Tips and tricks for your first conference

You probably know the basics, whether from other students or from your advisors. But there’s way more to conferencing than a good paper. Here are our top tips for surviving and thriving at your first conference (if only we had known some of them back in the day…), focusing on the non-academic aspects of the conference.

Make friends.

It’s a lot easier to pay for your trip when the cost is spread among several people. It’s pretty easy to share a room with 1-3 other people (depending on how well you know them and how comfortable you are sharing a bed). Then you’re only paying for half (or a third, or a quarter) of the room’s cost.

To make sure that you can get reimbursed for this, you should (a) check your department’s policy in advance — maybe splitting isn’t an option, and then you can divide expenses up (so one person pays for the hotel, one pays for the cab, etc.), and/or (b) check with the hotel. They can sometimes put multiple clients on a bill, or otherwise split the charges.

As a side note, if you are going to the meeting for fun and experience — that is, you’re not giving a paper or interviewing — you should consider staying a different hotel. Sometimes the nearby, “lower-end” hotels are much more affordable — and if you’re across the street or next door, you won’t really miss any of the random meetings that make up conferencing. The ‘elevator speech’ part of conferencing, in my experience at least, has vanished with the advent of the smartphone.

On the other hand, if you are giving a talk, and especially if you’re interviewing, you really want to stay in the conference hotel.For so many reasons: because suits are uncomfortable. Because your interviewing shoes are uncomfortable. Because it’s pouring rain (or there’s a blizzard). Because you need someplace handy to store your 50 handouts. There are so many little additions to comfort that staying in the same place as your interview (or talk) offers. This counts double if it’s your first time doing either.

 Travel in a pack — sometimes.

Airports are often far away from the center of town, which is where hotels are. So it’s good to share a flight or make plans to meet your friends at the airport. Then you can share a cab to the hotel.

But once you’re at the conference, don’t stick with your friends. You have your own research interests, and they have theirs. You should go to the panels that match your interests most closely, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or introduce yourself at the end of the panel. A lot of academics are friendly, and if they aren’t, they won’t think worse of you.

Don’t eat out, at least not in the hotel.

You can ask the hotel to give you a fridge if the room isn’t already stocked with one. They shouldn’t charge you or give you any trouble for this; if they do, just say that you need to eat a special diet (not a lie: your diet is “affordable”). It’s really easy to find food for a few days at a convenience store, if not at a grocery store. Some ideas: pb&j (or another sandwich), carrots (or any other bite-size veggies) and hummus, cut-up fruit, and instant oatmeal packets (your in-room coffee set provides a cup to use as a bowl and hot water. Make sure you remove the coffee!!! Speaking from experience. BAD experience.)

Or plan to eat at least breakfast and lunch in your room; at dinner, maybe you’ll meet people. Same with coffee. Do not stint on coffee, because that is where you meet people.

You can be flexible with this: if you get invited to lunch, maybe it’s dinner that you’ll eat in-room.

Get a rewards card.

The Annual Meeting is almost always in a Hilton and/or Sheraton. Sometimes it’s a Marriott. Get rewards cards for all of them. The cards are free, and eventually, you get free food.

Similarly, get a rewards card on at least the two biggest North American carrier partnerships: Delta and United (the latter includes Air Canada, for our Canadian readers). You will get miles for your trips, and most importantly, you will accumulate priority. When your flight is canceled (and it will be), you need priority to be rebooked. The more you travel, the more priority you will have. It might take a while for this to work, but one day it will, and you will be glad that you were a member.

Bring carry-ons. Do not check your luggage.

Airlines don’t lose luggage very often, but somehow they manage to lose it at the worst possible time. If you need to check bags, make sure you have 1-2 days’ worth of conferencing clothes in your carry-on.

Make sure you have clothes with pockets.

It can be a blazer, or a coat, or a sweater. But sometimes you want to be able to duck out of your hotel room with just the essentials: phone, key, pen, funds.

Also, conference dress when you are neither presenting nor interviewing is business casual. A skirt/dress with sleeves (sweater/blazer is okay); nice pants (not jeans) and a collared shirt are also okay. You can wear either a sweater/blazer or a tie, but you don’t need both.

It’s usually better not to wear very fancy (like black-tie) clothing, including shoes. (Parties may be an exception.) There is a lot of standing: make sure you’re in comfortable shoes.

If you are presenting or interviewing, clothing choice is a little different; we’ll post a more detailed guide to the process later on.

Go to the parties.

You’re automatically  invited to any that are hosted by an institution you attend(ed). But all of them are really open-door, and are definitely open-door by about 30-45 minutes in. So be strategic.

Also, make sure to loiter, and try not to stare too hard at nametags. Be subtle.


~J. and M.

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Tips and tricks for your first conference by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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