In most academic disciplines, graduate students have quite a few opportunities and choices of conferences to attend. As a graduate students, attending conferences is important to network within your discipline’s scholarly community. Every field has its huge national and international flagship conferences as well as smaller regional or sub-discipline conferences. My advice is to attend various conferences of different sizes and scope, as each has its own benefits to offer you as an emerging scholar or practitioner in your field. Regardless of the type or size of conference you attend, there are some basic strategies to keep in mind to make the most of your experience. In this post I am going to outline some of the key strategies for attending conference sessions. You should also be sure to check out the posts about delivering a conference presentation, networking at conferences, and your conference travel experience.
What strategies are there for attending conference sessions? Don’t you just walk in, sit, and listen to the presenters? Well, yes, sometimes this is all you will do at a session, but other times it will be important for you to play a more active role. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s discuss how to select the sessions you will attend. Most conferences have several sessions that run concurrently so attendees can choose from a variety of options. The number of options you’ll have during each time slot will depend on the size of the conference, but you’ll always have some choice to make. Be sure to get a copy of the conference agenda or schedule well in advance. Agendas are usually made available on the conference’s website. It is also becoming increasingly common for conferences to have their own apps for your mobile devices (especially large conferences) so check to see if an app is available. Mobile apps make scheduling your conference experience much easier and also provide you with automatic updates.
Identify the sessions you want to attend before arriving. Circle them in the agenda or flag them on the mobile app, and create a detailed schedule for yourself for each day. Be selective. You cannot go to every presentation. My strategy at large conferences is to search the program/agenda ahead of time for names of people whose work I know. I make it a point to not only go to their sessions, but to introduce myself afterwards if my work is somehow related to theirs.
Read through the various keynote addresses, plenary speakers, paper sessions, panel presentations, posters sessions, roundtables, etc… and realize that you cannot do everything. It is not possible, or advisable, to try to cram all available sessions into your schedule. Instead, choose the elements that are most applicable and most interesting to you and create a moderately full schedule for each day, leaving time to check out local restaurants, tourist attractions, and time to rest.
Be sure to bring your business cards with you to conference sessions. Also, be sure to wear your name tag as this often helps break the ice in conversations (“Oh, I see you’re from the University of Texas”). Arrive at a conference session about 10 minutes or so before it is scheduled to begin. It is often a good idea to say a brief hello to the presenters as you arrive. Let them know of your interest in their topic/research and how it relates to your own work. The presenter(s) may be busy preparing and setting up at this time, so perhaps mention that you’d be interested in chatting with them later. Making these contacts is one of the most important aspects of attending conferences, so take every opportunity to engage in discussion.
Since you arrived about 10 minutes early, you likely have a choice of your seat. You may not be the type who likes to sit in the very front row, but I recommend avoiding the back. If possible, sit in the first two or three rows, toward the center. This ensures that you’ll have a good view, but also means that you’ll have plenty of opportunity to make direct eye contact with the presenters. This is helpful is the presenters are people you’d like to make a connection with.