How to Be Your Best Self At Your First Conference

Welcome to #STEMSupport, a bi-monthly article that will tackle common questions and issues others may face within STEM. Today, we’ll be talking about conferences – a necessary evil for many anxious students around the world! Hopefully, this article will put your mind at ease…or at least help you manage your stress levels a bit.

Deadlines, drafts, review panels, you name it…there are a lot of things in academia that can cause stress and anxiety. And unfortunately, most of these things are necessary for your academic career. For example, sooner or later, you’ll be faced with something that causes my anxiety levels to go through the roof and into the stratosphere: conferences. Let’s not get too negative, though – conferences are great places to meet and network with academics and professionals in your field, as well as make new friends who share the same research interests as you! But that pressure to socialize (and in some cases, present your work!) can be a lot to handle during your first time.

If you’ve been reading #STEMSupport since the beginning, you might already know that I suffer from extreme anxiety as part of my mental illness. Despite this, I’ve managed to attend and present at lots of conferences, and have found many to be rewarding and full of opportunities for me to further my career. It’s not always easy, but here’s some advice I can give to first-timers to make your first conference experience a bit less stressful!

Plan ahead

Planning ahead is always good advice, regardless of the situation. Many conferences will require lots of traveling and accommodation plans, so it’s especially important to plan ahead. Make sure you double check with the organizers to see if they have any special deals with local hotels or other businesses – this can help cut down costs. Some conferences may also offer bursaries to presenters help cover travel and accommodation costs as well, so keep an eye out!

Use social media to your advantage

Although it can be more fun and less stressful if you go to a conference with friends, there will be times when you’ll be flying solo. And that can be intimidating! In that case, don’t be afraid to connect with other conference attendees through social media – check to see if the conference has a Facebook page or Twitter account/hashtag. It could be a good way to make some friends prior to the event – and meet other attendees who are in the same situation as you!

Presenting? Practice makes perfect

Whether you’re presenting a paper or a poster, it will probably help your stress levels if you practice your presentation beforehand. Get some friends or colleagues to come around – it will help to practice in front of a crowd and you can get some helpful critique as well!

Don’t be afraid to get involved

Many conferences need volunteers to help run the event – this could be a great way to meet other attendees, both students, and professionals alike! Plus it’s something to add to your CV. Another way you can get involved is by attending any additional events – many conferences will also host special dinners, field trips, and other social events alongside sessions. It can be a great way to socialize with other attendees in a more relaxed environment – plus, they’re fun!

Bring a pen and/or a notebook

This is, by far, the best advice I can give anyone who is attending a conference for the first time. “But Alex”, I hear you say, “That’s a bit…anticlimactic. And kind of obvious. Why is this important?” I’ll be honest…I was a bad conference attendee the first time I went to one as an undergraduate. I didn’t socialize at all and I didn’t take any notes – basically, it felt like I didn’t go to a conference at all! Whether you’re presenting or just attending, you can make the most of your conference experience just by writing things down. Even if I’m in the audience for a session that has nothing to do with my own research, I’ve found that I get inspiration for my own projects by listening to other people talk about theirs. It also helps to have a way to jot down someone’s email if you end up connecting with someone – you’d be surprised how much collaborative work can originate from a chance encounter at a conference!

Thanks for reading! If you have suggestions for topics you would like #STEMSupport to cover in the future, feel free to contact me on Twitter @ArchaeologyFitz. I also write at animalarchaeology.com.

Read more about Alex and #STEMSupport in her intro post by clicking here.


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