Going to Conferences = Getting the Jobs
It’s not padding your résumé if you learn new skills, flex your academic talents and network like a boss at conferences that fit your education and career goals.
By Mari Landgrebe, Texas State University
You’ve joined a club, participated in a few service events and maybe got onto the Dean’s List a few times.
Still, despite all your efforts to make your résumé more attractive, it’s likely that your CV looks identical to every other recent grad. So how do you differentiate yourself after all you’ve done already?
There are several different kinds of conferences that can bolster your skills and résumé; they all have merit and exist for nearly any discipline or interest, academic or not. Leveraging these events is a productive method for developing a body of work specific to your goals, as well as the soft skills required in most jobs.
Presenting at a conference isn’t something students do a lot of, despite the many universities that host undergraduate conferences on a yearly basis. These academic events are great for getting your feet wet and practicing presentation skills in front of people who, at the very least, want you to make them interested in what you’re telling them about. If you simply gussy up a paper from class for your college’s undergraduate conference, it’s documentable experience of soft skills in use.
There are two types of conferences specific to undergraduates, and both are valuable, particularly if you’re starting your networking rounds early in your academic career.
The first, university-hosted undergraduate research conferences, are often utilized by students who have degree or course requirements to formally present research. These conferences may have limited time slots available for non-requirement students, and the standard for applications may vary accordingly. Check your school website and speak with your professors about presenting a piece of work you completed for a course.
Second, the Council on Undergraduate Research curates a list of opportunities for undergrads to present at national conferences. Meetings of this caliber are better known, and therefore more competitive at times. It’s excellent practice in developing and refining an abstract for submission, on top of presenting your work to a wider audience.
Professional academic conferences will sometimes have presentation tracks specifically for graduate students and, occasionally, undergraduate students. Professors and scholars are in abundance at these conferences, many of which span over two days or more.
Oftentimes, the graduate and undergraduate tracks are designed as spaces for students, rather than an omission of students from the professional tracks. While it’s uncommon for undergrads to present in the professional tracks, it’s not unheard of. If your presentation fits squarely in a particular track, and you’re confident in your work, apply.
Keep in mind that it’s better to complete a majority of the research prior to submitting application materials. You don’t want to find your end product coming to conclusions that contradict the abstract in the conference program. Enlist the assistance of a professor who has attended the conference you’re applying to for advice.
Still, academics aren’t the only way to gain experience in conference presentations. Industry conferences and expos provide ample opportunity to network with the leaders and up-and-comers of the workforce you’re aiming for.
It can be hard—but not impossible—to gain a speaking engagement in an industry conference, especially as a student. These conferences should be approached on a basis of experience gained in the classroom and efforts made outside education. Proposing a panel discussion of volunteers or students creating opportunities for themselves in that industry can be enlightening and popular.
When proposing a talk or panel discussion, it’s vital that you understand who your audience will be and how the conference will benefit from your presentation. Be careful to articulate these points with passion without bordering on desperation, particularly if the industry you’re approaching is difficult to break into.
Being accepted to present at a conference is only the first step. If it’s an off-campus event, there’s travel to consider. A round trip flight is already pricey for an undergrad, not to mention a hotel room. Add the Über to and from the airport and meals, and attending a conference can hollow out the already shallow pocket of most penniless students. However, there are some resources to tap.
For academic conferences, take advantage of travel grants offered by your university. While there may not be travel funds allocated specifically for undergraduate students, most universities provide some form of assistance for their graduate students. Sometimes it’s as easy as adding the “under” part to “graduate” on the title of the application.
Travel grants can be relatively easy to apply for, often requiring simply the facts: your abstract and application, the approval email or letter, dates, times and perhaps an estimation of travel funds needed and a short explanation.
Many departments have travel grants specific to their degree programs. The engineering department might approve a travel grant for an undergrad if that student is an engineering major and will be presenting at an engineering conference on an engineering topic.
Industry conferences can get a little tricky. Most of the bigger conferences will provide all-access passes to the various presentation tracks and may provide discounted hotel rooms they have reserved. Most, however, will not provide travel funds or assistance in securing travel, simply due to the number of presenters they may have brought on.
Some industry conferences may have scholarships for students or industry members, but they may be hard to find and fiercely competitive. I highly suggest not booking a flight until you know you’ve received the scholarship.
Universities can be hesitant to provide travel funds for industry conferences, particularly if the conference doesn’t have direct application toward a student’s formal education.
Make it clear in your grant application that the conference, and your presentation, has clear positive implications for your education and for the university.
So, let’s say that you’ve applied and been accepted to present at a conference, and you’ve even secured travel funds from grants or scholarships. The flights have been booked, hotel room reserved and outfits all picked out and packed. Just don’t forget your game face.
Make sure you bring: several copies of your updated and polished résumé on quality paper; a padfolio to carry your résumés and take notes; and a quality handshake, introduction and elevator pitch of your presentation.
Try to remember that conferences are learning experiences, especially for students. By attending and presenting, you’re showing the hiring managers in your future that you care about the topics or industries you pursued and your interest in developing the soft skills that make you an attractive candidate, such as networking and presenting.