There are many reasons to attend professional conferences in your field: meeting potential employers or research collaborators, reconnecting with former colleagues, round-table conversations about technical advances in your field, getting away from the office, visiting a new city or country, promoting your cutting-edge work or gaining exposure to cutting-edge ideas. Or all of the above!
Having attended many conferences over the years, my recommendations for getting most out of your experience are listed below.
Prior to attending the conference, you should have access to the schedule or program of speakers. Most people, including myself, cannot sit through 8 solid hours of technical presentations for three straight days. To that end, sketch out a rough agenda for yourself including:
- Specific talks you are interested in and the room locations;
- Vendors you want to meet and ask questions about their services or technology; and lastly,
- Note what you want to get out of the conference —
- a job?
- technical updates?
- your own paper or abstract presentation?
I also strongly encourage you to stay in the hotel associated with the conference. While it may be slightly more expensive on the front end, the hidden costs of staying in a cheaper hotel further away can be very expensive:
- Cab fare plus tip to and from the hotel with the conference;
- Wasted time traveling back and forth (especially if this is a city with which you are unfamiliar);
- Lost opportunity for networking and bumping into key people in the lobby of the hotel (I cannot tell you how often I bumped into a speaker or person of interest in the hotel lobby); and
- Your hotel room is easily accessible during the conference so should you forget something or spill on your suit, you can easily remedy the situation.
Attending the Conference
Arrive the day before for local conferences and a day and a half if you are traveling internationally. Flights get delayed or canceled so if you worked this hard to get to the conference you do not want to miss it because of something outside your control.
In particular, if you are a speaker, plan to keep your routine as close to home as possible. Bring your workout clothes (and workout), eat healthful foods, do not over indulge in alcohol the night before your presentation.
At a minimum, dress business casual. Students, young professionals, those looking for job opportunities, should err on the side of business professional dress. A suit jacket and tie speak professionalism, will never be inappropriate, and those with whom you speak will take notice.
Do not wear: hoodies, tee-shirts, wrinkled khakis, tennis shoes, white socks with dress shoes, pants/skirts in need of tailoring, or ball cap.
One conference accepted oddity: the backpack. Conference attendees usually receive some sort of bag, but many arrive with and use their backpacks (over their business casual dress!).
If you heard somewhere along the line that there are no stupid questions, let me correct that misstatement for you. Yes, there are stupid questions. Stupid questions fall into three general categories:
- Not paying attention and asking about something already addressed extensively in the presentation;
- Posturing – your question demonstrates how much you know with little to no regard for the speaker’s expertise; and
- Hyper-specific questions relevant to you own agenda. Feel free to ask the speaker later one on one if you have specific questions, but do not weary the rest of the audience while you mine the speaker’s knowledge depths on a subject for your own satisfaction.
- Cell phone usage – stop the ringing immediately and make a discreet exit. Do not start speaking on your cell phone until you are outside the session room.
- Snacks/candy wrappers/cough drops/tissues – be quick and get the wrapper off. There is no way to subtly or discreetly take off a wrapper and everyone can hear you doing it, so just rip the thing off and be done with it.
- Arriving late or leaving early door slam – attendees coming and going during sessions is perfectly acceptable. What is not acceptable is when they allow the door to slam upon their entrance or exit. Once you open the door and make your way through, hold it with your hand and slowly bring it closed. Attention belongs to the speaker, not to you.
Go and enjoy, my friends! Take good notes, ask questions, hand out your business cards, and learn a great deal. Your time will be well spent.