[Originally posted on 14 May 2018 for The Mars Generation Student Space Ambassadors (SSA)]
By: Emily Judd, SSA Leadership Board Secretary
As a student and young professional, attending conferences will likely be part of your career, whether it’s for presenting your research, learning more about your field, or recruiting new talent for your company. With such a variety of conferences and reasons for attending, it can be difficult to maximize your time during these opportunities. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your conference attendance.
1) Choose your conference type
There are thousands of conferences across the world each year, spanning diverse interests such as comics, music education, and atmospheric science. Even within one industry or topic, there are different types of conferences, ranging from small workshops to massive gatherings. Depending on your goals (or those of your advisor/boss), certain conferences can fit better than others. Do you want to present your research to others in your field of study? Do you want to learn new techniques to improve your communication, presentation, and teaching skills? Do you want to interact with other students and young professionals or learn from the veterans in the industry? Your answers to these questions should help you narrow down which conferences would be of interest.
You might have heard it said that “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” and that saying certainly has some truth to it. Many opportunities for research collaboration, job prospects, and other exciting endeavors can be linked to a person who recommended either you or the opportunity. Although it can be intimidating, take the chance to introduce yourself to the speakers and ask about their experiences. Get to know your fellow students; you’ll likely be either working together or competing in the future, so pursue friendships now. Develop your professional image by having business cards and resumes and utilizing social media appropriately. Follow up with your new connections after the conference to keep in contact. Of course, any social interaction is dependent on many variables, so you’ll need to judge when the situation is right.
3) Develop your interests
Often, a conference is a way to learn about new breakthroughs in the field and discuss ongoing and historical work. Presenting your work through a formal talk or a poster session can be a great way to share the importance of what you do with a broad audience. Similarly, you can learn from the other speakers and presenters that have related branches of work, gaining new insights to help further develop your ideas. If your fellow students or co-workers (and especially if your advisor or boss) are presenting, support them by attending their presentations. Often, even if you work closely with them, you will still find new information, perhaps a new perspective, a new analysis, or new data. Usually, your interest in the topic is why you are attending the conference in the first place, so really take advantage of this aspect.
4) Broaden your horizons
Most conferences cover a span of material, so even at a highly specialized meeting, you won’t know everything. Attend talks outside of your main interests. Meet with people conducting research outside your expertise. Interdisciplinary research uses ideas from many seemingly unconnected fields to make ground-breaking discoveries, so don’t pass over a panel just because you do not work in that area. Besides, you might discover a new passion!
5) Utilize the opportunities
In addition to providing topical knowledge, there can be other opportunities associated with conferences. Some will have special sessions for varied interest groups, such as students or minorities. Some have students aid or even lead in planning the conference. Others will host funding opportunities for students. Others will have associated events geared toward facilitating networking, like banquet meals, informal socials, and lunch meetings. If you can attend some of these extra events or get involved with conference leadership, you can make new friends with the current and future stars of the industry.
6) Explore and have fun
One of the benefits of conferences is the opportunity to explore the area. Many conferences are hosted in exciting cities or gorgeous areas, so do take some time to explore the area, whether that’s eating a local restaurant specialty or hiking up a nearby mountain. While the primary purpose of the conference is to learn from and interact with people, enjoy a mini-vacation if you can.
Overall, conferences are a wonderful way to learn new information in a condensed manner and meet with people from your industry. All the new knowledge can be overwhelming, so try to relax and enjoy your time as well. Conferences are a staple for many in academic and professional life, so hopefully these tips will help you develop your strategy to get as much out of them as you can!