Conquering Conferences

At the end of June, I attended and presented at my first international conference in Virginia, USA.  My field is Cyberpsychology and, as it is a relatively new area of interest (the BPS section was only officially confirmed last year), I was the only person in my department to attend.

In my spare time during the weeks beforehand, when I wasn’t practicing my talk and perfecting my slides, I was Googling top tips for ‘how to survive conferences by yourself’. Unfortunately, I was also very aware that not only would I be attending alone, but as a female early career researcher (if you have heard the horror stories, you will understand).

Overall, and despite my nerves, my talk went well and the questions I received weren’t horrible; the whole conference was friendly, well organised, and welcoming, and I enjoyed my time at Norfolk State University.

So, from my experiences and readings, here are my tips for conquering conferences, whether you’re with people or flying solo:

  • Get organised: Know exactly how to get from A to B (e.g. hotel to conference) on day one and leave with plenty of time to do so.  Have a copy of your presentation or poster to hand on one pen drive, and a spare on another USB (or easily accessed through your emails), just in case.
  • Say hello: The organisers and people helping to run the conference are happy to answer any questions, so speak to people! If, like me, you are a nervous conversation starter in these situations, asking questions is a great way to ease in and build your confidence. People like to answer things they know the answer too – so even if it is just asking where the toilets are, it’s a way in.
  • Do your homework: Google the names of presenters and other people listed as in your sessions prior to the conference. Is there anyone you specifically want to make contact with? Even if not, you will familiarise yourself with names and find it easier to remember who’s who once you’re there. This will also help you decide which sessions to attend; be selective here, you can’t do everything!
  • Hunger unites strangers: Queue for your lunch and you can get chatting to your fellow attendees as you wait in line. If it is going well, join them to eat; if they are attending with, or have met, other people there, you’ll get to meet them too. 
  • ‘So, what do you do?’ Perfect your answer to this, but keep it short and sweet. Try to add an element that will prompt responses from others, such as a particularly relevant talk you want to see. Ask the same of others that you meet too: it’s the typical line, but will open up avenues of conversation into people’s research interests or work in industry.
  • Take time for yourself too. Find a quiet place, perhaps a reception area sofa or somewhere similar, where you can retreat to with your coffee cup. Not only are you having to be ‘on’ at the conference, sociable and professional all at once, you will also be engaging in conversations which challenge your intellect. Needing a ten-minute break from it all is completely understandable, and worth investing in to retain your focus for the afternoon’s sessions. Stay hydrated and carry breakfast bar snacks for emergency refuelling too.
  • Power dressing: Wear something professional, but comfortable. Make sure you feel good in it, as this will transfer to how you hold yourself and come across as confident, even if you’re not feeling it. Comfortable shoes are a top priority too!
  • Explore: If you have the opportunity once the conference is over, escape to the fresh air and see the sights of where you’re visiting, especially if it is a place you would never think to visit if it were not for the conference. You never know what you might find. 

Have you attended a conference alone? What advice would you give others about conquering conferences?

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