Academic conferences are great opportunities for students to dive deeper into topics of interest and network with the larger academic community.
But oftentimes, institutions provide little preparation for these big — and often nerve-wracking — events. So how do you make the most out of these conferences?
Here are five tips to help you ensure you’re doing an academic conference right.
1. Learn the Conference’s Presentation Style
Conferences in different subject matters require different presentation styles. Many academic conferences involve speakers presenting slideshows and narrating their material with little to no notes. Most students are accustomed to this traditional style from in-class presentations, and thus, assume that it’s the default style of presentation.
However, other conferences, particularly in the humanities, require speakers to write papers ahead of time, and then read them aloud to the audience. But this method comes with its own set of problems, notably how to keep audiences interested when you’re just reading from a paper.
Preparing for the correct presentation style is key, because nothing stands out quite so much as being the only PowerPoint presentation in a conference of paper readings, or the only person reading from a paper in a session of vibrant slide images. Researching the often unwritten expectations of your conference can help reduce anxiety and prevent late nights spent changing the format of your presentation.
There are other aspects about the conference that can be good to research — how formal is the dress, how many attendees are expected, etc. But the number one way to ensure you fit in is to make sure your presentation style matches the standard.
2. Tweet About It
Regardless of whether you’re presenting or not, one of the most difficult parts of academic conferences can be navigating the social interaction. One easy, if unexpected, tool to help you through this is Twitter. Though Twitter may be a controversial platform, it offers conference attendees a number of distinct opportunities.
Many large conferences run multiple sessions at the same time. Live-tweeting the sessions you attend provides ways for those who missed the session to see what happened. It also allows those who were unable to attend the conference to play along at home. Live-tweeting done by others provides you with a way to catch up on the sessions that you missed as well.
Twitter also provides a platform to engage in a topic long past the end of the presentation or session. Particularly interesting topics often become long Twitter threads that incorporate the presenter, experts at the conference and interested parties around the world. This offers the opportunity to ask deeper questions and learn more about topics beyond the presentation time limit.
At especially large conferences, finding a group to interact comfortably with can be difficult. But Twitter provides ways to find people and groups that share common interests, which you can make small talk with or grab lunch with.
Conference Twitter can be an amazing place for interacting with the subject matter and meeting people in a socially intense situation, but it’s important to be aware of the general rules of engagement while you do so. Remember to include the conference hashtag, always credit the person you’re tweeting about and be generally respectful. Then, you’ll be off to a good start.
3. When in Doubt, Game
Another way to avoid social awkwardness is through dedicated activities, like tabletop games. Gaming provides an opportunity to engage a small group of attendees in a common activity, providing a built-in conversation topic.
Participants can discuss topics related to the conference, but can also rely on antics from the game itself (and rule disambiguation) to provide conversation topics. Gaming might also build social communities who can interact outside of the conference.
Many conferences have even built opportunities for gaming into their programming. Attendees will often find role-playing game sessions on their schedule, usually themed to the topic area of the conference itself. Taking advantage of this programming can be a good way to make new friends and dive deeper into a subject of interest, all while trying to avoid the awkwardness of small talk.
4. Take Free Food at Every Opportunity
There is little more that defines the college student experience than the need for free food. From budget constraints, lack of cooking knowledge or just a love of pizza, a comped meal can be a huge draw for students, and conferences are treasure troves for these opportunities.
Though the culture may be changing now, most academic conferences will offer at least one banquet dinner. These meals are often multiple-course affairs and fancier than anything I’ve ever cooked for myself. Not only do banquet meals guarantee a full meal for attendees, but they can provide a few extra snacks if you pocket a dinner roll or two.
In addition, conferences often provide coffee breaks with pastries or snacks, and maybe even lunches. Take advantage of these free snacks by bringing carryout containers — plastic bags, reusable bags, or even a more conspicuous container. Taking a little extra from a number of snacks can create a full meal for later — though often a carb-heavy one.
Sometimes additional meals are provided for committees associated with the conference, ranging from graduate student issues committees to social media advisors. Joining one of these committees does entail some extra work, but will likely provide an extra meal (in addition to giving you a built in community to interact with and pumping up that resume!)
Finding access to free food can be a deal-breaker for academic conferences. While many institutions provide funding for students to attend conferences, this is almost always reserved for grad student presenters. Even with funding, most students will be forced to pay up-front costs and then submit for reimbursement later. Finding ways to reduce the cost of conferences by scoping out free food can make attendance possible.
5. Take a Break
While all of these will help you make the most of the conference experience, it’s important to remember that they are still large, demanding and exhausting events. Engage in as many paper sessions and activities as possible, but make sure to take a break when you need one.
It’s okay to take sessions off, to arrive late or to leave early. Long days of little physical activity and stretches of mental focus can be more exhausting than you realize. Removing yourself from the crowds and doing something more than listening to lectures can actually improve the rest of the time you spend at the conference.
Academic conferences provide opportunities to explore new places. Attendees often travel to new countries and cities that they never planned to or could afford to visit. So while you’re there, make sure to get out of the conference location and see what the new space has to offer! It’s a good excuse to give your mind a break, revitalize your social engines and see more of the world.
Keep these ideas — and maybe a couple of Ziplock bags — in your toolbox as you prep for your next academic conference. Each event is a unique experience, so keep your head on a swivel and do what you need to make the most of your time. Ultimately, conferences can not only be great opportunities for your academic career but just plain ole good times.