Professional Development

How to Conference as a Student

I just returned from the annual Association of the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) conference in Columbus, Ohio and while it was exhilarating, it was exhausting at the same time and I am thankful that it was only a short three hour drive from Ann Arbor, Michigan. This year’s theme was “Education and the Public Good” and it was quite fitting after the turmoil of this year’s presidential elections. I found solace in many of the sessions I attended that addressed the unrest I was experiencing with much of the nation. My first ASHE conference was last year where I was very intentional in how I attended because I was looking at prospective PhD programs. Though there are differences this year as a doctoral student, here is a list of how to conference as a graduate student:

    • Plan early and apply for travel grants: Last year, my conference attendance was fully covered by a travel grant because I presented. This included airfare, shuttle to and from the airport, hotel stay, per diem for meals, Uber rides, and even miscellaneous things like printing. However, this year my attendance for ASHE came out of pocket, but it was a good trade off because the location was close, meaning costs were low. I was intentional and strategic in this because I already received travel grants this academic year for an international conference in January that will be in Thailand. Next year, I plan on submitting proposals and applying for funding to travel to Houston for ASHE.
    • Stay at or near the location of the conference: Last year, I elected to stay right at the hotel the conference was held. This was great because if I forgot anything or needed a break, my room was a short elevator ride up. This year, my cohort members and I stayed at an Air BnB that was a ten minute walk from the convention center. I will say between the two options, there was no significant difference. However, last year when I presented, I appreciated the convenience of a hotel room in the same location. I often came up to my room to practice and tweak my slides. In reflection, our Air BnB was still very accessible that if I was presenting, I do not believe it would have been an inconvenience. There was still plenty of space at the convention center for a private moment and I could have planned my day at the house around my presentation. The idea is to stay close enough that it is not a hassle to travel to and from your location to the conference.
    • Bring and exchange business cards: In attending my first ASHE conference last year, one of my professors coached me to introduce myself to at least two different individuals at each session I attended, get their business cards, and hand them mine. I continued her charge this year. I am an introverted-extrovert and this was a challenge. Before I knew it though, it became natural to turn to the person next to me, give a quick introduction, and simply ask why they were interested in the session we are attending together. This usually gets the conversation going. I also noticed that the same people I introduced myself to often selected the same sessions I attended. This is a good way to build a network of shared research interests.
    • Choose sessions strategically: There are typically several types of sessions at conferences. Some present research or topic papers, there are roundtables, and finally there are more interactive panel sessions. If you have a tough choice between a symposium or a paper session, elect to go to the symposium because you can email the presenter(s) later for their paper submission. Attend sessions around research topics you are interested in to see what is new and current. I enjoy sessions with scholars I have been following for years. I also like to attend sessions my peers are presenting in for moral support. At ASHE, there are also sessions that are highlighted. For example, this year there were (1) Section Chair’s Top Sessions; (2) Higher Education and the Public Good (this year’s theme); (3) Graduate Student Sessions; and (4) Presidential Sessions. There are many ways to tailor your conference attendance to you.
    • Make impactful connections: I know I will not be on the job market for several years, but I have a list of schools on my radar. When someone from that institution is at Michigan, I want to be at that talk. If I am vacationing near an institution on the list, I would like to visit. Likewise, I also attend sessions of researchers from those institutions at conferences. I am getting a feel of that institution and assessing fit for myself. Additionally, I also attend sessions of researchers whose work I am familiar and interested in. Usually, at the end of sessions, I will go up, introduce myself, and ask one or two well intentioned questions. Another way to make impactful connections is to have your faculty member or advisor introduce you. At my first ASHE, I inadvertently ended up attending the evening receptions with my professor. He knew I was applying to doctoral programs, so he introduced me to several key individuals. This year, my advisor did the same and I continue to grow my network.
    • Take intentional breaks: Conferencing can be exhausting and self care is detrimental to your wellbeing. Make sure you take time out for yourself. Sit at a quiet spot to have a cup of coffee while you go over class readings for next week. ASHE provides a graduate student break room. I utilize it for solitude, but sometimes it is a nice way to unwind with another graduate student. This year, I planned a quiet afternoon back at the house, which ended up in a nap. I woke up refreshed and restarted my day rejuvenated. And definitely explore the city in which you are in. In Columbus, a couple cohort members and I took a stroll down High Street and had lunch at the North Market where the meal was delicious and we each got a double scoop of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream.
    • Journal in reflection and create a collection of thoughts: Last year, I came to ASHE with a fancy, leather portfolio where I took notes on a legal notepad. I still went home and typed up my notes to archive in a growing OneNote notebook under “Conferences.” This year, the process is more streamlined. I packed my Livescribe journal and pen and simply transferred my handwritten notes to my computer (again, attempts to go digital this year, post pending). I am inspired being amongst peers and senior researchers in my field, so I make sure I take the time to reflect and journal. I am building a database of dissertation topic interests as well as understanding what is new in my field and how it interests and applies to me. At the end of the road, I will have a collection of not only notes of sessions I attended, but my reflection and growth as well.

      A spread from my Livescribe notebook

    • Stay connected: Lastly, one of the things I like to do to wrap up my conference attendance is to send follow up emails and personal thank you cards. Last year, I sent a personal note to a doctoral student who was impactful in supporting my first conference presentation. We reconnected this year and continue to build a meaningful relationship. I ask for papers for the sessions I missed. I follow up with those whose sessions I attended. The intentionality is to keep the conversation going and stay connected.

Well, this wraps up my post on how to conference as a graduate student. Please keep in mind that everyone will conference differently and your institution may even have a culture around conferences. Do what works for you and continue to develop it each year to maximize your conference attendance. This interactive component of academia is important in all fields and disciplines. I hope you found this useful and please share how you conference below!

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