Professional Development

Optimizing your APA conference experience as an early career professional: More than presentations

Early career professionals should take advantage of both social and professional development opportunities at convention.

By Bryn Harris and Amanda L. Sullivan
Professional conferences provide exciting opportunities for networking and professional development. Many graduate students, practitioners and scholars attend conferences to present their research and to learn about the work of others. However, there is much more to conferences than just research. Attendees should take advantage of the numerous social and professional development opportunities offered. In particular, conferences provide a unique occasion to network with individuals from throughout the nation around topics related to one's professional interests and goals. Indeed, graduate students and early career psychologists should keep in mind the value of social hours, breakfasts, business meetings, receptions and other social events as opportunities to meet scholars and clinicians whose scholarship and practice overlaps with their own interests. Attendees can also plan to attend sessions or activities to meet leading scholars in their field. Symposia and invited sessions provide an especially rich experience because these tend to bring together multiple prominent scholars in a substantive area.

Attending conferences is a valuable chance to meet people, so early career scholars should take the time to get to know other scholars, be it introducing themselves to respected researchers, potential mentors, prospective collaborators or future colleagues. Conferences are also a great place to become acquainted with people with whom you might later interact with when applying for internships, postdocs, research experience, or faculty and clinical positions. You can prepare for these interactions by planning your “elevator speech” to quickly summarize your training and interests to others. Although this talk certainly should be tailored slightly to your particular audience, it is useful to think ahead about how you would like to present yourself to others in the field. The important thing is to use your conference attendance as a chance to build your professional network. For more introverted individuals, this can be a challenge, so it may be helpful to set goals to encourage mingling (e.g., 1. Introduce myself to Dr. Smith, 2. Talk to three measurement scholars, 3. Attend the Div. 16 business meeting, etc.). The key is to be intentional about networking just as you are in selecting sessions to improve your knowledge or skills in a particular substantive area of research or practice.

Conferences also often provide opportunities for targeted professional development relevant to early career scholars. These include methods or statistics workshops from brief workshops to multiday intensive trainings focusing on the development of technical skills, typically at reasonable costs. Professional conferences also offer diverse career development opportunities relevant to pursuing academic positions in school psychology and related fields, such as conversation hours and speed mentoring.

For prospective faculty and early career scholars, conferences can provide valuable opportunities to learn more about faculty roles and the nuances of engaging in the various stages and responsibilities of academic positions. This is especially important given that some studies show that early career scholars report high levels of burnout, stress, work-life balance issues and low levels of job satisfaction (Bella & Toutkoushian, 1999; Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2012). Furthermore, certain groups (i.e., individuals of color and women) are less likely to receive tenure and may benefit from additional mentorship and skill building (Ginther & Hayes, 2003). It is important that aspiring faculty receive appropriate mentorship and that new professors who enter academia are retained and successfully navigate the promotion and tenure process. The professional development provided at conferences can help students and early career scholars to address this gap.

There are several such professional development opportunities of interest to early career academics at the upcoming 2013 APA Annual Convention in Honolulu, Hawai'i. There will be eight symposia, two conversation hours and one social hour that focus on early career issues and careers in academia (see Table 1). Topics range from an overview of faculty responsibilities in academia, loan repayment, mentorship, work-life balance, and informal conversations around early career issues. Of particular interest to scholars in school psychology is the Division 16 sponsored symposium, Straight Talk about Faculty Careers: Perspectives from Early Career Trainers (August 2, 8-9:50 a.m.), led by Dr. Jamie Zibulsky, Fairleigh Dickinson University; Dr. Amanda Sullivan, University of Minnesota; and Dr. Bryn Harris, University of Colorado Denver. This session will focus on preparing for and establishing careers in academia within school psychology programs and will be of particular interest to graduate students and those within the first few years of faculty positions. There are also numerous presentations hosted by a variety of divisions within APA that may be of interest.

We hope that advisors will disseminate this information to their graduate students and established faculty members will inform junior faculty of these events. Please contact Bryn Harris or Amanda Sullivan if you have any questions or suggestions for future activities geared towards the development of graduate students interested in faculty careers or existing junior faculty members.