Student Notebook

How to Navigate a National Convention

There are three simple rules to remember when attending a national convention:

  1. Get organized.
  2. Get networking.
  3. Get involved.

Getting organized can be summed up in three words: KNOW the program-it is your “bible.” Weeks before you get to the convention you will receive the program in the mail. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when organizing your convention activities:

  • You should invest several hours of your time selecting the talks you want to attend and the posters you want to see. Take time to make a personal schedule beforehand-this will make it much easier to get around the convention and attend all the events you desire.
  • One thing to keep in mind is that you cannot do everything. You need to prioritize your schedule. Sometimes poster sessions overlap with talks you want to hear-when that happens, you need to create a 15 minute “window” in which you can sneak away from the talk so you can run over to the poster session, or vice versa.
  • When visiting poster sessions, one trick is to have personal mailing labels made out so you will not have to spend time filling out your name and address when you request reprints. You can cover more ground this way, and it will increase the likelihood that you will get a reprint since it saves the author work, as well.

Given that you may be so overwhelmed with the research talks, chances are you might overlook a fundamental aspect of attending a convention: interacting with your peers. Here are some important things to remember:

  • You should be meeting and discussing research with other people-get to know your peers!
  • You will also want to know who else is doing related research-these people will be future reviewers of your own work so it helps to know their perspective on the research issues.
  • Lastly, DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED by the “big names.” If you are conducting similar research, make an effort to meet them. Most realize the importance of interacting with younger researchers and many welcome it.

Professional organizations have much to offer their student members. But, many students believe they are already too busy and do not bother to get involved. The reality is that professional organizations can introduce you to many aspects of your professional development (e.g., committee membership), and conventions can provide you with the perfect opportunity to increase your involvement-so, remember this:

  • Although many students think they are already spreading themselves too thin, membership in a professional organization rarely takes up more time than you want it to, and it is well worth the investment.
  • When you land that first job, either as an assistant professor or in the public or private sector, you will most likely need to spend a good deal of time on committees. Therefore, it is best to get experience now so you can learn how to organize your research activities along with your administrative responsibilities.
  • In short, you are in school to get a job, whether it be in academia or the public or private sector. Professional organizations will help you do just that-they will show you what goes on beyond graduate school and will introduce you to future peers and employers. In other words, professional organizations will give you the experience you need to land your first job.

Here’s some advice from senior faculty on how THEY think students should take advantage of conventions. So, if you want to hear what the seasoned professionals have to recommend, please read on!

On Meeting People:

“Try to meet people and make sure you wear your name tag-but, don’t just focus on the senior people, junior people may be more approachable, and eventually they will be the senior people.”

“The advice, of course, is to make contacts, be aggressive, introduce yourself to people and get their feedback on ideas. One other trick is, if you meet somebody and think you should know what their work is, but you can’t remember, say ‘So what have you been working on lately?'”

“Don’t be reticent about talking to the big names-seldom are they standoffish, more often they’re helpful.”

On Informal Exchanges:

“My impression is that some graduate students are not very good at networking.” Here is some advice:

  • Go to the happy hour/cocktail party associated with your area, wear your name tag, and once there, no matter how painful, introduce yourself to at least five important people. Don’t wait for your adviser to help, just do it. Be thick-skinned, you may be snubbed. Say a few words about his or her work, then mention some project of your own that seems relevant, or an idea you once had that seems relevant, or whatever. Don’t linger unless the conversation is going well – just make a few remarks, then go.
  • Here is the important part. When you get back home, within a day or two, send each of the people you met a brief note, or an email message. Remind them that you met them at the convention, say how much you enjoyed it, then either ask them for a copy of a paper that interests you, and/or send them a paper of your own that seems relevant. “No question about it-my strongest piece of advice would be to realize that the formal presentations are a MINOR aspect of the experience. It’s the informal face-to-face discussions that are worthwhile. So…”
  • Don’t fill ALL of your time with sessions (more realistically, don’t go to sessions and then play hookey the rest of the time-allow and use time for hallway and barroom conversations).
  • Do strike up conversations with people in your area. Discuss your reactions to their presentation. Talk about what you’re working on. Remember that even the most prominent people are human beings with interests similar to yours.
  • Do use these interactions as a jumping-off-point for further dialogue. Get people’s email addresses. Offer to send them a paper you’ve written; then do it. Ask them to send you copies of work they have mentioned; then read it and respond.

From my convention experience and with meetings held abroad:

  • Networking with people and understanding scholarship in other countries is more important than the science.
  • Try to understand their orientation and methods and the value of their approach rather than judging them by our standards.

Although attending a convention may seem to be overwhelming and intimidating, a bit of planning and preparation can help make your convention experience a worthwhile event.

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