Tips for Attending Your First Academic Conference

by Dr. Punita Rice Academia

Tips for attending your first Academic Conference

Are you attending your first academic conference? If you’ve already applied and been accepted to present at your first academic conference, you’re probably really excited! And maybe slightly terrified! If you’ve already prepared but aren’t sure what to expect or do when you actually get there or are heading there, I hope this post is helpful. Below, some tips and advice for making the most of attending your first academic conference.

Tips for attending your first academic conference

So you applied, you got accepted, you’re prepared, and now, it’s time to actually go to your first academic conference. Now get excited, because the hard part is over! Unless you get anxious in social environments like this, in which case, the hard part is just beginning.

Either way, if it is your first academic conference, you may not be entirely sure what to expect when you get there. If you’ve attended a conference in the past, but haven’t ever presented at one, you might still not be sure about what to expect or what to do when you’re there. I’d like to offer some tips to consider for when you’re actually going to the conference, or for once you are at the conference.

Tip #1: Go with a buddy (or don’t!)

There are pros and cons to going with an academic buddy. The biggest advantage is that you’ll have someone to chat with, prepare with, and bounce ideas off of on your way (and when you arrive). The disadvantage is that you might both then feel inclined to be the comfort zone for one another, which depending on who you are and what you’re like, might end up inhibiting you from chatting with other people. I ended up going with my friend (and study buddy from when we were preparing for our comprehensive exams), Heather (@EquityWarrior) and have zero complaints.

For me, it was excellent having someone to go with and chat with, and having her as my de facto date to the event just meant we both had someone we could check in with, and had the advantage of being able to help each other (there was a snafu with our name badges when we got there, and it was nice having someone to figure it out with). Other than that, we were both very independent once we got to the event, and got to debrief and laugh together on the ride back.

Tip #2: Have a to-do list

Decide in advance if there are specific people you want to meet or talk to, and if there are specific presentations or talks you want to attend. Just having a mental checklist might help create a sort of itinerary, which can help ground the experience. It can also make you feel accomplished if you manage to cross off some or all of the to-dos on your list.

One of my “goals” for this conference was that I really wanted to chat with Dr. Wendy Osefo, who I’ve mostly been chatting with online. Dr. Osefo is a media personality who provides liberal commentary for Fox News, ABC, and other news outlets, and she’s the founder of The 1954 Equity Project.

Dr Punita Rice and Dr Wendy Osefo at Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Second Annual Celebration of Research - tips on attending your first academic conference

Dr Punita Rice and Dr Wendy Osefo at Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Second Annual Celebration of Research

She’s also a professor at JHU, and currently teaches in the Doctor of Education program, in the Entrepreneurial Leadership in Education specialty — this is actually the exact program I recently graduated from. I never got to take a class with her, but had colleagues who did. I actually first met her at my graduation, and then connected with her online — since she was going to be at the conference, I made it a point to chat with her.

Advice from Dr. Osefo on Career-Building

Isn’t it so funny how much you can learn when you just listen to what others have to teach you? I asked Dr. O to talk to me about how she’s gone about establishing her career, and she had good advice to give. She said that you have to be open to stepping into that space [your dream position] in a way that is different than what you might expect, and that you may not be able to walk directly into the space you want to create for yourself. Instead, you may have to back into it.

“You may not be able to walk directly into the space you want to create for yourself; you may have to back into it.”
– Dr. Wendy Osefo

She went on to discuss the need to be patient, and build that space up for yourself slowly — she mentioned that she initially did network appearances once, maybe twice a week when she first started out… but now, there are weeks where she provides commentary on a news station multiple times in a day!

Essentially, the takeaways are (1) no matter what line of work you’re in, be open to approaching your goals from different angles, and (2) be patient. This is such great advice, right?  And I only got it because I asked and then listened to what she had to say. As a result, I learned a lot. Which leads into my next tip…

Tip #3: Talk to people and ask them questions

Amazing journalist (and one of my best friends) Priska Neely was recently interviewed by #ThinkPublicMedia about her journey in public radio, and the importance of making connections (you can read the interview here).

Priska Neely's advice on networking can apply to attending your first academic conference

Priska Neely’s advice on networking can apply to attending your first academic conference

In it, she gave this advice: “Talk to people about their work, ask questions and you’ll learn things, they’ll remember you and you never know where that could lead.” While Priska was talking about the importance of networking for journalists, the same advice goes for students and researchers at an academic conference!

Tip #4: Take the time to make meaningful connections (but also remember to mingle!)

I actually read once that you shouldn’t spend way too long talking to any one person at a conference, because then you’re not mingling and taking advantage of the whole experience. But I really think it’s important to take the time to have meaningful conversations with people, and that can take time! I got into a great chat with a colleague about her research area, which is all about humane education (which I knew nothing about). Plus, she was also really interested in learning about my work. The conversation shifted to our philosophies of education and the true purpose of educators. I think we probably spent a little too much time chatting (maybe half an hour) but it was one of the more enriching conversations I’ve had in a while, and I’m so glad.

That said, it’s probably important to make sure you’re not spending all your time talking to one person. Make meaningful connections, just not at the expense of mingling a bit. And if mingling in general is a bit difficult for you, you might want to take some time to plan out how to make it easier on yourself. Which leads me to my last tip…

Tip #5: Partake in the ultimate social lubricant

If you imbibe alcohol, (and depending on how you are when you do), partaking might not be a terrible idea. I’m not suggesting reaching Mad Men levels of drinking, and I know some people don’t drink in professional settings (or at all), but if you do, and depending on the vibe of the conference you’re at, having a drink might not be such a bad thing. The conference I attended had an open bar with wine and beer, and a lot of presenters were partaking. And if having a drink can make your poster session spiel go well, why not?

What’s your advice?

So to turn it over to you — I’d love to hear what you recommend, or what you wish you’d known before attending your first conference.

If you have any advice for people who are applying to a conference, or preparing to attend one, can you please share it in the comments section?

PS – Here are some tips for how to apply for your first academic conference, and here are some tips for preparing for the conference, if you’d like to read them.

About the Author

Dr. Punita Rice

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Dr. Punita Rice is a wife and mama, an education researcher, a writer, the founder and director of ISAASE, and an advisor with Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Doctor of Education program. Her work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here. Punita also writes about life, culture, education, and motherhood here on her blog. She works from home in Maryland, and drinks a great deal of coffee.