Questions from First-Time Conference Attendees

I would like to thank the students from the University of Nebraska who took the time to come up with these questions.  They’re great questions I wish I had thought to ask before I went to my first conference because I remember feeling pretty overwhelmed my first time.

What are the positive and negative aspects of volunteering?

I think the only negative aspect would be that it takes up time and you might miss something or someone you wanted to see.  Mostly, I believe volunteering is a great idea.  The main draw is that you can get a little money back – super helpful for those living on a grad school stipend.   Also check out travel awards.  If you qualify, this is another great potential money saver and looks good on your CV.  If you’re strategic, you can use your volunteering as a way to do a little networking.  You never know who will show up to get their name badge or need directions to the restroom or Conference Room A.

How should you appropriately approach a researcher to whom you have not been previously introduced?

This is probably better approached as a “what not to do” question.  Basically, you don’t want to scare/annoy the person you would like to talk to.  So, no stalking, no interrupting (or excuse yourself and be very polite if you must interrupt), and no inappropriate touching. If you don’t quite have the chutzpah to approach someone out of the blue (I sure don’t), you can ask faculty at your institution to introduce you.  In these academic circles, there’s a good chance that someone knows that person or knows someone else who does.  Go to a poster or talk that they are presenting.  It will also help if you have something in particular you would like to discuss.  Your meeting with this person will be more productive if you want to get their perspective on your research, exchange ideas, or learn about his or her plans for future research.  A good idea is to ask what grants are in the works – it gives you an idea of what research positions this person might have available in the coming years or just learn more about funding avenues for the type of research you’re interested in (because getting grants in grad school is/would be amazing).

 How are panels usually organized, and how can you make the most out of your participation?

There are several types of presentations.  I’ve listed most of them below along with my take on what you can get out of each.  Please be aware these are specifically from experiences at SRA and SRCD (in fact I looked at the SRCD program to make sure I remembered all the types of presentations). Other conferences may be very different.

  • The paper sessions and symposia are basically individuals presenting their research for about 15 minutes each on a common topic with time for questions and answers at the end.   This is the opportunity to learn about the most current research in a certain area.  I used to try and go to any of these sessions that were remotely connected to what I was interested in, but usually found myself exhausted from trying to cram a ton of new info in my brain and often forgetting most of it.  For me, a much better system has been to pick just a few talks that are really relevant and maybe one or two that would be an opportunity to learn something tangentially connected to my interests.  These are generally not great networking opportunities because many people approach the speakers after the presentation.
  • Poster sessions are excellent for networking.  This is where over 100 posters will be set up and people will stand in front of the poster waiting for someone to come ask questions.  I used to not spend very much time at these because the posters are really a snapshot of research – not very in depth.  But I eventually learned that I’m more likely to retain information because you can actually talk to the presenters.   If you go to a poster you’re interested in and no one else is talking to the presenter, I recommend not just standing there reading the poster (you’ll both feel awkward as they watch you read), but ask them to walk you through it.  It’s the easiest conversation starter!  It’s also easy to walk up and listen in if they’re explaining the poster to someone else and you can jump in with questions.
  • poster symposium is the best of both worlds.  The presenters give a talk and then there’s a mini-poster session at which attendees can walk around to the handful of posters and speak to the presenters.
  • Round tablesinvited addresses, and panel discussions are more issue-focused with less emphasis on the nitty gritty research details.  I used to be afraid to go to these because I thought we were going to be a part of the discussion (silly me!).  Actually, you get to hear from experts in specific fields talk more generally about research trends, current issues, or research topics from a broader perspective. Also be on the look-out for panel discussions that are of interest to emerging scholars.  I have attended talks on publishing, grant-writing, and non-academic career opportunities that were incredibly informative.

What is considered appropriate attire for the different events/panels during the conference?

Always err on the side of professionalism.   You will not feel out of place or over-dressed if you don business casual attire at all conference events, so somewhere on the spectrum between a suit and jeans.  People seem to dress up a bit more when they’re presenting and you’ll see the occasional maverick in a t-shirt (some of these people already have good reputations due to their long and successful career, so they’re allowed).  Keep in mind that these conferences are huge and if you wear uncomfortable shoes, you will be pretty miserable.  A pair of nice-looking, comfortable shoes is a worthwhile splurge.  If you plan to venture out and do some sightseeing or don’t want to wear your nice clothes out to dinner, casual clothes are fine of course, but keep in mind that thousands of people are coming to town for this conference and there’s a good chance you’ll recognize someone wherever you go.  You want to present yourself as a smart, promising, well-prepared professional who would be an asset to an institution – not an embarrassment.  You want to be memorable when you meet people, but not for what you wore.

As attendants, should we bring any information on our own academic work (business cards, CV, etc.)?

Definitely bring business cards! You never know when you might meet someone that you want to contact in the future.  I’d probably skip the CV, though, unless you’re going on the job market.  If you come across a situation where you wish you’d had your CV, exchange business cards and then e-mail your CV.

By Jen Wolff

Image by Alen-D/AdobeStock

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