Hack Your First Professional Conference

I have never met a conference I did not like. In the last four years, I have attended twelve academic conferences ranging in size from under 150 to over 5,000 participants. I have presented papers, sat on panels, moderated debate, lead workshops, and worked logistics.

In my experience, all conferences share some common challenges: the pace is frenetic, restroom lines are long, snacks are mediocre, and at least two sessions you really want to attend will be happening at the same time. The rooms are almost always too cold or too hot. You may not know anyone.

Obstacles aside, every conference experience has been invaluable to me. They have so much to offer an emerging professional: a chance to make new friends and meet professional contacts, exposure to new ideas and best practices in your field, and the possibility of new opportunities. At a conference, you can challenge your expectations and even meet your professional heroes.

Last August, I participated in the Society of American Archivists 2013 Annual Meeting, my first professional conference as a graduate student. Although I came equipped with a diverse kit of conference tools, the SAA Annual Meeting challenged me to adapt in new ways. Professional conferences are especially intense in terms of pace. There is so much to do and see that it is to feel overextended. If you are an introvert like me, it can feel overwhelming to interact with so many people, especially when you suddenly realize you’re talking with someone “famous” in the field.

But don’t feel intimidated! Here are some steps you can take to help make your first professional conference a success.

1. Do your research ahead of time

First, join the preconference conversation on blogs and social media. Not only is this a great way to get ideas about which sessions you might want to attend, but it will help you “meet” people ahead of the conference. Read about the experiences of other library students and conference veterans to get an idea for what you can expect. Hack Library School has several great articles about conferences, including why you should register for one, how to eat right during the conference, how to design your first business cards, and what you should know about presenting.

To get the most out of your first conference, check out the schedule well ahead of time. I like to balance sessions I “should” attend with sessions that are fun or challenging. Consider sessions that cater to emerging professionals or feature a topic you know little about  Make sure you communicate with your boss about how they want you to prioritize sessions if you are traveling at your employer’s expense.

In addition to formal sessions, make time for roundtable and section meetings, forums, plenaries, and business meetings. Roundtable meetings and forums allow you to interact with other professionals who share more specialized interests. These meetings generally feature a mix of presentations and formal business (like voting). Plenaries and business meetings features serious discussions about policy, governance, and the future of the profession.

Finally, make plans to network! Opportunities to meet up with fellow students include alumni mixers, Hack Library School meetups, informal lunches, service opportunities, and gaming sessions. I found these opportunities invaluable as a distance learner since I rarely have opportunities to meet my other students face to face. You might also consider seeking out a conference mentor to help you navigate the chaos.

Many national conferences offer conference specific guides for first time attendees. Here are a few great examples:

[ALA Midwinter 2014 Resources For First Timers]
[SAA Annual 2013 First Timer’s Guide]
[SLA 2014 Tips for First Time Attendees]
[ALA 2013 Resources for First Timers]

2. Getting to the conference

Conference costs can add up quickly. If you happen to work in the field while you are in school, it is worth your time to talk with your employer about funding your trip. You are more likely to succeed if you can show your boss how attending the conference will benefit the organization; point out sessions that relate closely to your work and offer to write a summary or share your notes with your coworkers.

If employer funding is not an option, there are other ways to make a conference more affordable. First, see how much you can save by joining the organization as a student member. In my case, paying $35 for a student membership to SAA saved me over $400 on registration fees at the Annual Meeting. Several organizations offer scholarships for library school students that cover travel, registration, and accommodations. LISjobs.com maintains a useful list of travel grants here.

If you are part of a roundtable or section for students and new professionals, watch for opportunities to share rides and housing. Reach out to fellow students to see if you can find roommates or a couch to crash on. Some informal groups like ALA Think Tank band together to rent a vacation house for the duration of the conference.

3. Packing for battle

Having made a lot of travel mistakes in my time, I have developed a core list of conference essentials:

– Comfortable professional shoes
– A travel powerstrip for the rare wall outlet**
– Ear plugs and an eyemask
– Refillable water bottle
– Packets of Emergen-c, hot tea, and instant oatmeal*
– Travel sized lotion, chapstick, gum
– A soft, expandable conference bag for iPad, keyboard, snacks
– Headache medicine
– Networking cards (I made mine on Moo.com)

* You can make oatmeal and many other quick meals with the hot water from your room’s coffee maker. This is great for that morning when you wake up a bit late and don’t want to stand in line for 30 minutes to get a muffin.

** Outlets are often hidden under brass floor plates. You can also find them behind water coolers. Happy hunting!

When I fly to a conference, I limit myself to carry-on luggage only. It may sound a bit crazy, but I like to have as much flexibility as possible when I am navigating public transportation in a new city. I use something called the Bundle Method which others have reviewed at length here and here. The first time I used the Bundle Method for a conference trip, I spent two frigid weeks in Northern Europe with only a backpack and a small handbag; I brought with me two business suits, toiletries, a laundry kit, an iPad and Bluetooth keyboard, a notebook, boots, flats, a dress, two sweaters, a cardigan, three shirts, pajamas, two pairs of pants, some tights, undergarments, scarves, gloves, souvenirs, snacks, and a peacoat. I’ve never looked back.

