Women in Academia: Gearing up for Conferences

I love going to conferences. They are totally overwhelming, but if you recognize that you can’t do everything all the time, they are completely reinvigorating. After some traumatic conference experiences, I have come up with a short list of tips on how to get the most fun and benefit from attending a conference.

  1. Plan ahead. Generally, big conferences will have a lot of different talks all happening at once, and trying to pick which sessions to attend can be overwhelming. Go through the schedule for each day, and pick out the talks that sound interesting. Then, divide them into “must see!” and “would like to see.” Prioritizing which talks really matter makes it easier on days when you’re just too plumb tired to pick out only the good stuff.
  2. Make room in your schedule for “re-charge” time. Whether you just sneak off to a quiet corner to read, or skip an entire morning to check out the city (heck, I went to an art museum once, just to get a break), the time off will be well worth it. It sounds really silly ““ why pay so much money for a conference when you’re just going to miss part of it ““ but your (or at least my) brain needs that time off. Otherwise, everything just sort of blends into one overwhelming mass of academic goo. It’s like stepping in tar.
  3. But don’t plan too much! I know, I know, I dedicated my first two points entirely to planning and now I’m all “ah, not too much.” But here’s the thing ““ conferences are sort of organic beings. You’ll run into old acquaintances and make new ones. Unexpected social and networking opportunities will come up. Heck, the whole energy of the conference may shift from listening to talks to chatting in the hallways. Just go with the flow ““ you’ll meet some cool people and learn some awesome, relevant things (usually).
  4. Don’t put too much on your plate. Conferences are extremely tiring things. You must be always on ““ always taking in information, always ready to meet someone, always on the move. So while there are a lot of great ways to spend time, make sure you’re not spending too much of it.
  5. If you’re talking or presenting a poster, prepare way in advance and get lots of practice. I know it sounds like complete common sense (and it is), but sometimes, people come in the conference expecting to work on their talk in the evenings. I am sure you can make time to work on stuff, but honestly, there’ll already be a lot going on and you’ll be tired. If possible, bring the finished product (with practice!) to the conference, and don’t think about it too much until it goes from Future Issue to Situation Imminent.
  6. Bring comfortable walking shoes and a sweater. It gets cold in convention centers and trust me, you’ll be doing a lot of walking.

What are your experiences? Got any tips?

4 replies on “Women in Academia: Gearing up for Conferences”

A few thoughts about conferences:

1. YES, get out and do things in the host city. The reason they are in big cities is to draw attendance; organizers expect you’ll do some local things. Most programs have a few pages of ‘what do to in CITY NAME HERE’.

2. For those of us in school or working in small towns far from good shopping, this is a great opportunity to build your academic wardrobe: more options and sales. I got some of my favorite pieces on conference shopping trips.

3. Never get too wasted. Conferences are full of people watching you when you don’t realize it. You might not know them, but they know someone-you-know and it is just too small of a world. Ya know? I have seen far too many women (students and jr faculty mostly) get very drunk and years later people still associate them with being “unprofessional”. To be sure, I have seen WAY MORE men get drunk at conferences, but the truth is (in my male-dominated field anyhow) it is never held against them.

4. Similarly, don’t talk badly about people in a loud voice. Again, there are many conference stories like this “I was in a plane, hall, elevator, etc. and someone was saying awful things about my BFF/colleague/student/grad school classmate/etc”. Again, you never know who is in earshot, and as students and untenured faculty (who need jobs and grants) you don’t need to piss off the reviewer pool for stupid reasons.

5. Make friendly with people on your panels. They are likely to get your work (grant apps or articles) for review. This is one of the easiest places to make good professional contacts for people who are shy or not into ‘networking’ — you already have to sort of talk to these people and you have something to talk about (the panel!).

6. Don’t forget to update your CV when you get home! Add your presentation, another line for being discussant or chair, another line if you got funding to attend.

I love conferences! I always make conference friends. Does anyone else have that experience? Where you sort of glom onto a group of people from the start and become conference BFFs? And, er, does anyone else in a male-dominated field find that the women tend to stick together?

My advice for conferences is that you can sleep when you get home. Hit the dinner/bar/social event, because it’s great to meet other people in your field. The last one I was at, I made a particular point to hang with a friend who then introduced me to loads of other women in my field, just a year or two ahead of me career wise, who were so inspirational to be around.

I usually forget how interesting the other speakers are when I go to a conference I’m in. It’s fun to hear the ideas of people with intersecting interests, especially when yours were publicly shown/discussed there too. It’s fun to be with a diverse group of people who are (semi-) experts in the same field as you. But sometimes you also need to scope out the good shopping center by campus or something. And everyone should come to Missoula in October to hear my next paper!

These are great tips! I always plan times to sneak out and take a mental breather, particularly if there’s a block of talks that don’t interest me. At my last conference, I took a morning off to sit in downtown New Orleans, enjoy beignets and coffee, and people-watch. It was worth it, and when I went back to the conference, I was more focused.

Other tips:

-When you register for the conference, check whether there are travel grants available for students. Usually, all you have to do is check a box and possibly send in a letter of recommendation.

-Be sure to visit other people’s posters when you’re not presenting yours. This is a good way to meet other people in your field, make important contacts, see what your competitors are up to, and meet dinner companions for the evenings!

-Dress nicely even if the other students (or faculty!) are in sloppy jeans.

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