How to Survive Your First Academic Conference: 10 Vital Tips

If you’ve never been to an academic conference, it can be an intimidating experience.

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But it’s a great pity if this puts you off, because attending academic conferences is great. It’s intimidating because you might potentially end up talking to some of the most famous and noteworthy people in your field – but this, of course, is also one of the biggest perks of attending a conference. If you’re an undergraduate, outside of your reading, you might only have heard one professor’s thoughts on a given topic; attending a conference gives you the opportunity to hear a wider variety of viewpoints, and can help in giving you a better impression of the area as a whole. Plus it’s a fantastic opportunity to hear about brand-new, possibly unpublished research, direct from the people responsible. It’s deeply satisfying to write an essay with a citation that says ‘forthcoming’.
You might think that only PhD students and above attend academic conferences, and while that’s often true, don’t let it put you off if you’re not yet at that stage in your academic career. You might have the opportunity to attend a relevant conference being held at your own university, in which case you should take full advantage of it being on your doorstep. Or there might be a conference that sounds fascinating elsewhere, in which case, if you can pay the conference fee, there’s nothing stopping you from broadening your horizons and attending.
So here are our top tips if you’re planning on taking the plunge and attending your first-ever academic conference.

1. Prepare thoroughly

Preparedness is useful, but only up to a point.
Preparedness is useful, but only up to a point.

Some guides suggest that you should prepare for a conference like it’s a military operation, complete with index cards and perhaps a Filofax. Not only does that seem like overkill, you’re presumably not going to be attending a conference in the Eighties. All the same, you shouldn’t plan on just figuring things out when you get there.
Instead, take your time to look at the range of papers, and do a little research into the speakers to see if there are any whose work you find particularly interesting. Especially in the humanities, titles of papers can be misleading; something that sounds desperately dull might turn out to be packed with insight, and something with a jazzy title might turn out to have nothing much by way of content. Though you might not stick to it when it comes to it, it’s a good idea to have a rough plan for what you’d like to go to and when, giving yourself time for snacks and lunch – especially if it’s a large conference in a venue that’s hard to navigate.

2. Practise your elevator pitch

The more times you present your pitch the easier it gets.
The more times you present your pitch the easier it gets.

This is a tip that applies to conference newbies and old hands alike. At various points, you’re going to have people asking you what your research is, which your university is, and various other questions that amount to, “so, what are you doing here?” If you’re a well-established researcher, then the trick is to try and condense the lengthy answer to that question into something easily digestible that might spark conversation.
But if you’re relatively new to the world of academia, and possibly haven’t even decided whether you’d like to do a graduate degree yet, it’s a question that can feel like you’re being put on the spot. The best approach is to answer honestly, saying (briefly) what stage you’re at in your academic career and at which university, and then to slightly change the subject – for instance, you might mention an upcoming talk that you’re particularly looking forward to. That way, you’ve given the other person something to talk about that isn’t your academic standing, and demonstrated that young as you may be, you are here for a good reason and you know what you’re talking about.

3. Conquer your fear of missing out

Don't let FoMO get the better of you.
Don’t let FoMO get the better of you.

If you’re going to a big conference, with lots of different talks, workshops and presentations going on simultaneously, it can be tricky to figure out what you want to prioritise – even more so if there isn’t a designated lunch break. Some first-time attendees try to fix this by going to as much as humanly possible, even if that means going without food or loo breaks for ten hours straight.
You’ll note that this is a mixture made by first-time attendees rather than anyone else, because when you’ve done it once you won’t do it again. There is no talk so good that it’s worth spending the whole time being desperate for the loo, or being light-headed all through the afternoon because you didn’t have time to eat anything. Yes, you probably won’t have time to attend everything you want to, and you might even want to skip something that you could have slotted into your schedule to keep yourself from getting worn out. The only remedy for this is to pick the things you want to prioritise, and not to worry too much about missing out on the rest.

4. Ascertain the location of key facilities

It's going to be a long day, so be sure to ascertain where the refreshments are.
It’s going to be a long day, so be sure to ascertain where the refreshments are being distributed.

Large conference centres can be labyrinthine, as can some older university buildings that were never intended to have conferences held in them. Whether you’re taking the conference at a sedate pace or you’re dashing between rooms to try and squeeze everything in, remember that the conference organisers should have set it all up with your comfort in mind. That means that toilet facilities should be clearly signposted, there should be somewhere obvious to get drinks and snacks, and hopefully there should also be a cloakroom available so that you aren’t carrying heavy bags around with you.
Once you’ve figured out where all of these things are, use them! The cloakroom might seem unnecessary if it’s only a one-day conference, but if there are exhibitors and you’ve decided to avail of the opportunity to buy a stack of newly published, signed hardbacks, it’s kind to your back and to fellow attendees not to be lugging them around with you all day. And staying hydrated is all-important, so make sure that you top up your water bottle or buy cups of tea as required.

5. Ask questions

There’s nothing wrong with speaking up, even as an undergraduate.

