A Step-by-step Approach for Attending Conferences

Published: Tues., Nov. 18, 2014 by Debalin Sarangi

Debalin Sarangi portrait
A journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step

Lao Tzu’s words have helped me understand that my career is made up of many steps. And attending conferences is one step I have taken in graduate school. Presenting my research helps me along my career journey, and the best time to start is now!

Conferences are the best way to showcase research in front of a group of people from my discipline. They’re also a great tool for keeping my research on the front burner along with the demands of coursework, teaching assistantship, writing, social activities, and family obligations. While it’s easy to put research off because it’s not urgent like coursework or teaching, attending a conference (and all the preparation that goes with it) gives me a deadline for work related to my research.

To help me sort out the many steps involved in attending a conference or professional annual meeting, I like to divide the process into three stages: (1) Before the Conference, (2) During the Conference, and (3) After the Conference. Here’s the checklist I use to help me get the most out of conferences and advice for what you can do:

Before the Conference

  • Identify your goal. This is the first step. Ask yourself: Why are you attending this conference? What do you want to gain from this experience?
  • Note important dates. Once you’ve decided to attend the conference, mark all the important dates in your calendar: the registration deadline, when to make your hotel reservation, the deadline for submitting your abstract, etc.
  • Talk to your supervisor and course instructors. You may need to talk to your supervisor about your research results or which part of your research you’re going to present. You can also discuss which conference-related expenses need to be covered by you and which may be covered by your supervisor. If you’re going to a conference in the middle of the semester and might miss class or exams, contact instructors well in advance to inform them of the conflict.
  • Apply for a graduate student travel grant. There are a number of on- and off-campus funding sources to cover the expenses of attending a conference. Funding opportunities may be listed on your department’s website; a few external travel awards are on the graduate studies webpage. Many society meetings have travel grants available for students to attend, so check those as well.
  • Apply for a student award. Most conferences will announce student recognition awards like Best Graduate Student Poster, Outstanding Graduate Student, Best Paper, etc. If you think you could win one, go for it! Awards enrich the CV and may help get you more recognition or even a position in the future.
  • Make reservations early. When attending a conference, you may need to reserve plane tickets, rent a car, or borrow a Nebraska state vehicle from the university. By making these reservations as early as possible, you avoid the eleventh hour rush before the conference. Stay at the conference hotel to be in the middle of conference activities, and try to share a room with another graduate student to save money and meet someone new.
  • Prepare your presentation. If you’re planning a poster or an oral presentation, edit them several times to be concise and attractive. To help you edit, think about the best presentations you’ve seen and what made them the best. Then try to do that!
  • Practice, practice, practice! When you’re done preparing your poster or presentation, brainstorm potential questions you might be asked. Schedule practice sessions with your supervisor, friends, and fellow students—their recommendations help improve the presentation.

During the Conference

Debalin presents research
Debalin Sarangi presents his research poster at the 2013 North Central Weed Science Society annual meeting at Columbus, OH
Photo courtesy of Debalin Sarangi
  • Check the agenda. After checking in, take a quick look at the agenda and schedule, marking which speakers and sessions you’d like to attend.
  • Volunteer. Some society meetings offer opportunities for volunteering. This is a great opportunity to meet prestigious individuals in your field! Also, registration fees are sometimes waived for students who volunteer—so make sure to check with the organizer ahead of time!
  • Know your presentation. If you’re presenting something, it’s important to know your audience, the medium you’re presenting in, and your content. You shouldn't memorize your talk, but practice it—out loud—many times. Have copies of your talk to give to people interested in your research. Remember to include your name, contact information, and the university name on the handout as well—the handout can work like a business card, and the person who gets it will remember who you are!
  • Document your presentation. Ask a friend to take some photos or videos during your presentation (if allowed) for you to use on your website or in your e-portfolio, during your graduate defense, or as part of your application packet when you apply to jobs.
  • Build your network. The greatest value of a conference is the people you meet. Plan out whom you’d like to meet and what to talk about. Try to meet some big names in your field, but also talk to people from different universities, industries, etc. I recommend having business cards made before the conference—it looks more professional than writing your name on scratch paper!
  • Connect over meals. Conferences are great places to make friends from different universities and learn about research going on in the different parts of the world. Try to attend some of the meals scheduled by the conference to meet new people.
  • Don’t overbook yourself. Enjoy a balance of fun and scholarly events. To be at your best, schedule breaks and take time to recharge. Take time to look through the notes you take to process what you have learned and what you still need to learn.

After the Conference

  • Make a post-conference facility visit. Some meetings and conferences offer post-conference tours of industry or university lab facilities, or of local museums. These visits are another great way to network in your field.
  • Take a tour. Apart from work, conferences offer the opportunity to see something new. If your conference is in Rio de Janeiro, take a trip up to Christ the Redeemer. If your conference is in New York City, check out Times Square.
  • Submit your receipts. Keep itemized receipts of all your expenses and submit them to your department for reimbursement if you have university funding for your trip. Be sure to follow the university rules! For example, UNL won’t reimburse movies, alcohol, or expenses for non-university travelers.
  • Keep notes. Always write down key points from the conference. This will helps you prepare for the next conference and help you remember who you met and which panels you attended.
  • Stay in touch with your new contacts. Whether you use LinkedIn to connect with your new contacts or you send a personal email, reach out to the people you've just met. When you have questions later that a contact can answer or you're up for a job at their institution, these contacts can help you in your career. 

Participating in conferences and professional meetings are great steps that combine the scholarly and social aspects of your work. These experiences will enrich your CV and provide you with a valuable professional network that will help you along your career journey.