What to expect at your first academic conference

It’s Emily here. I attended my first academic conference at the end of June. I had a great time and learned tons, but there are several things I wish I had known beforehand. Hopefully this quick guide will answer some of your burning questions before you make your first foray into conferenceland.

    • Dress varies. Scientists, as it turns out, are a pretty relaxed bunch as far as personal appearance is concerned. I packed my suit. I arrived to find tie-die and Tevas. Not all disciplines have the same dress code, so do what I should have done and ask your professor before making your packing list. Note that if your professor is of the opposite gender you may have to coax this information out of them. Ask questions like, “do most people wear suits?”, “are khakis okay?” or “is it okay if I keep my face piercings in?” to elicit a general feel. If you’re presenting a poster, consider dressing more formally. If you are female and know that professional dress will be required, corporette is a great resource for all things professional.
    • You will be overwhelmed. Unless you have been eating, sleeping and breathing your discipline for the last several years, the conference will feel a bit like learning a second language by immersion. On day one you will recognize the letters and a few key words from previous reading or class. Day two you will still be trying to process day one, but a few more words will feel familiar. By day three you’ll probably be at least conversant, and your head will no longer spin. Just pay attention and pick up as much as you can. No one expects you to know everything–all of the apparent geniuses surrounding you were also mere undergrads once.

    • You may spend quite a bit of time by yourself. Your professor is there to catch up with colleagues, talk about collaborations, and otherwise not babysit you. That said, your professor should not totally abandon you, and probably won’t given that he or she invested considerable funds in bringing you to the conference and therefore 1) cares about you and 2) wants to make sure you aren’t fooling around in the host city and only showing up for the cocktail hour. Think of your time alone as an opportunity to meet people your age. These folks are your cohort, and if you plan to continue pursuing the same field you will probably run into them sometime in the future.Time alone can also be an opportunity to explore. After non-stop conference activities from Wednesday evening through Saturday afternoon, I needed a break. I hopped a bus to Santa Monica Pier so I could get my first glimpse of the Pacific and snag a postcard. If you find yourself in a city you’re unlikely to return to anytime soon, it’s okay to take a couple of hours to see the sights.

  • The conference may have a hashtag. This can be a great resource if you’re already a Twitter user (or even if you aren’t). I ended up at a tweetup (google it, yo) eating delicious vegan food with a science writer and a researcher thanks to #worm11.
  • This is your chance to geek out about something you (presumably) love and know quite a bit about. Go for it! Laugh at your discipline’s inside jokes. Ponder that new model someone just presented. Get jazzed about the next steps in your own work. Do not hold back, do not pretend to be too cool. You are not too cool to celebrate the pursuit of knowledge, even if the emblem of that pursuit happens to be a worm.