Yours, Mine, and Our First Conference: How to Survive

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Congratulations! You followed the suggestions from the last posting and your abstract got accepted. You’ve filled out all the necessary forms and secured your funding, found your hotel, written your presentation. Everything is ready. Now to head off to your conference. For some of you reading this post, there are well-loved, well known dance moves to navigating the rigmarole associated with conferences. For others, like myself, this (unnamed, hypothetical) conference will be your first. I am here to guide you through the process of being a confused novice. As I go on with advice and suggestions, remember, I am here for you.

harry potter time turner necklace vintage style necklace golden snitch jewelry christmas gift-n2243 -f89111If you have chosen to attend a conference that takes place over a number of days, be prepared to feel exhausted. Traveling, meeting new people, sleeping in unfamiliar places (for us homebodies), and the excitement of learning new things will take its toll. Embrace this feeling and understand that you cannot possibly do everything, nor should you try. Please don’t try.  When I first arrived at the conference, I was excited. Surely, I would attend every presentation. Every. Single. One. Quickly, this excitement turned to a feeling of overwhelming panic, and then exhaustion. All of this happened in the space of a minute or so (and probably looked strange and frightening to someone observing me), but once I had this breakdown I moved based a need to dominate and win at conference attending, and began to look more closely at the program and zero in on presentations related to personal interests. If you are attending a large conference, especially an interdisciplinary conference, try to attend at least a few sessions in a subject that interest you, but you know nothing about. You might not be able to ask questions, but you’ll learn something and meet people outside your field. That said…

  • Make sure you attend at least a few presentations relevant to your field or area of interest. You can network and fill up a room, which people presenting will surely appreciate.
  • When networking, should you see a famous or well known (or one of your well loved) academics wandering around. Approach cautiously. Do not pounce on them in a fit uncontrolled excitement. Do not stalk them.
  • Do not stare at them intently.
  • They are people trying to enjoy the conference too. So, look at them. Look away. Look at them again. They have a book. (just kidding, wrong reference.) Seriously, though. Once you feel you can approach them as a respectful graduate student and co-conference member and not as a slavering fan, then give that conversation a go. You can do. Network!


Depending on the conference you go to, those in charge of programming may already offer some options for recreation or chances to see the city. Take advantage of these. Leave the seminar rooms for at least a few hours, lest ye go mad. The best way to retain all of the information that you are soaking up is to step away from it and let your mind rest. Why not do this by visiting the city you paid to travel to? If your conference doesn’t offer these experiences, try to find some time to visit something, anything so that you haven’t just teleported from campus to campus. Finding a time to relax and rest your brain is especially important to calm yourself before you present. That said…

  • Make sure you attend presentations and do not use visiting the city as an excuse to disappear conveniently until it is time for you to present.


Now that you have heard some presentations, visited some city attractions, and rested your mind, it is now time for your presentation. Are you nervous? You should be. You are Wall-e_backpresenting something you care about in front of your peers and possible contacts. So be nervous, it’s only natural. It would be stranger if you felt nothing, you robot. Instead of thinking about this nervousness negatively, embrace it, realize that you will be nervous, everyone else you watched present was nervous, and no one in that room will judge you if you stumble over a word or need to pause for a moment. Take a deep breath (two if you need it) and begin. You’re doing it! You’re presenting! Congratulations!  You’re so close to finishing this, just get through questions and you are home free.

  •  Make sure you answer questions politely and openly. If you don’t know the answer to something, admit it. Do not try to make something up. Someone in that room will know. Even if the person in the room asking the question is rude, you must remain polite at all costs.



So you’ve done it. You’ve made it through your first conference with your sanity, dignity, and happiness intact. Now all you have to do is make it past the merchandise table and you’ll have survived with your wallet intact too (maybe, just a few things wouldn’t hurt, after all you need souvenirs, right?) Hopefully, you are already looking forward to your second, third, ninetieth conference after you’ve flown home and slept for a thousand years.

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