Surviving Your First Scholarly Convention as a Graduate Student
Welcome to the world of the academic conference! Scores of people in your discipline are racing around under one roof from one panel to another, wielding briefcases and Starbucks cups. They all look like they’re perfectly comfortable and confident in this environment– unlike you, the novice graduate student.
If you’re a graduate student (or an undergrad) and you’re headed to your first conference, chances are you’ll be feeling pretty overwhelmed. You may be uncertain of what’s expected of you, or how to best use your time. Or you might simply be ready to crawl under the nearest hotel table to get away from this huge mass of people. And if you’re presenting your very first conference paper, you’re probably plenty nervous as well.
Relax! Everybody feels awkward at their first conference, and probably at their second and third as well. To help you we prepare this tips:
Do consider starting out with a small conference. Most disciplines have one huge national or international convention with thousands of attendants, and that can be too much for a first timer. Instead, find a smaller, regional conference, and try to find one that has a reputation for being casual and friendly to graduate students.
Don’t go to lots and lots of panels. Here’s a secret your professors are trying to keep from you: most conference presentations are boring! And even if you find some interesting presentations (there are some out there), you’re going to overload your attention span if you attend too many panels. Pick a few panels that are relevant to your interests or that just seem really cool.
Do network–but don’t be intimidated! One of the main purposes of conventions is to schmooze. You’re supposed to meet people with whom you might collaborate, and in your case, you might meet someone who will hire you someday. So make an effort to introduce yourself to people, and be friendly. However, this is your first conference, so if you feel a bit intimidated and don’t talk to as many people as you’d like, don’t worry about it!
Do focus on your presentation. People who have been in academia for years sometimes give sloppy presentations because they can get away with it. You can’t. Practice your presentation several times and make sure it’s within the time limit. If this presentation came from a class paper, ask the professor for guidance on which parts of the paper to include. If you have visual aids, make sure they look professional.
Don’t freak out about your presentation. Yes, you want it to be strong, but so what if it’s not perfect? You’re new at this, so do the very best you can and learn from your mistakes.
Do dress comfortably. Ask your professors about the informal dress code of this convention, and follow that. However, try to do so as comfortable as possible, because otherwise you’ll feel even more uncomfortable. You’ll be walking around quite a bit, so comfortable shoes are a must. Also, be sure to dress for the season and the climate.
Do be careful with money. Graduate students are often expected to go to conventions, but they usually have to pay for some or all of the trip themselves–so try to make your trip as inexpensive as possible. You’ll probably want to skip the convention hotel and find a cheaper one nearby, and share the room with a number of fellow students. The food surrounding the conference area is probably overpriced, so bring some food along with you. Shop around for cheap flights, and if possible, carpool with your fellow students to the convention.
Do take some time to see the city. One of the perks of academia is that you get to visit new places on a regular basis. No, you can’t blow off the conference (although some tenured professors do that), but take the time to explore the city a bit. Besides, you’ll be more relaxed if you have a little fun.
Do visit the book room. There’s lots of new stuff to browse, and good sales. Plus they usually have free food.
Don’t treat the convention like one big party. Some professors and grad students really overdo things. Remember, this is a professional function, and you want to make a good first impression.