Student Notebook

How to Get the Most Out of a Conference

‘Tis the season for academic conferences and conventions. This month, the Student Notebook asks two graduate students to help demystify the conference experience. The first article offers helpful suggestions on surviving the APS 19th Annual Convention in Washington, DC, in particular, whereas the second piece offers tips on how conference neophytes can take full advantage of every conference experience.

How to Survive a Convention: Tips and Recommendations
By Jennifer Thorpe

Whether the APS 19th Annual Convention will be your first convention or your 15th, there are many things you can do to maximize your experience.

  1. Pace yourself. A large convention like APS’s can be daunting. If possible, arrive at the convention a little early and get your registration materials immediately. You will then have the time not only to familiarize yourself with the program book, selecting which events you’d like to attend and marking where they will be located, but also with the hotel itself and the surrounding streets. This will make finding the events you want to see easier and will make you feel more comfortable in your surroundings.
    Pacing yourself also means making time for the necessities. That includes healthy meals, sleep, and exercise. If need be, schedule time especially for these activities. With so many exciting events, a convention can easily wear a person out, but taking time to take care of yourself will lessen the wear. If you absolutely cannot find time to have a meal, bring some snack bars with you to the convention. These are healthy and can be eaten on the go.
  2. Wear comfortable shoes. I cannot emphasize this enough. Even if you want to look your best at the convention, it won’t do anyone any good for you to be hobbling around by the second day. You will be on your feet quite a bit, and thus you ought to take care of them. On a similar note, look up the weather forecast for Washington a few days before the convention. Should you bring a coat or an umbrella? I recommend bringing at least one sweater or light jacket no matter what the forecast says — weather in late May can be unpredictable and surprisingly chilly in the evenings, and there is always the possibility of over-air-conditioned conference rooms.
  3. Take off your shy cap. Although some of us never have this problem, many people, myself included, get a little shy in large groups, especially around groups of strangers. However, it’s important to remember that everyone is there to learn, share knowledge, and have a good time — no one is judging you. Even the biggest names in the field are usually excited about meeting new people, especially students, who will carry the field they love into the future. Do not hesitate to approach people — you might make a new friend or begin a great professional relationship.
  4. Take advantage of events designed for you! The APS Student Caucus (APSSC) has organized several events at the convention based on your requests expressed in the 2006 Student Survey. Meet your fellow students at the Student Social and possibly spark friendships that could last a lifetime. Attend our events that will help you in the publishing process or give you tips on how to get into graduate school, how to survive graduate school, and what you can do with your doctorate once you have it. Meet and talk with some of the brightest stars in psychology at our Champions of Psychology event. Do not pass up these great opportunities!
    These tips are not exhaustive, but they are a few basic things to keep in mind while you are enjoying the convention that will help you to make the most of it. See you in Washington!

Maximize Conference Experiences
By Todd A. Ward

The best way to meet your postdegree career goals, be they graduate school or a job, may be to generate a rich history of conference attendance. Conferences serve to promulgate a discipline, be they massive psychology conferences like the APS annual meeting, or more specialized conferences like those of the Association for Behavior Analysis, or regional conferences like those of the Southwestern Psychological Association.

  1. Start small.
    I remember that at my first conference experience, a meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, one emotion dominated — anxiety, anxiety about my poster presentation, not to mention having absolutely no idea of what to expect once I arrived. However, traveling with a group of students served to ease my way into such an unfamiliar realm.

    Admittedly, my level of interest in the conference was very low due to my general lack of direction at the time. As a result, I attended fewer talks than I would today, but hey, I was there, and that was a big step by itself. Your first conference experience will likely elicit a similar anxious response, but that anxiety will likely decline with each successive conference.

  2. Network.
    When starting out in the field, take advantage of those dreaded class papers to develop your psychological interests. Once you start reading some of the literature in a specific area, you will come to know who the “big players” are. Find out which conferences focus on that area, and go to them. When you are there, meet people, talk to them, tell them you have read their papers, that you are interested in their work, and that you would like to work in their labs as a graduate student if that is the case. Nothing is more flattering to researchers than admiring fans.
  3. Present research.
    Although networking is one of the best ways to get your name out to potential academics and employers, you have to be able to present yourself in a clear, concise, and organized manner. This is especially relevant if you are invited for an interview at a graduate program or employer. One great way to develop such skills is to present a poster at a conference.

    A poster is nothing more than a board containing the basic elements of a research paper (introduction, method, results, discussion, etc.) that briefly describes a piece of research that you conducted. The research doesn’t have to be anything fancy, and many posters display student research. Paper presentations (i.e., talks) are more common among faculty and, to a lesser extent, graduate students.

    Conference-goers will stop by your poster and ask about your project. Remember, this isn’t a thesis defense; a general description of your research question, why you chose that question, the general method, and a few comments on your results should make for good conversation. Frequently, the interested party will suggest ideas for future research that you have never before considered. Such an experience can help in developing skills to express your ideas clearly and think about research more generally (e.g., how to ask a good research question). Few things are more desirable in an employee or grad student than superb communication skills.

  4. Unexpected effects.
    Lastly, going to conferences has unexpected effects on your academic behavior. For instance, you will naturally develop a broader knowledge of the literature just by attending conferences regularly. If you think about it, this really makes sense because hearing talks and thumbing through a conference program requires a lot less effort than pouring through journal articles. Observing the presentations of psychological heavyweights, the questions they receive, and how they defend their ideas can do nothing but help develop your own presentation skills.

    So get out there and mingle! The earlier in your career you start attending conferences, the more desirable you will be to potential employers and graduate programs.

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