Make Sure You Attend Professional Conferences and Conventions
by Dr. M. Dennis Jackson
Former Graduate Faculty, Department of English (retired), University of Delaware
As if graduate school were not in itself busy and costly enough, here comes a hearty encouragement that you take off a week, spend lots of money on membership and registration fees and on traveling to a distant hotel in order to spend 18-hour days communicating with others about... the field of study you're pursuing back at home.
But don't stop reading - this suggestion could positively affect your entire future career.
Attending a large convention that leaders in your field likely organize each year can be a meaningful event early in your working life. For example, if you are studying to be an engineer or to teach engineering, you could go to the American Society for Engineering Education annual conference dedicated to all disciplines of engineering and technology education. This three-day forum annually draws more than 3,500 leaders in the engineering field, including professors, graduate students and their industry counterparts. It is a festival of "networking" with new friends and renewing acquaintance with old ones, and most importantly it's a gathering designed to communicate the latest developments in the engineering field and to foster innovative ideas for future research. The site for such conferences typically shifts every year - from New York City one year to Pittsburgh or St. Louis or San Francisco or another such metropolis the next year.
And don't fret non-engineer majors - a national conference exists for virtually every imaginable field.
The drawbacks for graduate students who yearn to attend such conferences are immediately apparent:
- Dues for membership in such groups are often high even at reduced student rates, and you will also have to pay to register for the conference.
- Add to that the costs of travel and of a hotel room and food during the meeting.
Solution: You might receive some financial help if you talk to an administrator in your department about your desire to attend the conference in spite of your skinny piggy bank.
Solution: You might also make the trip more affordable by talking other graduate students into accompanying you to the conference and sharing expenses. The hotel hosting the conference will offer discount rates to participants, but the room rates still will be high - so, see if you can find a room in a cheaper hotel or motel nearby.
Despite the costs, graduate students stand to gain substantial advantages from participating in national conferences:
Attending national and international conferences can enlarge your vision and understanding of your field.
You will get a comprehensive view of what people at other schools and in the professional world beyond are thinking and doing.
You will likely experience some contact with some of the academic and professional "stars" in your field.
Such conferences typically feature hundreds of panels where scholars and industry leaders report on their research. Such panels often end in stirring debates on topics central to your field. For example, if you are studying for a graduate degree in psychology, you might consider attending the American Psychological Society convention, a gathering that annually draws more than 2,000 of the most respected names in the psychological field.
You could hear papers on personality, perception, memory, infant development and many of the subfields of psychology, all in one day.
In both plenary and break-out sessions you could hear speakers talking about cutting-edge theories and developments in your field, about the use of new technologies and about discoveries that could eventually revolutionize the field you've chosen for your life's work.
These large yearly conferences provide a unique opportunity for you to make new friends.
Track down graduate students or professors from other universities who are doing research similar to your own.
If you've cracked your piggy bank to be at the conference, then make being there pay, for you. Be aggressive and scatter your business card or contact information around the meeting rooms like a berserk Johnny Appleseed. And collect personal contact information from the people you meet.
Ask professors from your school to introduce you to their longtime colleagues from other schools or from the professional world. This is about "networking," but it's also seriously about forming meaningful friendships. Often the people you meet at conferences will become your friends for life, even if your only contacts with them come through e-mails or telephone calls and occasional contacts at conferences. You may eventually find that you have more deep interests in common with these people in your field than you will have with co-workers you see every day.
The most enlightening and stimulating exchanges you may have during such conferences may not come from formal sessions, but, instead, from casual contacts with your new colleagues. Many a new idea for creative research or a dissertation has been born in bars or restaurants or hotel lobbies around a convention site.
Some subfields within your discipline may have their own academic societies or professional organizations that meet in conjunction with larger conferences, and these groups often have special dinners or cocktail parties to which new members are invited (another membership fee to further shrink your piggy bank!)
For example, The D.H. Lawrence Society of North America sponsors formal panel sessions on the British author and a Society dinner each year during the national meeting of the Modern Language Association.
Exhibitors relish large conferences as a site to display their newest wares, and you will find several acres of exhibit halls spread around the convention hotel.
Exhibits typically feature the newest books in the field, the latest computer hardware and software, and many other freshly introduced technologies related to your field of study.
You'll come away with complimentary tote bags overflowing with free click pens, folders, promotional glow sticks and brochures - as well as countless business cards you've collected from people you've mingled with up and down the rows of exhibits. The exhibit halls are typically among the most popular attractions of large professional conventions.
You also will find that most such conventions offer well-organized job fairs and seminars about job searches, resume and portfolio preparation, and career prospects in your field.
Knowing that such conferences draw the best and the brightest of young people in a given field, recruiters eagerly set up shop at the conference--so go armed with batches of updated resumes and business cards. Who knows, some recruiter may remember you, and just when you complete grad school, his or her company may have an opening that you could fill.
Talking to those who organize such job fairs or attend as talent scouts/recruiters may lead you to discover major innovative ways to utilize your graduate degree. You may come away with a totally new sense of direction for your postgraduate professional life.
Most often you will be able to get a clear idea of the nature of the next such annual conference - where and when it will be convened, what the major themes will be and so on - and thus you may come up with a proposal of your own, to organize a panel and/or present your own research paper at the next convention.
That could be an even more eventful widening of your circle of friends and professional contacts.
You may come away from your first such conference piggy bank-poor, but the intellectual and personal riches you've gained there may continue to compound and pay dividends for you professionally, for decades to come.