For Students, by Students

So, you want to attend a professional conference?

Student members of the section provide inspo and tips for attending conferences, just in time for submission deadlines.
By Cassie Bailey, MA, and Tessa Long, MA

Students at both undergraduate and graduate levels are always looking for resume-building and networking opportunities. Professional conferences, typically hosted by professional organizations, provide a great opportunity for both! Going to a conference for the first time can be intimidating. It feels as if you are the only person who doesn’t understand how conferences typically work and where to go. Social events, like poster sessions, hosted social hours, and meet-and-greets can alleviate some anxiety related to attending conferences, but first-time goers can still feel self-conscious and unsure of what to do and how to make the most of their conference experience.

To alleviate worries about attending conferences for the first time and to gain valuable insight and tips from seasoned conference-goers, Tessa Long (TL) and Cassandra Bailey (CB) provided their perspective on some common questions related to conference attendance. Tessa Long is a fourth-year student in the clinical psychology program at Sam Houston State University. Cassandra Bailey is a fifth-year doctoral candidate, also in the clinical psychology program at Sam Houston State University, and both interviewees have extensive experience in conducting, disseminating, and assisting in the oversight of research. Both interviewees were asked questions about attending conferences for the first time, how to make the most of the experience, and how to manage the submission process for both ambitious first-time and seasoned conference attendees who are interested in getting more involved in the conference festivities.

What conferences do you feel are most beneficial for students in CJ and correctional subfields to attend?

TL and CB: One conference attended by many students interested in psychology and criminal justice is the annual American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS), Div. 41 of the American Psychological Association (APA). This conference focuses on contributions and applications of psychology within the law and legal settings. Other conferences that garner interest for students in CJ and its subfields are the Society for Police & Criminal Psychology (SPCP), the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology (IACFP), the International Conference on Criminal and Forensic Psychology (ICCFP), and the American College of Forensic Psychology Annual Symposium. Two less psychologically-focused, more criminal justice leaning conferences are American Society of Criminology (ASC) and Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). 

What are two of the biggest benefits you have reaped from conference attendance?

TL: While there are many benefits for attending conferences, the two most salient for me are making connections and receiving feedback. Networking is certainly intimidating; however, I have met new friends, collaborators and mentors at conferences simply by talking to people. As I progress in training and move into a career, making connections at conferences will continue to facilitate conversations and invite new perspectives and ideas. Along this vein, even though presenting is scary, the feedback I have received afterwards has always been constructive and helpful. When you work on a project, you sometimes develop tunnel vision on your data. Feedback after presenting has helped broaden my perspective and view information from a new angle.

CB: Two of the biggest benefits I have enjoyed are (1) research idea genesis and (2) a behind the scenes look at what goes into projects. Perspectives shared by the session discussant has been instrumental in helping me find common areas of exploration for future research beyond the explicitly stated future directions that typically accompanies the closing slides of each presentation. Additionally, “time for questions” can elucidate areas of methodological mishap the researchers wish they knew before running their study, as well as other project blunders of which to steer clear. In my experience, presenters tend to be more transparent in conference presentations than when publishing in journals, giving attendees an inside look at what went on behind the scenes, and what not to do.

Conference attendance can be pricey. What are some ways you offset costs associated with conference attendance?

TL: In addition to what Cassie covered, check with the conference coordinators about possible student volunteer opportunities at the conference. Most conferences I have attended have some spots available to do administrative tasks such as oversee the check-in desk, take attendance for CE credits, or run to grab waters for presenters. If available, volunteer positions typically come with financial incentive, such as reduced registration rates or a refund.

CB: If your school does not have a system in place to fund conference attendance for student presenters, or the funding is insufficient to cover all of your costs, there are many other options. One way I have offset costs is by becoming a member of various associations and organizations, providing me access to scholarships and benefits. For example, the American Psychological Association convention offers free conference registration to members of their graduate student division (i.e., American Psychological Association of Graduate Students [APAGS]) who are first author presenters. Additionally, most organizations offer at least a reduced rate to members. I have also managed to fund my conference travel through scholarship applications and will apply to approximately five scholarships before each conference. I apply to any scholarship for which I am eligible, no matter how unlikely I believe my chances are. I may only be awarded one scholarship each cycle but have been able to fund myself mainly through scholarship winnings for the past four years of schooling. Finally, I am extremely frugal. I unapologetically ask friends and family in the conference city if they have a couch on which I can crash and will pack lunches and snacks for myself prior to traveling to save money. I have also driven halfway across the country to attend a conference rather than pay for a plane ticket to save a few hundred dollars. A grad student has got to do what they've got to do.

