A rough guide to conferences
Although conferences happen all year round, June through to September is traditionally ‘conference season’ when people gear up to go and present their research, network, learn and socialise. In a recent post I focused on selecting conferences to attend and getting papers accepted. This week we move on to the practicalities of attending a conference.
Guides to conferences tend to focus on how to present your paper and deal with audience feedback, which is extremely useful. But it doesn’t help you know what to expect if you’ve never been to a conference before.
My first experiences of academic conferences did not come as a delegate. It came through meeting delegates through my job as a cleaner in university accommodation.
Most of these delegates were friendly, offering a hello as they passed me, or sometimes stopping for a longer conversation. Sadly others were not so pleasant. Stepping over me as if I were invisible while I cleaned the stairwells, pushing past me as I mopped the floors. Or speaking to me as if I was beneath them – often emphasising their academic qualifications in contrast to my work which they evidently considered menial.
It was a useful introduction on how to behave and not to behave while at an event. And I certainly had a good idea what I might expect from accommodation during a university conference.
However, when it came to attending my first conference as a presenter and delegate I still felt very uncertain. I wasn’t sure what to do when I arrived – where did I go, who did I speak to, and how to introduce myself? I was presenting a poster but I didn’t know where to take it or what was going to actually happen at the timetabled ‘poster session’, I’d never been to one of those before. The book of abstracts I’d been sent before the event looked impressive. But was I expected to attend every session – a bit like university tutorials? What clothes should I wear? Was it a formal, suited and booted affair – or more casual? An ‘end of conference dinner’ was mentioned – what was the dress code for that? Did you need to take money for food during the day or was lunch paid for as part of the conference fee? And what would the other delegates be like? My past experiences didn’t fill me with confidence that I would necessarily be among welcoming, supportive or friendly people. What if my poster, my dietary needs, my chronic illness, my clothes, or my status as a self-funded PhD student was a source of unpleasantness?
I’m glad to report that my first conference experience was positive and set the tone for most of the future ones. People were there to answer my questions without leaving me feeling foolish for asking. Delegates were friendly and supportive (many still are close colleagues). My dietary needs were met with no fuss or bother, I was able to rest when I needed to, and there seemed to be no importance paid to what you wore.
This was over 20 years ago and since then I’ve lost count of the number of conferences I’ve been to, either as a presenter, a delegate, attending on a press pass to report for a newspaper, or hosting events I’ve organised alone or with colleagues.
I base this post on all these experiences to help you enjoy any conventions you attend. If you’ve got tips to share or memories of conferences you’ve been to, please add them in the comments.
Conferences on a budget
In the previous blog post I talked about checking if you could afford any conference before applying. That was to ensure you wouldn’t be caught out with an unexpected bill. Many conferences offer reduced rates or bursaries to students, and if you are a postgraduate your department may offer to pay for part of your conference fees – particularly if you’re presenting. In my view they should help cover these costs as part of your professional development. Remember to check that you can cover (or have help funding) the registration fee, accommodation costs, travel and any additional expenses (e.g. creating a poster, or purchasing a suitcase or rucksack).
If you have funding it’s still good to save where possible, and if you’re self-funding or on limited means you will want to see if there are other options open to you. For example you could offer to help work at the conference in exchange for a reduced fee (e.g. you’ll help staff a stall or act as a chair/timekeeper during talks). Booking your travel as early as possible or using student tickets can save money, as can staying with friends who are near the conference venue. If you are able to claim back costs and expenses remember to keep all receipts.
Where will I be staying?
The majority of conferences are held either in university accommodation (during vacations) or conference centres/hotels for bigger conventions. If you have special requirements regarding either accommodation (e.g. an above ground floor room, sharing with people of the same gender as you, or wheelchair access); or meals (e.g. Vegan, Gluten Free, Halal or Kosher); the conference organisers should ask you, but if they don’t, remind them of your needs before you travel to the conference. This is particularly important if your if you require an interpreter (including for presentations and social events/breakout sessions and refreshment breaks), a hearing loop, a prayer room, or want to find out how easy it is to navigate the conference space if you have mobility issues. Or if you have childcare responsibilities and will need a creche or evening child minding service. Many venues now have online guides so you can see where you’ll be staying, and for hotel based events tourism websites can help you spot potential problems that might impact on your stay. Some conferences are all based on one site, but others can be in different venues and that can increase your costs if you need to travel to/from the accommodation to the conference venue. Or your own levels of energy if you’re based in a very large venue where there’s a lot of space between different presentations to navigate. It’s worth noting even if you request support it may not necessarily be provided so having additional plans or people who can support your needs is sensible.
