It’s hard to believe, but it has been over a decade since I attended my first conference as a student. Now as a professor, when my student who is presenting for the first time, asked me for some tips, I had to think back and put myself in his shoes. I figured I’d pass along the following handful of suggestions to any readers who are attending their first conference or just curious about what an academic research conference involves. You’ll see that most of my pointers are pretty commonsense, but believe me, even seasoned conference pros could use reminders from time to time!
Tip #1 – Act the Part of a Professional: My guess is that for most people, this tip goes without saying. However, you’d be surprised at how people tend to “let go” at conferences. It probably has something to do with a “what happens at the conference stays at the conference” axiom (yes, even research conferences can promote this Spring Break type mentality). Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily true, particularly for someone who is new to the field and trying to make a good impression on future advisors and colleagues. Feel free to attend the social events, but try to keep in mind that even in those settings you are really still at work. One last note on being professional, try to always dress the part. Although business-attire may not be the sexiest or most flattering thing in your closet, for these events, it is the most appropriate.
Tip #2 – Be Fearless: A conference can be quite intimidating, particularly if you are in the tenuous position of being relatively new, applying to graduate school, or on the job market. My recommendation is to ignore the tendency to be timid and jump right into the mix. Introduce yourself to any peers or colleagues that you encounter, muster up the courage to talk to the brilliant researcher you’re hoping to work with, and speak up if you have a question during one of the symposia. This is a once in a lifetime (well, once every two years) opportunity that you don’t want to squander. Generally speaking, relationships researchers and psychologists in general are a pretty friendly group, and we hardly ever bite (unless, of course, it is for the good of the relationship!).
Tip #3 – Conferences are a Marathon, Not a Sprint, so Pace Yourself: This is not a blanket invitation to sleep late and begin partying early. As you are in at the conference to partake of the research, you should make it a point to identify and attend presentations that excite you. However, you might find that you begin to burn out after the first few days (we call this “conference fatigue”). This is normal, and it is perfectly fine to carve out time to dedicate to reflecting on what you’ve already seen or even just to recharge your batteries.
Tip #4 – Take Home Something Tangible: You will be inundated with information and your mind is bound to blur some of it together and forget the rest. If you stock up on tangible takeaways, you can overcome this. For instance, at poster sessions grab a printout and at talks take notes. If all else fails, remember to leave the conference with colleagues’ business cards or email addresses. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to share copies of their presentations or continue brief conversations once they make it back to their offices.
Tip #5 – Have Fun: I think of conferences as one of the perks of being an academic. Every now and again you get together with old friends to share your passions and explore new cities. You may find that in the future, bringing friends or partners along with you adds to the experience, particularly if you are getting some of your expenses reimbursed. Sure, there is a lot of work involved in the preparation and presentation parts, but try to always balance this with a whole lot of fun!
Dr. Sadie Leder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.