Have you presented your own research at a conference, and if so when did you start preparing your research to be presented? What kinds of activities did you do to prepare yourself for presenting?

TL: The preparation timeline mostly depends on where I am in the submitted project. For some projects, I had completed data collection and therefore was able to complete the presentation well before the conference. However, some situations call for flexibility. I was recently in the unfortunate situation of not receiving data until a week before a presentation, which was a challenging obstacle. Generally, I begin working on a presentation (either poster or paper) about six weeks before the presentation date, to give enough time for multiple drafts and revisions. I try to get either format finished as early as possible, but typically no less than two weeks prior to the presentation date. What I do in order to prepare for both of these presentations are slightly different. Poster sessions are typically more conversational, so I get to know the material and project well, by re-reading background literature used to create hypotheses, looking over materials used to collect data, and making sure I completely understand the ins and outs of statistics used. I get nervous presenting paper presentations in front of audiences, so I write a script of the presentation to practice. I put the script into presentation notes of the PowerPoint just in case, but I try my best to remember key points from the script and make my presentation conversational. If you’re worried about being nervous for a presentation, know you aren’t alone! I’ve talked to several professionals about public speaking nerves, and most have said that although it gets easier with practice, they too get nervous when speaking to crowds.

CB: The first year in my program I had nothing to submit for presentation because I did not really understand what conferences were, nor how someone attended one. My FOMO (i.e., fear of missing out) on educational and professional development opportunities got the best of me, and I immediately began preparing for the next conference (which I did attend). There is a happy medium between preparing way too early and not giving yourself enough time to prepare. Preparing too early (read: having the poster/presentation completed by time of submission) can be problematic for three reasons. First, if you do not end up getting accepted, you have wasted time prematurely creating your presentation. Second, if you are accepted, by the time you present, it can be hard to remember what you did months ago. Third, you are constantly growing and learning throughout graduate school, and may have picked up new skills or knowledge along the way that you want to incorporate into your poster/presentation. If this year will be your first for conference submissions, then I suggest creating your poster/presentation six weeks before the conference date. For posters, this gives you one week to complete the work, one to two weeks for your mentor to review your work, and one to two weeks for revisions. And make sure you leave ample time for the printing of your poster (I give my university two weeks) and for practicing your presentation. Of course, if you know you need more time to complete projects, or your mentor requires more time to review your work, start preparing earlier. For paper presentations I also recommend beginning six weeks in advance: one week to complete the presentation, one to two weeks for your mentor to review your work, and one to two weeks for revisions. The last two weeks are for you to practice giving your presentation to your mentor, peers, family and whomever else will listen to you speak. My mom jokes she deserves her PhD after having listened to and critiqued countless presentations.

Networking can be daunting for students—do you have any tips or tricks to help them network with other professionals as well as students?

TL: First, ask for an introduction. If you’re attending a conference with a mentor or friend, they likely know people you would like to meet and can facilitate the introduction. If you are attending alone, I’ve found several things to be incredibly helpful in terms of networking: 1) Know that networking is awkward for most people, but it’s also expected. There is an understanding amongst conference attendees that students will approach professionals to either simply introduce themselves or to spark a discussion, so no need to feel alone in the awkwardness. All other students at the conference are in the same boat as you. Further, even seasoned professionals were once trainees, so they know it’s uncomfortable. 2) Come in with a question. When you have a specific question, it helps establish the foundation for a discussion where you will be comfortable and able to gain knowledge. 3) Approach people at poster sessions. Poster sessions are the perfect time to network, because everyone is mingling and talking about the projects. People want to discuss their work, so walk up and ask them to tell you about it.