If I am at a multi-day conference, I look for the nearest corner market or pharmacy chain to stock up on bulky food items like fresh fruit, Annie Chun’s noodle bowls, jerky, dark chocolate, and cashews. I try not to buy anything that requires a microwave, since most conference hotels won’t have them in guest rooms or common areas. It is also important to know where the to find emergency replacement shampoo, socks, bandages, safety pins, and so on. Since trying local food is my favorite part of traveling, I try to make a list of restaurants, markets, and food carts within walking distance.

4. Making the most of the conference

The conference is here and it’s time to get down to business. You have a list of potential sessions prepared and you’ve made plans to meet up with some fellow students for lunch. What else can you do to make the conference a success? First, if you are on Twitter, you might consider live tweeting sessions as you attend them. This is a great way to meet other emerging professionals and share with peers who don’t have the opportunity or resources to attend the conference. Since live tweeting has become a more common part of the conference experiences, several communities have developed guidelines and best practices for tweeting responsibly.

Finally, there are a few principles you can keep in mind to make sure your first conference is memorable and productive.

First, take care of yourself. When you need a break, visit the Exhibition Hall, talk to vendors, take a nap, or explore the host city. You don’t have to attend back to back sessions. This is also true for extracurricular activities. If you know you need 8 hours of interrupted sleep to function the next day, it’s ok to leave a social event early. The conference will be much more fun if you are not sick and sleep deprived.

Second, be flexible. Whether you change your mind about a session or someone invites you to an impromptu networking lunch, don’t let your “perfect” conference schedule get in the way! When I attend a session, I try to sit near the back or on the edge of a row so I won’t disturb the other guests if I need to slip out quietly. Try to sneak out in between speakers so you don’t interrupt anyone.

Third, talk to strangers. Most people you meet are going to be unbelievably friendly and helpful. At a professional conference, everyone is here to share what they know and learn new things. Listen, ask lots of questions, and learn all you can. Just remember: you have unique experiences and perspectives too. Don’t be afraid to jump in the conversation if you have something to add.

5. Post conference

You survived the conference, but the work is not over yet! While all these great ideas and experiences are fresh on your mind, write a review of the conference. Whether you keep it to yourself or share it with your colleagues, writing a review will help sustain your enthusiasm and provide a handy reference for articles, organizations, and people. Follow up with new contacts via email or Twitter to grow your personal network and stay involved in the conversation.

What do you enjoy most about conferences? Do you have any tips for first time conference attendees? Share them with us in the comments below!

20 replies

  1. Great post! I, too, am a big conference fan (just went to the OLA conference here in Canada). Your tips are excellent. I think the one about not being afraid to talk to strangers is especially important. Lots of people in the LIS world are introverted, so chances are that those strangers not only know how you feel, but also want to help 🙂


  2. Great post! I love conferences too! After Midwinter in Philly, I was thinking about how I could’ve been better prepared with a more comfortable purse/satchel/backpack. The one I used wasn’t as comfortable as I’d hoped.

    Also, if you’re on Twitter–or if you aren’t YET–conferences are Twitterfests, and it’s a great way to follow interesting programs and general discussions about the conference. Find out the conference hashtag and join in!


  3. Extra tip on the bundle method: I try to unpack my bundle as soon as I arrive at the hotel. Packing your clothes this way reduces wrinkles, but if you have stubborn garments I recommend hanging them in the hotel bathroom when you take a shower. The wrinkles will flatten out as the garment dries on the hanger.


  4. Sam, this post is seriously amazing. I’m so glad you wrote it!

    I’m a huge fan of attending and/or presenting at conferences while in library school. It helps make the professional world seem a lot less intimidating. Definitely go to meetups and introduce yourself to new people. I am also an introvert and after a long day of attending sessions I just want to stay in, but pushing yourself to go out is worth it. Also, try to see a little bit of the city the conference is in, if you can. If I have one regret about previous conferences it’s that I wish I would have escaped the conference hotel a bit more.


    • Thank you so much Brianna! I definitely echo the advice you gave above. It is so easy to get worn out, but seeing the city and attending meetups here and there is worth the fatigue.


  5. No longer a library school student (though an occasional reader of this great blog), but coming up on a decade of attending professional conferences, I wanted to chime in with this advice: Why not see the city you’re visiting with a new friend, or two? If you’re in a late afternoon session, and see someone sitting alone, ask him or her to join you for a meal or a little sightseeing. Or, get a group together for dinner at an inexpensive restaurant, taking into consideration that some folks may be traveling under a tight budget.

    Networking is important, but so is friendship, and I don’t see the two as the same thing. Conferences can be a good place to cultivate and continue nurturing those friendships, in addition to networking opportunities.

    One final piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to approach more established professionals and talk with them. Let them know you appreciate their work, ask them questions if you’ve read something they’ve published.


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