10+ Conference Survival Tips
Attending conferences can be rewarding and exciting. It can also be stressful and terrifying. And it is almost always exhausting. While each one on its own sounds like a good idea, I already know by the time the last one ends for the year I will be ready to pull a blanket over my head and sleep until 2025. I'd prefer not to feel that way, though. I'd like my conference experiences to be more on the fun side and less about being anxious or stressed.
To help with this, I'm giving myself some tips for having the best time I possibly can at each and every conference, and I'm sharing them here in case maybe you, too, could use some help moving from surviving conferences to conquering them:
Study the program in advance. I admit I'm not the best at going into events without a game plan. In fact, it fills me with anxiety. Reading the program before arriving at the conference helps orient the brain and provides at least a modicum of feeling in control and like I can navigate with a bit of ease. Not only does it help me prioritize what I'll attend, but if there are maps, it helps me figure out where I need to be and when so I don't get overwhelmed during the conference.
Skip sessions. The fastest route to burnout is the one where you attempt to attend every session of any day of the conference. Identifying my must-attend events, and picking out the best times for breaks makes everything feel more manageable. Being at my best when I am there is more important than running myself into the ground.
Only buy what you want to buy. Going to a conference is expensive, especially for independent scholars (*raises hand*) who have to pay entirely out of pocket. There are going to be a lot of tempting things at the conference to purchase (I'm a sucker for the book area!) but remember, your money is yours alone and only you know what you can and can't afford. Don't feel bad saying no to someone who is trying to sell you something.
Carry snacks and stay hydrated. No one should ever have to be subjected to me when I am hungry or thirsty. Similarly, I don't really want to be subjected to hangry colleagues. Also, you never know what will be available for consumption or when you'll have the time to eat it. If at all possible, carry something with you, just in case.
Leave your most uncomfortable clothing at home. I love to look good (at least in my own head) when I attend events. I also like to still be able to feel my feet at the end of the day and not want to crawl out of my clothes with a dread of having to dress up again in the morning. Aim for professional but also wear something you are comfortable in for many hours at a time (I write this as I think about my favorite pairs of flats and not the heels I would wear for a short event).
Know it's okay to not retain every single thing you learn. Take notes in whatever way works best for you, and don't obsess over making sure you have committed every single thing every person you hear speak has said to memory. For me, my hand is usually about to fall off by the third panel I attend, and it took me a long time to realize that not every paper was going to be something I needed to take copious notes on, because there would be no exam at the end. (Old habits die hard.)
Meet new people - when you're ready, if you ever are. Networking stresses me out. I always joke that I could hold a conversation with a brick wall, and it's true, but I have a terrible time if I have to initiate the conversation with a stranger. For me, conferences are full of pressure to go up to people and introduce yourself. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes I can't. It's important to go into an event like this realizing the world won't end if you don't meet a specific number of people by the time the event concludes.
Be unapologetic about your priorities. Everyone has an agenda when they come to a conference, even if it seems like they don't. You're allowed to have one, too. I occasionally have to remind myself that it is just as good of an idea to go to panels simply because I think the topic is interesting as it is because I know someone on it or feel I need to go because it is my field. Your choices are valid, whatever they are - assuming of course, you aren't blowing off a commitment you already made.
Accept that your plan might change. On Legends of Tomorrow, Leonard Snart (played by Wentworth Miller) once explained the four rules of planning as: "Make the plan. Execute the plan. Expect the plan to go off the rails. Throw away the plan." In my experience, he isn't wrong and there can be something liberating about accepting in advance that even the plans you're sure will work out, might not. After all, your changed plans might be better than the one you intended at the start.
Know that you belong there. Conferences can bring out the worst in some people, making them feel like it is a stage on which they must show their superiority. People like that will take every chance they get to make others feel like they don't belong. Guess what? It isn't up to them. It's up to you. If you want to be there, you should be, whether or not you're presenting. Conferences are a great place for the dissemination of knowledge, and those who believe others don't qualify for access to that knowledge are the ones who truly don't deserve to be there.
And, if you want to make the conference experience better for everyone:
Take hygiene seriously. "Con Crud" is not fun, for anyone, ever. Many people at conferences (or conventions, when I first learned the term) are tired and have been traveling extensively to get there. Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and be conscious of your own hygiene, both to protect against the germs of others and prevent your own from spreading.
Only stand up to ask a question at a panel when you actually have a question to ask. No matter what I attend, whether it's a conference, a convention, or a SAG-AFTRA Q an A, there is always someone (or two or three) who stands up to ask a question, but in reality just wants to either make a statement or simply have everyone hear them talk. Don't be that person. Make sure whatever you have to say is a question that will actually contribute to the conversation started by the panelists. Everyone will love you for it.
Treat everyone like they deserve to be there and have something to teach you. You'll be surprised what you can learn and how much better your experience will be if you are open to it. I hope that these tips and reminders help you as much as you help me this year, and every year moving forward. I also hope that I'll see some of you at a conference in the future - and if you see me, I hope you'll say hello! May your conferences be fun, your travels safe, and your adventures many.