and travel across the country to spend three days hobnobbing with strangers when you have a ton of writing and grading to do. Yet scholarly conferences remain a rite of passage — one that some academics enjoy but most endure.

Pre-tenure faculty members, new Ph.D.s, and graduate students have the most to gain from conferencegoing — and the most to learn about how to make the experience professionally useful. I offer my best practices on that front here, and encourage readers to share their own tips in the comments below.

Choose the right conference. Most faculty members have only enough money to attend one annual meeting a year, so the choice of conference matters. The default option is usually the discipline’s biggest conference, which may not be the best choice. If the conference is too big, with too many sessions packed too closely together, you spend too much time racing from one to another. That kind of controlled chaos does not create an environment in which people can engage in organic intellectual exchanges.

My discipline’s primary conference is held every April and attracts almost 20,000 participants across nine conference hotels. Whenever I go, I spend a lot of of time reading maps figuring out how to get from one place to the next. But a biannual conference on topics directly related to my research area has fewer than 1,000 participants and offers many more opportunities for genuine conversation and professional development.

So while it’s nice to show your face at the "big" conference early in your career, it may be more beneficial to attend smaller regional conferences, or meetings that directly involve your research.

Should you present? And if so, how?Most institutions will pay your travel costs to a conference only if you are presenting there. So once you choose which one to attend, you need to decide what to present.

Select a manuscript that is under review or close to submission-ready, because the ideas are fully formed and any feedback can be easily integrated into revisions. Besides, there is the risk of intellectual plagiarism, so you don’t want to pitch a great new idea at a conference and then have someone in the audience publish your paper before you do.

For graduate students, a poster is acceptable, but I encourage everyone to submit a paper, for several reasons:

  • Attendance at poster sessions is abysmal in many disciplines. Your time would be better spent writing than standing beside a poster hoping someone stops by.

  • Round tables, symposia, and paper sessions allow you to practice talking about your research with people other than your graduate adviser.

  • You get valuable feedback from scholars who are genuinely interested in, and knowledgeable about, your research area.

If you’re an early-career academic, don’t overdo it with multiple presentations. You are there to build your career, not to hog the stage. You don’t need to be the center of attention; you need to be cultivating relationships and refining your research agenda.

Yes, you should attend some sessions. A running joke in academe is that no one actually attends conference sessions. That may be true of senior professors, but early-career scholars should pick a couple of sessions to listen in on — especially ones closely related to their research.

Hearing about related projects might spark new ideas to enhance your own scholarship. You might also find possible collaborators whose research is topically similar to yours but focused on a different demographic, geographical location, time period, or author. Attending only one or two sessions a day means you’re more likely to pay attention. And you’ll have time to brainstorm about how you might use what you’ve heard.

Networking is the whole point. Early-career academics at conferences should be primarily focused on networking. Rather than attend four sessions a day where you sit quietly and then rush out, seek opportunities to genuinely talk with other scholars. Most of those opportunities are embedded in preconference events and in gatherings after the day’s sessions are over.

A day or so before the meeting officially begins, many conferences hold workshops and seminars for graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors. The workshops tend to be on discrete topics — "Getting your dissertation published," "Writing grant applications," "Building an effective research agenda." There are also training sessions and more informal opportunities to talk one-on-one with senior professors interested in mentoring junior scholars. These small events are where you get professional development that doesn’t always exist within your institution.

Similarly, try to capitalize on informal networking opportunities during the meeting. For example, program officers from major grant organizations often attend academic conferences, particularly in the sciences. Sometimes they organize panels or workshops; other times, they set up shop in a random room in the main conference hotel (be sure to check the conference program). You may have to schedule a meeting with them ahead of time, but even if you don’t, drop by for a quick conversation about grant opportunities. If you are lucky, they might give you feedback on a project idea or even a quick review of your grant proposal. Meeting program officers in person is much easier than making a cold call later on, when you are stressed out by drafting a grant proposal.

You should also visit the book-exhibit hall and see what’s newly published or forthcoming in your field. Major publishers will often send editors or assistant editors to conferences to solicit book proposals from promising young scholars. You may need an appointment for an in-depth conversation, but they are happy to schedule appointments on the spot. Even if you can’t get one, it is worthwhile to browse the collections and speak with the reps about their current and forthcoming publishing goals. Bonus: There’s usually a big discount on books you purchase at the conference.

Finally, go to your institution’s cocktail party/reception. In addition to free food, you get the chance to chat with faculty members you may have never met, meet alumni, and, in general, build your campus social capital. You see a different side of people when they are in a space that allows them to let down their hair and have a good time.

That said, as an early-career academic, remember that even at a cocktail reception, you are "on." From the moment you arrive at the airport to the moment you return home, consider yourself to be on an extended job interview. Dress professionally (even on the plane). Always be prepared to discuss your research (succinctly; don’t drone on). Have business cards on hand, as well as drafts of your current manuscripts, grant applications, and/or book proposals. You never know whom you will meet on the plane, in the buffet line at breakfast, or in the hotel lobby.

Indeed, you will maximize your networking opportunities if you are present at as much of the conference as possible. Again, that doesn’t mean attending 25 sessions — it means positioning yourself to meet people. Even if you live near the conference site, try to stay in the conference hotel. Everyone passes through the conference headquarters, if only to register upon arrival. Spend your downtime grading papers in the hotel lobby rather than in your room. Take a walk around the neighborhood, eat at nearby restaurants, and, itake advantage of any conference-sponsored tourist activities.

Your goal as an early-career academic at a scholarly conference is to expand your professional network. To do that, you must be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and cultivate your professional identity.

Manya Whitaker