By Ah Ra Cho
Knowing how to maneuver through an academic conference as a graduate student is typically a skill that is essential, but not often taught within your graduate courses or program. Academic conferences such as ASHE, AERA, and other scholarly conferences differ slightly from practitioner-focused conferences for higher education professionals. Yet, daunting as it may be to be around graduate students from other schools, scholars you may have read in your classes, or foundational researchers who wrote the theory you admire, they are people too!
Although you may feel like everyone else at the conference knows the perfect combination of poise, networking, and know-how, you need to know that you are not the only one feeling anxious and unsure at their first conferences. For many, an academic conference is something very new and different, yet exciting and invigorating at the same time. It is a mix of experiencing the conference yourself, advice from those who have attended before, and taking advantage of what the conference has to offer that you will gain the skills needed to navigate these conferences.
As someone who attended her first academic conference too intimidated to talk to anyone, now I am more confident in meeting new people, networking with scholars, and currently serving as a graduate student representative for AERA Div J. I would like to pass along some tips and tricks of conference attendance that I have found useful throughout my years of conference going. I hope you find these helpful whether it is your first conference or you are a seasoned pro!
- Go to Graduate Student Sessions
I highly recommend you attend the graduate student sessions offered by the conference. They are typically coordinated by the Graduate Student Representatives and carefully curated to provide you advice on the job search, research opportunities, emerging research topics, etc. Last year, ASHE had graduate student sessions titled: “Conversations with Scholars and Practitioners”, “Graduate Student Writing Session”, Conversations with Newly Minted PhD’s” and “Coffeebreak Conversations”. AERA does similar formats with a Graduate Student Session and Fireside Chat.
- Go to the Socials
Socials are a great time to chat, meet new people, and network. Did I mention free food and drinks? Some will be located in the conference venue, nearby hotels, or off-site at close restaurants and pubs. If going to a social sounds exhausting after a long day of conferencing, be strategic in which social(s) you may want to attend. Also, you do not have to stay the entire time. Set a goal to introduce yourself to X number of new people. This does not have to be 20 people. It can be one to two people. You can build up your goal numbers when you attend future conferences.
- Meet Other Graduate Students
These graduate students are your future colleagues. Also, one of the best things about conferences is finding people with similar research interests as you. This is really helpful especially if you are in a masters/doctoral program with not many people with research interests that align with yours. At future conferences you attend, it is assuring to see someone that you met last year that you have kept in contact with during the year. Tip: Make sure to have business cards handy to trade with others.
- Take Advantage of Professional Development Opportunities
There are multiple ways to gain professional development at conferences. These include: pre-conferences, workshops, mentoring programs, etc. They are provided either specifically for graduate students and early career scholars or particular to a topic or area of higher education. Worried about funding to travel to conferences? Be aware that graduate student travel scholarships are available to apply for a few months prior to conferences. Other higher education organizations have fellowships and other specific opportunities just for graduate students. Seek out these opportunities, as they provide you different benefits of participating in them.
- Introduce Yourself to Scholars and Professionals in the Field
Conferences like ASHE and AERA are a great time to place a face with a name (well author) of many of the journal articles and books you may have read and discussed in your coursework. Feeling a bit intimidated? Think about your own program’s faculty and their research areas, as they may know the person you want to meet. Also, think about graduate students at other institutions that have faculty/scholars that you want to meet. Most will be happy to introduce their colleague and/or professor to you. Is the person you want to meet presenting at the conference? Plan to attend their session and introduce yourself after their presentation.
One good piece of advice. If you would like to meet a scholar for coffee or a chat, make sure to ask by emailing a few weeks in advance. They may have a full schedule or plans set during their break times by the time the conference starts. Also, when contacting them, give the scholar a sense of why you want to speak with them (e.g. have similar research interests, discuss career paths, etc.). It helps both you and them to make best use of the limited time you both have to chat.
- Have a One Minute “Elevator Speech”
When you attend an academic conference, by meeting someone new, likely you will get asked a question similar to: What are your research interests? What is your dissertation topic? and so on. You have a very small window of opportunity to make a positive impression and the listener’s attention.
What is useful is having an “elevator speech” ready to go. This is an incredibly useful tool to have during conferences to describe your research interests and/or dissertation topic in a concise, understandable format. Write it down, memorize it if you can, and practice! Confidence is also important in your elevator speech. See below for an article on how to craft a successful elevator pitch (APA, 2014).
- Explore the Conference City
Of course, the conference should first, but if you either come in a day early or find that you do not see any sessions during an afternoon, go explore the city! This year, ASHE 2016 is in Columbus, OH, AERA 2017 is in San Antonio, TX. Did you know Columbus is the 15th largest city in the United States? (Census, 2016). It is also home to one of the largest universities in the U.S., The Ohio State University.
A quick search online can provide you clues to what is around the conference venue. Only a half a mile away, is the Short North Arts District, approximately a 5-10 minute walk from the Convention Center/Hyatt Regency Hotel. Dining, pubs, coffee houses, art galleries, and retail shops are located here. Nearby is the Goodale Park, one of the oldest parks in the United States. See in the references section below for more information about the area around the conference venue. When in doubt, a great resource is the hotel concierge or conference attendees that live in or near the conference city.
- Rest and Know Your Limits
This may sound like common sense, but pace yourself throughout the conference. Conference days start early and end late into the night. You do not have to go to every session and every social, as there is a lot of things going on during one day of the conference. Stay hydrated, bring comfortable walking shoes, and take time to rest and recharge when needed.
- Be Engaged with Organizations Throughout the Year
There are multiple ways to be involved as a graduate student during the academic year. This can be through social media such as Facebook/Twitter or following the ASHE Grads website and blog. Connecting on social media is also a good way to keep in touch as announcements for job openings, webinars, etc. are always being posted on social media pages. If you are not sure to know who to contact, start with the graduate student representatives. They are all willing to help or can guide you to get the answers you need.
- Have Fun and Enjoy Your Time as a Graduate Student
Aside from the generous conference discounts you can get, academic conferences such as ASHE and AERA are wonderful experiences for graduate students. You may be at the stage of exploring topics, narrowing down your research interests, or finishing up your dissertation. But at any stage, academic conferences are a great place to be inspired, meet new people who may be future colleagues or research collaborators, or listen to the current research being conducted by emerging and well-known scholars in higher education. Make sure to have fun and enjoy yourself while attending conferences.
To end, stay calm and conference on!
Ah Ra Cho is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Higher Education Program at the University of North Texas (UNT). She works at UNT as a Data Analyst in the Office of Data, Analytics, and Institutional Research. She is also currently the AERA Division J Senior Graduate Student Representative for 2016-2017.
American Psychological Association (2014). The elevator pitch: How to craft a successful five-minute elevator pitch and why having one is important. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2014/06/elevator-pitch.aspx
Census (2016). Five of the nation’s eleven fastest-growing cities are in Texas, Census bureau reports. Retrieved from:
Short North Arts District (n.d.). Visitor Resources. Retrieved from: