University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Originally posted on May 9, 2019, this article was refreshed and re-released on December 8, 2022.
Attending an academic conference, although enriching and genuinely enjoyable, is an investment. Not only do you pay the costs of registration fees and for travel and lodging, but a conference also takes you away from family, work, and friends. It is essential to maximize the benefits of attending a conference to ensure a good return on investment. Following are a few suggestions based on my own conference attendance and the conferences I have directed. Conferences will provide you with a wide variety of potential opportunities. Take advantage of as many as you are able.
Managing the Investment
1. Select the Right Conference for You
There are easily dozens of higher education conferences each year, to say nothing of discipline-specific events. Which one(s) should you attend? Review your personal teaching philosophy and statement of your teaching values. Compare and contrast those with the conferences which you are considering attending. Identify conferences with written mission statements and values that reflect your teaching philosophy. Next, consider format. Are you looking for an experience that is smaller, with a more intensive workshop format similar to an institute, or a larger event with multiple presentation formats and numerous presenters? Location may also be a factor, although post-COVID-19, many conferences offer hybrid programming options.
2. Manage Conference Costs
Once you have decided on a conference to attend, register early. Registration rates soar closer to the conference start date. Reserve your room at the event hotel for all the days of the event and travel days. You can always cancel dates you don't need later, but booking early will ensure you get the conference discount rate. Discounted hotel rates are only available as long as rooms within the conference block are available. In fact, the discounted room rate typically expires 30 days before the conference, and rooms are sold at market value. Booking a room through the conference may also provide discounted parking, free internet, and even discounts at the hotel restaurant.
Check to see if the conference discounts for teams, students, fellows, adjunct faculty, early career faculty discounts, postdocs, or retired faculty members. If not listed on the conference website, call the conference helpline and ask for such a discount before registering. Finally, consider making dinner reservations. When a conference comes to a hotel, the restaurants in the immediate area often fill up, and you may find yourself eating at a more expensive restaurant than you had intended.
3. Prepare for the Conference
Approach the conference as if it is a "flipped" experience. Do your homework ahead of time so that you can have meaningful conversations while attending. Review the conference program online, download the conference app, and select the sessions you plan to attend. Make a few second choices in case your first choice turns out to be different than expected, canceled, or fills up.
Choose sessions to attend that:
• align with your teaching methods and goals,
• introduce new/innovative approaches,
• address contemporary issues that you have not resolved in your class,
• address topics that align with your department or college concerns,
• advance your repertoire of teaching strategies, and
• appeal to your passion for teaching.
4. Navigate the Conference Purposefully Once you arrive on site, it can feel a bit daunting to jump into the mix. Start small. Be confident in your preparations. As the conference progresses, you will begin to recognize faculty members who are choosing the same sessions that you are choosing. Take a moment to introduce yourself. Share what you have found helpful and what they are enjoying about the conference and sessions you have both attended. Perhaps invite that person to continue the conversation at lunch.
Note the sessions that are of particular interest to you and show up for those sessions 5 to 10 minutes before the session starts. I have seen several instances when a session was more popular than expected and participants were not able to find a chair, or even to get into the room. However, I have never seen a session completely full 10 minutes before the start time of that session. If the session is crucial to your conference experience, be sure to find a seat early.
The pace of a conference can be grueling. It's natural to want to make the most of every minute, attending sessions, taking notes, and networking. That said, it is easy to become overwhelmed. It is totally acceptable to give yourself permission to take a break from being in sessions. Schedule short breaks from sessions to answer emails, return phone calls, make notes, organize handouts, and (crucially) hydrate. Try to get some fresh air and just sit and relax for a bit. Many conferences offer a dedicated lounge or quiet space set aside for attendees to recharge their batteries (both electronic and personal!).
Networking is an integral part of the conference experience and can happen both formally and informally. Once you commit to attending a specific conference, start networking before your arrival at the conference. Check out the conference organization on social media platforms and "like," "follow," and "subscribe" to the organization's offerings as a way to receive pertinent information and stay informed as the event approaches.
As you review the program to select your sessions, make note of those presenters who you admire and may have already impacted your teaching practice. You might reach out to these professionals via email prior to the conference or after seeing their session, sharing your enthusiasm for their work and perhaps proposing a time after their session to connect.
Allow organic encounters as well. Bring ample copies of your business card to exchange with other attendees When you exchange business cards, write on the back of their card any topics you discussed or resources you plan to share. Make note of meet-and-greet opportunities, book signings, or event receptions. Be social. Be authentic. Perhaps even set a goal of a minimum number of new colleagues you hope to meet throughout the conference.
6. Implement What You Learned
Take notes during sessions, and schedule a set time for daily reflection. Consider what content you’ve heard and how it pertains to your teaching, research, and service. What ideas can you glean and put to immediate use? How? Which of these tips or activities can you incorporate into future coursework or curricular development? Reflect on new connections for potential collaborations, additional information, or suggested references for further reading, and consider which campus colleague(s) to speak to when you return to your home campus to share your specific recommendations and conference takeaways.
Bonus Strategy: Share Your Gratitude.
It's important to recognize that the department or college that funded your travel has a vested interest in the success of your conference experience. Consider sending a brief thank you note acknowledging the financial support as well as what you gained by attending the event. It’s a nice touch to offer to present the information you acquired at a brown-bag lunch discussion for your department.
Reaping the Rewards
I greatly enjoy attending, sharing, and networking at professional conferences. Interdisciplinary teaching conferences have had a tremendous impact on my career. Book deals were struck, research collaborations began, and lifelong professional friendships formed during teaching conferences. But for all the potential that conferences hold, the experience is only as good as the effort put into planning, attending, organizing, and implementing what is learned to shape and expand your professional development.
Increase the return on investment when you attend a conference by planning for the event as carefully as you plan your teaching throughout the semester. And if our paths cross at a conference, please do say "hey." I am always grateful for opportunities to expand my teaching and learning network.
1. What do you most look forward to when you attend a professional conference?
2. Which of these strategies do you already do when attending a conference? Which could you add?
3. We only had space to share a few tips for attending an academic conference. If you could add 500 words as additional advice to this blog, what would you include?
For Further Reading
Farrar, K. C. (2020, June 19). 10 ways to make the most of a conference. Muse.
Looser, D. (2015, April 22). Why I love academic conferences. The Chronicle of Higher
Marrone, S. (2018, January 29). How to maximize every conference and event you attend
(and build your professional brand). JDSUPRA.
Ye, L. (2019, June 25). 18 helpful tips for getting the most out of an industry conference.