Tips for Attending Big Conferences

I just got back from attending the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) annual conference. It was the biggest professional conference that I’ve ever attended and going into it I was pretty intimidated. I’ve been to conferences before, but they’ve been smaller or graduate student conferences, so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen at this one.

In the end, I really enjoyed it and I think I got a lot out of it. Here are some of the things that made the conference particularly productive for me:

1. Find people who can guide you

I originally hadn’t considered attending the AAS conference, but my boss at the library mentioned that I might want to go because several Southeast Asia librarians attend, so suddenly attending became a priority. At first glance, however, I had no idea where to begin when scrolling through the hefty conference program. Luckily, I had my boss to help me. She recommended some meetings that I should attend, including one on Malaysia that I wouldn’t have noticed without her help.

At the conference, I met up with one of my mentors from my previous MA program in Southeast Asian studies. He was also very helpful, recommending more meetings as well as social events, where he introduced me to some of his colleagues. Which brings me to my second point…

2. Attend meetings and social events

You see this advice a lot, for good reason. You’re not going to have a lot of opportunity to meet people at panels. The places you’re going to meet people are meetings, to a certain extent, and social events.

First of all: meetings. I attended several meetings over the course of the conference, both for research groups and for librarians. Though I didn’t contribute much to the meetings, I learned a lot about current initiatives and current trends. And, like I said before, I met people.

An even better venue for meeting people, though, is the social events. AAS holds several receptions hosted by various organizations including universities and area studies groups. Since my primary area of interest is Indonesia, I went to the Indonesian studies reception not expecting much. To the contrary, I met several people who were then happy to introduce me to more people. But more than just meeting people, I was able to engage in conversations about my own interests and find people willing to help me with some things that I’m working on. Bottom line: go to social events. They’re the place where everyone is there just to meet other people and mix around, so they’re really valuable in terms of networking.

3. Bring business cards

And speaking of networking, bring business cards! I’ve always handed out a couple of cards at the graduate student conferences I’ve attended, but I really needed my business cards at AAS. Not only did I exchange business cards with several people, there were also times when I made the first move and asked if I could give my card to someone. One of those people has already followed up with me!

4. Think critically during panels

Because this was such a big, professional conference, I went into it thinking that I wouldn’t know anything. Here’s the thing, though: you’re not a novice. While it’s probably true that you’re still learning, that doesn’t mean that you know nothing. You know things and you should use that knowledge to think critically about what you hear during panels—don’t just accept everything.

Now let me say that I’m not trying to be negative about any of the panels I intended. They were all really interesting and I loved hearing about new research that’s being done. What I mean is that you should also think about how the research can be taken further: What are the next steps? What are the gaps that are yet to be filled?

This is also a good way to make more connections. Find someone to discuss what you heard at a panel—you might learn something new and you might meet someone new.

5. Follow up

This is what I need to do now. I’ve come back to Michigan with business cards for several people who can potentially help me with things, so I need to make sure to solidify those connections. I also need to join some new mailing lists and find some new Facebook and Google groups in order to keep up to date with what’s going on with researchers.

Looking for more conference tips? Check out these past posts from Lauren, Jennifer, and Dylan.

Zoë McLaughlin is a Master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School of Information.  Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or at her personal blog.

Featured image by Sean Berrigan at Pixel Surplus under a Creative Commons Zero license.

Categories: Conferences

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4 replies

  1. I second every bit of this advice. Attended the ALA conference for the first time. I’m hardly a novice attending and even planning conferences, but that thing was overwhelming. My time-well-spent was when the sessions I selected were so crowded that I sat in on meetings. Learned lots, considering joining a committee or three, and met great people, some of whom consider mentors-in-waiting.


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