by Isheka Orr, Ph.D. Student, Earth Sciences
Graduate and professional students are often encouraged to attend conferences for academic and professional development. In my field, attending conferences is very important because I get a chance to present my work, get feedback, and learn about different research areas while networking with peers and discovering various opportunities. I have attended different conferences throughout my educational career for different reasons. These reasons include getting feedback from other people in my field, building my mentorship network, looking for fee waivers for graduate school, and understanding the dynamics of a conference.
Attending a conference can often seem daunting but having a strategic plan on how to navigate a conference can turn conferences into invaluable experiences. Therefore, I want to share a few tips and tricks that I have used to attend and successfully attend conferences.
The cost to attend a conference is often very expensive and a great deterrence from attending; especially if your advisor or program does not have or offer financial assistance. However, there is still hope and there are a variety of options that may still be available to you.
- Volunteer at the Conference: Registration is often costly but most conferences will give free registration if you volunteer. I have volunteered at conferences and have received free registration among other perks such as a free meal as a result. I also try to volunteer for sessions that I would have attended as an attendee so that I can still get the most out of the conference. I have attended two conferences in Grad School using this strategy.
- Apply for Grants/Scholarships from the Conference: My first line of funding for a conference is to always apply for funding from the conference organization. These applications are often due up to eight months before the conference so ensure that you check the conference website in advance. I have attended one conference in graduate school using this method and two other conferences during my undergraduate studies.
- Apply for University Funding: Most universities have some funding for conference travel whether at the department, school or university level. For example, the School of Science Graduate Student Council (SOSGSC) has the SOSGSC Travel Award and the School of Medicine has a Medical Student Travel Grant. University-wide, the Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG) has the Graduate and Professional Student Grant (GPEG) and the Graduate School has several other Travel Fellowships.
Navigating the Conference
Now that you have secured funding let us look at how to strategically navigate the conference to maximize its benefits.
- Define Your Objective
Clearly state why you are attending the conference. Is it to present your research and get feedback? Or maybe you hope to find a career mentor, research collaborator, job opportunity, or internship? Whatever your goal is for the conference define it to guide your preparation and session selection.
- Create a Schedule for the Conference
Create a detailed customized conference schedule that aligns with your conference goals. This schedule should include sessions that you must attend and other sessions that you would like to attend. Also, leave some flexibility in your schedule to decompress. Unwinding varies depending on the person. Personally, I like to schedule time to spend time alone whether it is to go for a meal, take a walk or just to sit and be still. You need to recharge so that you can put your best foot forward.
- Strategize for Success
Once you have your schedule down, you need to strategize how to achieve your goals. Ensure that you have an elevator pitch that succinctly summarizes your research or professional interests. Also, have materials such as resumes or CVs printed if you are seeking feedback or searching for opportunities that require these documents. For instance, you are in the final year of your program and your goal for the conference is to find career opportunities and get advice on creating a competitive application for a particular position. Therefore, in your schedule, you may sign up to speak to a mentor in your field, visit a specific exhibitor booth, or explore the career center. When speaking to your conference mentor your strategy may be to get useful feedback on items to add or remove from your CV, resume, or cover letter for a specific position or field. When visiting an exhibitor booth that you are interested in, you can prepare questions ahead of that give insight into available positions, the application and hiring processes.
- Take Detailed Notes
Bring a notebook or use an app to write down useful information that you will need for later. This information can include interesting points, contact information or different opportunities.
- Reflect and Stay Engaged After the Conference
I really struggle with keeping up and staying engaged after a conference. I often meet such great people but once I get home I am so tired from everything and I often do not follow up. This is something that I have been working to change. After the conference, take some time to reflect on the connections that you have made and all that you learned. Be sure to implement feedback received and follow up with your contacts about potential collaborations or opportunities discussed throughout the conference.
Attending conferences as a graduate or professional student is an invaluable and transformative experience that aids in both academic and career development. You not only get to learn more about research in your field but also build community with peers and mentors. I hope that you found the tips and trips helpful and you are now able to successfully prepare for and attend a conference with confidence. Feel free to share additional insights below that can benefit other GradJags!