Starting to go to conferences is a big step in your junior academic career. You might be taken along as a graduate student by a supervisor or senior academic to get a sense of what goes on. You might be starting to attend as a speaker in your own right, presenting on a paper you have contributed to. No matter what level you’ve reached in your career, a conference is a huge professional forum for sharing ideas and networking.
A conference lets you hear about research that hasn’t hit the journals yet and sometimes, ask questions to lead researchers in your field. It’s a great reason to be at a conference but it can be enough to make anyone nervous. You might be worried about how to navigate the complex conference schedule or concerned about what to say if a fellow attendee asks about your work.
The best advice to make sure your nerves never get out of hand is to prepare in advance. Look at the schedule brochure or the listings online and pick out what you’re interested in going to see or need to attend. It saves you from getting stressed out on the first day. Come up with your questions for talks in advance. You can also think about what you will say about what brought you to the conference so that when someone asks you casually, you can be succinct.
It pays to remember the practical things. You might have a long day so do bring your water bottle. Remember to find out where the cafe is and keep an eye out for bathrooms. Conference centers can be large and confusing and you may not have as much time in between talks as you want. Keeping a few cookies or a piece of fruit in your bag is a good idea. Nobody can concentrate when they are famished.
It may run against all your natural inclinations, but do try to network. These are bright, interested people in your field. There is no better opportunity to meet like-minded researchers who can help you advance your work. Even if you aren’t a social butterfly, you have a lot in common with the people at a conference in your field. It’s a great starting point.
There are a few things to avoid too. A big don’t is overindulging in alcohol around your colleagues and new acquaintances. Some people can get carried away when working away from their family and in a new place. Resist the urge to go wild, your more sober colleagues will remember the faux pas.
Participation is great and being involved is wonderful but don’t go to see a talk by someone you disagree with if you’re going just to argue with them. It is one thing to question someone thoughtfully, but the fight for the last word should happen on journal pages and in print, not in the presentation hall. The questions section at the end of the talk is for genuine questions, not an opportunity to air an academic grievance.
Conferences are brilliant and the odds are that you will have a great time. Just remember that it’s still a professional setting and you will be fine.