Attending your first academic conference can be an intimidating prospect, and one filled with countless questions. Should I try to talk to the keynote speaker, even though they’re decades ahead of me in the field? What if someone starts publicly criticizing my work? Which panels should I attend when there are so many to choose from? I have to pay to present?
Needless to say, there are a lot of hoops to jump through and steps to navigate – or at least, it can feel like it at first approach. To make this process just a bit less mysterious, today’s article is on tips for attending your first academic conference, what the journey there looks like, and how to make sure you enjoy your foray into the wider world of scholarship.
Choosing Your Own Adventure
There are many ways to find academic conferences: recommendations from professors, word of mouth in your department, or social media pages, academic journals, etc. However, the most important part of this process is choosing which conference to attend.
Now, it’s easy to say things like, “why bother with regional or smaller conferences? I’ll just choose one of the bigger ones – won’t that be better for my career anyways?” Do not give in to this temptation. Bigger conferences can often magnify the already-competitive spirit of academics, resulting in a more stressful experience. Because of this, it can be beneficial to start at a smaller or more regional conference level, still picking events that you think will contribute to your scholarship and your career trajectory overall, as a kind of soft-launch. Then, once you have more experience and are more comfortable in a conference setting, go for those bigger conferences, well-equipped to both engage and enjoy.
That being said, if you’re the type of person who thrives in a more competitive environment, or if your advisor recommends you attend, then apply to those bigger conferences. Just make sure you’re ready for that kind of experience and feel confident in your materials.
Many conferences entail travel by plane and hotel rooms and buying food and other expenditures which can act as a barrier to attending. As a result, it’s important to defray the costs on your end as much as possible, while also making sure you budget properly. When you apply to the conference initially, look for their registration cost; as a presenter, you’ll typically receive some kind of discount, but it’s still worth taking into account. At the same time, see if there are any opportunities to apply for travel grants or enter research contests from the conference itself, as academic societies occasionally offer these for graduate-level attendees. When travel time arrives, keep track of your receipts for things like flight tickets, hotels, ubers, and meals – you may be able to apply for departmental reimbursement. And of course, don’t forget to apply for funding from Baylor’s Graduate School (linked here: https://graduate.baylor.edu/travel-awards), which must be applied for several weeks before your presentation.
At the Conference
So, you’ve selected your conference, you’ve budgeted well, and (hopefully) arrived without any major issues. What happens next? First, take a good look at your conference’s schedule. Mark which panels interest you, which might be good contributions to your field, and which (most importantly) is your own. If you have time, it can also be helpful to walk around and see where the different panels will be held, so that you don’t end up lost and wandering when you’re supposed to be presenting.
When you choose which panels you’ll attend, leave some gap times as well. Conference days often last from early in the morning well into the evening, and for all intents and purposes, you will be working every hour you are there, whether that takes the form of networking, presenting, tracking changes in your discipline, or chairing a panel. So, make sure to set aside time to rejuvenate, take a couple hours to see a local attraction, find a coffee shop for a pick-me-up, or take a walk somewhere restful – many campuses have lovely grounds that are well worth seeing.
Finally, whatever conference you attend and wherever that may be, don’t hesitate to use this opportunity to create new connections in the academic world. You might find a new research partner, discover a future colleague, or even begin building a lifelong friendship. Because at the end of the day, one of the greatest benefits of attending conferences is not just the professional development, but the community of incredible scholars you are able to engage with. So go forth and enjoy your chance to meet others who share the same passion, drive, and delightful curiosity that brought you to grad school in the first place.