CB: All conferences typically have social hours, which are tremendously helpful in facilitating networking. The laidback environment makes educators, professionals, researchers and the like more open to sitting and chatting, even with people they don’t already know. Use the social hour to walk around and introduce yourself to someone new. On that same note, remember that social hours are just that—social. This type of networking is more informal, and I tend to only present a business card when explicitly asked for one. On the other hand, after a paper or poster session, networking occurs more seamlessly when you have a business card readily available. It can also be helpful to ask for their business card/contact info, as they have probably received countless business cards, and spoken to numerous people that it’s hard to keep everyone straight. Reminding them who you are and what you talked about in a follow-up email the week after the conference ends can be a helpful way to jog their memory, especially if you were hoping for continued communication.

Conferences can be intimidating in that first-time goers and students feel a lot of pressure to make a good impression. What conference “do nots” do you have that you’d be willing to share? Any stories you’d be willing to share to normalize others’ feelings?

TL: I recently attended a conference where I spoke to a poster presenter about her project, which was somewhat related to the paper I was presenting the next day. I was a) wrapped up in thinking about the project and b) focused on my upcoming presentation, so I didn’t pay attention to her face. Later on, while speaking to a faculty member and his students from another university, I referred to the earlier conversation, to which one of the girls in the conversation laughed and said, “That was me!” Luckily, everyone laughed, but I was horrified. The moral of this blunder is twofold. 1) Do your best to remember names! It is a good networking opportunity and will save you from future embarrassment. 2) You aren’t the only person there trying to make a good impression; do a good job, and learn a lot. Therefore, you aren’t the only person there who will inevitably make mistakes or do something embarrassing. People at conferences are supportive and understanding, so take a deep breath, and go out there! Most importantly, remember to have fun. Conferences are exciting, so don’t let your nerves get the best of you and stop you from having the best experience possible. You got this!

CB: Know what is on your slides: If you don't understand what is on your slides, neither will your audience. At conferences, you are always “on stage,” similar to being “on” for graduate school interviews. There is always the potential to see or meet someone who may be important. So, dress to impress and represent yourself and your university well. Don’t dress the way you would on the beach for Spring Break or on a Tinder date. Travel light: There is typically a good bit of walking involved in conference attendance and plenty of chances to leave personal belongings behind. Dress comfortably: Wear shoes that won’t give you blisters. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know much about a topic: People don't expect you to be an expert in everything. Don't forget your name badge: You may miss out on events or access to exhibits without it. Bring your conference bag or a purse when checking out the exhibit hall—so much free swag!

Conferences can feel overwhelming in terms of information or research available for consumption. How do you decide what to attend, and how do you balance “branching out” versus attending to research relevant to your own interests?

TL: I go in with a game plan. I typically go through the conference program three times before the conference. First, I’ll mark any session that piques my interest. This list is usually quite long and spans an array of topics. I’ll go through a second time, this time looking for overlap. There’s usually some scheduling conflicts, so I will mark the ones that are more interesting to me. The third time, I’ll mark any sessions I absolutely cannot miss. Even with all of this preparation, I am pretty flexible when the conference comes around, and go to sessions that are the most intriguing to me. I make it a point to go to all my “must-sees,” but I also try to attend a few sessions that are on topics I either know nothing about or think I won’t like. This helps me learn brand new information and gain a new perspective, even if it is information I may not incorporate in practice.

CB: Now that I am a conference “veteran” I go in with a plan. I download the digital version of the conference program and spend some time planning out my days before arriving at the conference. I learned that if I do not map out my time, I end up going to whichever presentation the majority of my friends plan to attend. Going in with a plan also helps motivate me to attend 8 a.m. sessions. When I have several sessions that I want to attend that occur at the same time, I tend to choose the one that most closely aligns with my clinical practice or research. However, I always try and attend one or two sessions on topics unfamiliar to me, including topics in which I think I have no interest. Sometimes I find new areas of interest, while other times I confirm my disinterest in a topic.

Some students attend conferences although they are not presenting. What suggestions do you have to encourage them to maximize their time at the conference?

TL: Follow your curiosity. You paid money to be at this conference, so take the opportunity to learn about what interests you or talk to the faculty whose research you admire. They are more than happy to talk about their research, so go ahead and ask.

CB: Although I have never attended a conference at which I was not presenting, I imagine it is similar to attending one in which I was, minus the anxiety and hour of presentation. Go in with a plan complete with schedule of what you hope to accomplish. It is terribly easy to find yourself exploring the city when you are not constrained by temporal obligations.