I recently attended The Wildlife Society’s 25th Annual Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. I had attended smaller conferences for work before coming to Duke, but this was the first large-scale conference I chose to attend. A recent presentation by the Career and Professional Development Center on networking at conferences provided some great tips that I utilized, and as the week passed I thought of even more things I wish I had known. Whether this is your first conference or you are a seasoned veteran, here are some things you can do before, during and after your conference to make the most of it.
Big conferences usually have several different sessions or symposia, so at any given time slot you may have a choice of listening to 12 different talks. Look at the schedule ahead of time and plan out which presentations you want to see.
I know it’s been drilled into your head to network, network, network – but in a room of 2,000 people, let’s be honest – it’s intimidating. So what can you do to make it a little bit easier?
- Wear something noticeable, or comment on others’ interesting shirt, jewelry, bag, etc. This may be a bit easier in the wildlife crowd, but I spotted several animal-printed shirts that were easy to strike up a conversation about. My Duke name tag got me noticed by several people, as it set me apart from everyone else who had the same printed name tag around their necks.
- Attend the smaller networking sessions. Hopefully your conference will have networking sessions for students and professionals, or for designated chapters or working groups. These tend to be a bit more structured and less populated, so it feels less intimidating to talk to people.
- Talk to other students. This is a good way to get used to talking to new people, without the pressure of them being able to give you a job or not. They may even have some advice or insight you didn’t expect!
- Remember to ask for business cards. I found that I was so focused on trying to hand out my business card that I forgot to ask others for theirs (and thus quickly forgot their name). Make sure you get their card so you can follow up with any questions, or to simply google them later.
- Look up the list of presenters beforehand and identify who you want to talk to (your conference may even have a list of all the attendees). You may even be so bold as to contact someone beforehand and set up a time to meet during the conference. This is something I wish I had thought of because it seemed as if every time I wanted to talk to someone after their presentation, they disappeared.
Conferences are expensive. If you are an MEM student, you are able to utilize the CPDC funding, which definitely helps offset some of the cost. Even so, that may only cover the conference registration fee.
- Before you book a room in the hotel connected to the conference center, check out other potential options. Maybe you have a friend or family member that lives close to the city, or perhaps an Airbnb is cheaper than a hotel. Find out if anyone else you know is going to the conference, and plan your stay together.
- Become a member of the organization and register early – this often leads to discounts, plus extra discounts for students.
- Be prepared to spend money on food. The conference may not provide lunch, so identify cheap places to grab a bite nearby. I would also encourage bringing snacks and a reusable water bottle.
- Prepare to spend money on things you don’t expect. I, for one, bought three textbooks I think will be a great reference for the rest of the year and for my career. I also impulse-bought two pairs of fair-trade earrings that I couldn’t resist at a jewelry booth. Chances are that there will be trade shows that are selling things you need, or don’t need but really want.
Take care of yourself
- It is okay to not be “on” 100% of the time. You may only be able to listen to a handful of talks before you need a break. Take the time you need to relax and absorb the information – take a walk, go outside and get some fresh air, call your parents or a friend, even do some homework if you’re stressing about keeping up on your work.
- Dress comfortably—bring a sweater or a jacket (convention centers are cold!) and wear comfortable shoes. I won’t name names, but one of my friends I attended the conference with walked through the first networking event at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame barefoot because she couldn’t stand the blisters anymore.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself
It’s easy to go in to a conference with expectations that are way too high. You may be thinking to yourself, “I have to network with everyone!”, “I have to hand out my business card!” or “I need to impress someone who can give me a job/internship!” You definitely get out of a conference what you put in, but don’t go crazy trying to sell yourself to everyone. Focus on being there to learn about recent research, to be inspired by the keynote addresses and to get a better idea of the type of work an organization does.
Personally, I talked to a handful of people, even gave out my business card a few times, but didn’t meet anyone that I really clicked with. Chances are, I won’t be in contact with any of these people about jobs when I start looking—and that’s okay. I learned so much about recent trends and issues in wildlife conservation as well as the different jobs that are actually available at certain organizations. I even discovered that an organization that I was interested in working at doesn’t do exactly what I thought they did and their positions wouldn’t be the best fit for me.
This is a chance to take a break from homework, explore a new city, spend time with your friends and meet many talented and inspiring people in your field. Bring your A-game, but relax and have some fun along the way.
Have any more tips for attending conferences? Comment and share your thoughts!