I was recently told “no conferences are fun”. While the nerves, awkward intros, and early mornings might not be fun, I have found a few ways to come back from a conference and think “that was great!” Ok, so maybe fun wasn’t the right word but -at this point in my career- I don’t dread conferences, I enjoy them!
I wrote the following post after returning from a conference in Ireland the summer of 2012, check out what I had to say:
I complain a lot about graduate school but a tour guide in Ireland reminded my how blessed and privileged I really am. He asked why we (a friend and colleague of mine) were traveling to Ireland and when we told him that we were there for a conference on social stress he said “oh, so you are traveling to present research on the ways stress impacts health because you really don’t have any stress”. While I disagree with his observation because I have dealt with a lot of stress in my time, I think his bigger point was clear: we, as graduate students and future faculty members, are a relatively privileged bunch. Unlike those of the population that are hit hardest and the longest with stress and strain, we have opportunities such as advanced degrees, great social networks, financial incentives, that can help decrease the amount of stress we are exposed to and provide us with resources to help cope with the stresses we do encounter.
While the week before I left and the first few days after I arrived were spent in a frenzy trying to finalize the presentation, reflecting back on the trip I would say it was fun and refreshing. I have gone to a few conferences now and finally feel like I might have a few tips to share:
First, and importantly, make sure your research is sound and your presentation is interesting. Practice your presentation in front of your webcam, your family, your pet, or some peers. Practice won’t make for a perfect presentation but it will decrease the chances you fail.
- Stay within the time limit. No one likes the person who talks for 15 minutes about the theory then is either cut off before the findings or takes up everyone else’s time.
- Premising presentations with the phrase “this is in the beginning stage” opens the door for audience members (and especially occasional haters) to give you “advice” on every part of the research they don’t like or think could be improved on.
- Also be sure not to bore the audience. They don’t need to know every single author who has studied your topic or why you chose one measure over the other. They want to know what question you are asking, what you expect to find, what you did find, and why you think you found what you found.
- Be clear, be concise, and be yourself! If they want more than that they can catch you during Q&A or in a break.
Second, network! Networking is key. If you think you might not be the best at walking up to someone and introducing yourself there are a few tricks to help.
- Scan the program before you leave and email anyone that you know will be at the conference and you want to me. You can schedule a coffee or lunch date that will minimize the awkwardness and feeling of “stalker-ness”.
- Find a person you know and have good rapport with (faculty member or other seasoned person – but not another graduate student) and become their temporary shadow. They will run into old friends and automatically introduce you or you can be more blunt and ask them to introduce you to persons you have in mind.
- Always remember that they are just people. Even if they wrote an article cited by 3000 people, when they ask the hotel staff which way to the restroom they are no different than you or me. Strike up a conversation about research, sports, weather, you name it– people, especially academics, like to talk!
Finally, partake in all of the “scheduled fun”. Yes I know, “scheduled fun” is kind of like an oxymoron but it is an important part of conferences. One annual conference I attend schedules an annual “house party” (that sometimes is in the conference room) and the conference I went to in Ireland schedules “karaoke nights”. Getting down on the dance floor and ruining ballads at the mike are some of my favorite things to do but I never thought I would enjoy doing it with my mentors or scholars who I admire or very senior scholars. However, seeing that person who laid the framework for your dissertation make a complete fool of themselves has the power to break down all walls and open a space to really connect like old friends.
I think these three tips go hand-in-hand. Even if you can give Whitney Houston a run for her money on karaoke, if you deliver a less than par presentation the faculty still might not want you as a colleague. However, if your presentation is impressive, you talk about research over lunch, and can still have fun over drinks… you are in for the win! Now I can’t really assure that you will find a job if you do these things, but I can assure you that you will come home feeling like you learned a lot, meet great people, and had a blast 🙂