Because you’re new to academic conferences, you might be quite nervous when the opportunity to ask questions arises. Don’t be – it’s a brilliant chance to learn more, direct from the experts. You may be afraid of asking a question that reveals your own ignorance, or otherwise of sounding stupid. But if the topic is one that you’ve studied, it’s unlikely that you’ll embarrass yourself.
Probably you already have an idea of what makes for a good or bad question, because you’ve sat in lecture theatres and cringed at other people asking them. For instance, if the question would be too long to fit in a tweet, it’s something to save for an email. Phrases like “in my experience…” and the particularly dreaded “it’s really more of a comment…” are definitely to be avoided. Don’t ask questions that are designed to trip the speaker up (for one, it’s unlikely to work), but instead focus on asking something that draws directly on their presentation and to which you genuinely want to know their answer.

6. Don’t just attend the bigger events

Smaller talks will often feel friendlier, too.
Smaller talks will often feel friendlier, too.

At larger conferences, there might well be large events happening in the main hall, and then a series of smaller talks or workshops happening at the same time. It can be tempting to stick to the main events, especially if you’re feeling a little unsure of yourself, but it’s worth venturing beyond the main hall all the same.
In smaller, more intimate events, discussion can be livelier and sometimes more honest – and if you lack the confidence to ask questions in front of a thousand people, it might be easier to speak up. After all, if you do end up saying something embarrassing, there might only be a handful of people there to witness it. More likely is that you’ll end up in a worthwhile discussion. The formal process of a talk, a question, an answer, a second question and so on can be abandoned in smaller talks, so that you might have the chance to ask follow-up questions and really explore the topic.

7. Bring food, water and a good book

Having small snacks to hand will help keep your energy (and enthusiasm!) lasting all day.
Having small snacks to hand will help keep your energy (and enthusiasm!) lasting all day.

Even if you’ve done everything right, leaving yourself some time for lunch and making sure you know where to get refreshments, things might not necessarily work out. For instance, you might end up having a fascinating conversation with someone that eats right into your lunch break, or there might simply be a very long queue. So while there’s probably no need to bring a full packed lunch, it’s sensible to have a cereal bar or two to hand just in case, and certainly a bottle of water. Some people even advise bringing plasters (in case your shoes start to rub) and headache tablets – which shows what marathon events some conferences can be.
You might think you would be too busy to need a book, and that may prove to be the case. But you might also want to sit out for half an hour and recuperate if it all starts to feel taxing, and especially if you’re at the conference on your own, it can be useful to have a book to dive into for a bit in order to give your brain a rest.

8. Remember to network

You may find it useful to exchange contact details.
You may find it useful to exchange contact details.

You might well think there’s no point in networking until you’re further on in your career, but it can still be worthwhile even if you’re an undergraduate. For instance, if you are considering further study, you may well be speaking to prospective supervisors, so it’s important to make a good impression.
“Networking” is quite a grand term for what can mean simply having a pleasant chat. If there’s someone you’d like to ask a specific question of, it’s a good opportunity. If not, you might be wondering how to start a conversation. Thankfully, being at a conference furnishes you with lots of topics; you might see someone else standing on their own and ask them which talks they’ve been to, and what they thought of them. Segue into their own research and there you have it: you’re networking. Make sure to take any contact details that are offered.

9. Be confident

It’s understandable if you’re nervous, but your first academic conference will be so much better if you can manage to find some confidence. Nervousness can manifest itself in lots of different ways: perhaps you’ll end up sitting at the back of a room where you can’t hear very well or see the slides; perhaps you’ll avoid asking a worthwhile question because you were scared to speak up; perhaps you’ll miss out on opportunities to make useful connections because you didn’t want to initiate a conversation with anybody.

Introverts may benefit from the occasional break.
Introverts may benefit from the occasional break.

It’s no surprise that most advice on conferences is advice for introverts. Conferences reward extroversion, mixing, mingling and getting to know new people. This is why, if you’re not a people-person, taking lots of breaks is such a good idea; because then, when you do go back into things, you’ll have charged up your batteries sufficiently to get talking to people.

10. Follow up on any connections

A follow-up email or LinkedIn connection can't hurt.
A follow-up email or LinkedIn connection can’t hurt.

You can do all the networking in the world but there isn’t much point if you don’t follow up on the connections you make. If somebody asks you to email them about something, do it! If you collect any business cards, make sure at the very least to add those people on LinkedIn. Better yet, make some form of contact with them if you have a good reason to do so.
For instance, if you discussed an article with somebody and they seemed interested, email it to them. You shouldn’t be starting a lengthy email thread – don’t waste people’s time – but indicating that you paid attention during the conversation and would value an ongoing connection is both appropriate and extremely helpful. From then on, you shouldn’t email them without good reason (and if you’ve sent two emails without a reply, take the hint and leave them alone) but in time you can build the connection and one day, it may prove useful.
Image credits: woman leading group; conference table ; pile of notebooks; anxious kitten; elevator panel; cup of coffee; woman with microphone; group working around table; biscuits; writing down; coffee break; phone