Five tips for making the most out of an academic conference

Brady Robards, Monash University:

Conferences are an important part of research in several ways: meeting other researchers, finding out about the latest research in the field, and presenting and receiving feedback on your own research. At the 2016 TASA conference in Melbourne, Luke Gahan and I ran a short session during the Postgraduate Day to prompt thinking around how to get the most out of conference attendance. I’ve distilled the key points here into five tips (or groups of tips) for making the most out of an academic conference.

  1. Prepare for your paper and know your room

This one is pretty obvious, and you will have done at least some kind of preparation long before getting to a conference, especially if you are speaking – writing an abstract, perhaps applying for conference funding, identifying key points to cover in your talk, preparing slides, even writing a whole script. But even if your talk is ready to go, once you arrive there are a few more things you can do to prepare.

  • Make sure you find your room in advance, and check that any technology you want to use works as you expect (computer, laptop connection, data projector, microphones, etc.). Some conferences ask you to bring your own laptop, others specifically ask you not to mess around by plugging in your own laptop. Find this out in advance. The break preceding your session is a good time to load up any slides, check that the fonts work, and test everything out.
  • If you are worried your slides might appear in a different format at the venue (I’ve seen this happen many times!), you can create PDF versions of PowerPoint or Keynote files to keep everything in order (but you lose any fancy in-slide transitions).
  • Introduce yourself to the person chairing the session
  • Make sure you have some water, too!
  1. Ready your small talk and push through the awkwardness

Another part of preparation that many people struggle with is the talk that goes on outside your actual presentation: small talk during breaks, figuring out a concise way to tell people what your work is about, and pushing through the awkwardness most people experience in these settings. One way to overcome this is to have a few ‘elevator pitches’ ready to go. Think of a sentence or two that will convey to someone what you do or what you plan to do with a project, in the time it might take an elevator to go a few floors. You can think about this in a few ways:

  • Broad project description
  • Some methodological hook
  • Theoretical framework or background

You don’t need to go into too much detail, just give the person you are talking to something to connect with when they ask you to ‘tell me about your research’ or the very vague ‘what’s your area?’:

  • ‘Oh, I’m currently working on a project that looks at homophobia in sport, interviewing elite athletes. Trying to use some Bourdieu along the way’.
  • ‘Who me? Well, I’ve got a few things on the go, but right now I’m doing some secondary analysis of longitudinal survey data on gender equality measures’.

These kinds of pitches open up lots of avenues for follow-up questions, and don’t overwhelm the other person with information. And remember to ask the other person these kinds of questions and follow-up questions too!

  1. Participate… on Twitter, ask questions, go to social events

There is much more to a conference than the academic papers and the main program. There are official social events like a conference dinner or welcome receptions, along with targeted activities like queer drinks or a women’s breakfast. Try to go along to some of these, but also be open to social activities outside the main program. These are often where many of the connections are forged that might turn into collaborative projects down the track, or even lifelong friendships! I’ve certainly made wonderful friends who have become professional collaborators (and vice versa) at conferences, and for me these have been the most valuable parts of conferences, both personally and professionally.

Social media – especially Twitter – is also a great way to connect with other people at big conferences, to organise meet-ups, and to keep the conversation going after the event. Find out the conference hashtag (for this year’s TASA conference in Perth it’s #TASA2017) and get involved, but don’t be snarky or overly critical on Twitter. It’s okay to ask questions and raise concerns (as you would in person) but don’t be a jerk. If in doubt, don’t post it. Try to avoid drunk tweeting wherever possible, too!

Having said all that, though, it’s also totally fine (and even advisable) to take time out. Conferences can be very overwhelming if you try to do everything (and doubly so if you fall in with a crowd who tends to kick on into the night…). Skip a session or dodge that invite to drinks if you need to recharge or put the finishing touches on your paper. Don’t feel guilty about needing some space.

  1. Follow up

When it’s all done and you are back home or in the office, take a few minutes to follow up with people. Send a tweet to thank the people whose papers you enjoyed, or an email to follow up on that co-authored paper idea you brewed together with someone over morning tea. Even if you leave exhausted, there can often be a positive productive energy that comes after a conference, so try to capture it and hold on to it for as long as you can!

Some people bring and hand out business cards to conferences, which is one way to aid the following up process, but for me Twitter is more useful. Go with what works for you but do something to follow up and make the most of the connections you make at the conference.

  1. Find your tribes

One of the key threads to many of the tips here is around connecting with people. At the end of the day, that’s what conferences are all about. It might not happen at your very first conference, but over time you will ‘find your tribes’. There are different kinds of tribes. At TASA, we have Thematic Groups, but there are also methodological tribes (more complex than just quant vs qual, too), theory groupings (the Bourdiesians and the Foucaultians and the Actor-Network Theorists and so on), but there are also opportunities to connect with the broader Association. At TASA, if you are a postgraduate researcher, consider volunteering to join the TASA Postgraduate Subcommittee, or even think about standing for the TASA Executive. You can also talk to Thematic Group Convenors about getting more involved in the operation of your Thematic Group. TASA – and many other Associations that run big conferences – rely on volunteer work, so get involved and find your tribe in the process.

Happy conferencing!

Brady’s research explores how young people use and produce social media like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Reddit as sites of identity and memory-work. Check out his website: bradyrobards.com. You can follow and contact Brady on Twitter: @bradyjay

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