You should be sent an information pack via email or post about registering on arrival. This should also be on any conference website. That will give directions to the venue and where to register and pick up your room keys etc (if you are staying at the event). Sometimes all of this is in the same place, sometimes there are separate locations for accommodation check-in and registering for the conference. on getting to the venue and where to collect your keys. Read and check all information about the conference carefully including times when reception/arrivals desks are open. Some venues may be a distance from the nearest railway/bus station or airport, so if you are travelling by public transport you may need to make an extra journey, or pay for a taxi – remember to account for this in your budget and take money to cover extra fares. Ask the conference organisers for approximate costs and the number of a reputable cab firm if you think a taxi journey will be likely. You may wish to co-ordinate your journey so you arrive in the day or early evening – particularly if you are a lone traveller. You can calculate journey times and costs, and book flights, coach or bus tickets online.
When you register you’ll be given a conference pack (often a bag with the name of the conference/event on it, some stationary plus the book of abstracts and a timetable of presentations so you can pick which to go to). You’ll also be given a name badge. Ensure when you register you give the preferred name you like to be addressed by. Some people like to use titles but more often you would include first/last name or first name only. At some events they may ask for you to also indicate on your name badge your preferred pronouns and there might be an additional indicator (e.g. a colour sticker) to show your food preferences (e.g. a green sticker for vegetarians) or what day(s) of the event you’re attending. Badges may be pinned or stuck onto clothing or worn as a lanyard around your neck. Being mindful of this may help you pick what you wish to wear, or you may prefer to make/bring your own badge and keep the conference provided one available in case it’s needed to be seen by security/catering etc.
What to take?
As already mentioned I was apprehensive about my first conference. Not really because of the presentation I was giving, but because I didn’t know what to wear, or what else I needed to take. The end result was I turned up to a two-day conference with enough luggage to last me a fortnight. If you are staying in university accommodation, you can expect a basic room (sink, bed, desk etc), and bedding, soap and towels will be provided. Taking your own toiletries (particularly toothpaste, deodorant and soap/shower gel) is still a good idea in case these aren’t provided. Some universities, hotels and conference centres will have en-suite facilities (which you may have to pay a little more for). In others you may have to share shower/toilets with other delegates. Again, if you need accessible facilities (e.g. a shower or bath with a hoist or bars), or would not feel safe sharing bathrooms with other people, then request this when booking your conference place/organising accommodation.
Tea and coffee making facilities are often in the rooms of hotels or convention centres, whereas you may find these in the (shared) kitchen at university-based conferences. A good idea is to take some snack bars; fruit and a refillable bottle for water/juice in case you need a snack (you can always leave unopened drinks/snacks behind for the conference cleaning staff, I used to really appreciate those treats on a busy working day!). This may be essential if you have any dietary needs as venues may not always cater for this, even if asked, and also useful if the conference is running over several days and if you wish to come back to your room to rest/recover between events. If the cost of food is an issue for you check with the organisers what’s covered in the budget. It may include all meals, but it may not. I went to one event where people from low income countries struggled as their conference accommodation only included breakfast and they had no additional money to afford lunch and dinner, (this is something event organisers ought to be thinking about and I’ll be blogging on that and other issues in a later post). If you need additional help with food during your stay again ask if there are bursaries to cover this. Taking a book, magazines, or having music to listen to on your phone or computer may pass the time if there’s not much happening in the evenings or if you would like some alone time.
What to wear?
Some conferences, particularly those that are business or medically-based can be formal (smart/business attire), whilst others are laid back and delegates wear casual clothes. Most academic conferences are relatively informal and dress is not a major issue. The title and venue of the conference should give you a clue about clothing, but if in doubt, check – particularly if you’re giving a presentation. For conferences that last a few days, most end with a conference dinner/party that you may want to ‘dress up’ for. Conference or hotel venues may have an iron available, as may some university conferences, although most won’t offer a valet service. Therefore it’s a good idea to pack clothes that travel well and don’t crease. Don’t overload your luggage. Take a few clothes that mix and match. Check with the conference office/regional website about travel and if you’re unsure about weather pack a fleece or rainproof jacket. I recall one conference I went to where I arrived at the event muffled up for a cold autumn day, but discovered an unexpected heatwave had struck. I had to hastily find a shop selling summer wear to cope in the sunshine. Although by the time the conference ended I was glad of my winter clothes as it had begun to snow!
Overall, wear what you feel comfortable in. If you are giving a presentation, think of it along the same lines as a job interview – i.e. don’t wear brand new clothes for the first time on the day you present. If you’re someone who normally wears jeans and a t-shirt then it’s best to wear this (or something similar) than switching to a formal dress, suit or tie, where you may feel self-conscious. If you’ve thought about your audience then consider what clothing would be appropriate and respectful given issues of culture, climate and venue – alongside the topic of your talk. Remembering also the previous comments about conference venue size and travel so your clothing (and shoes) are comfortable if you’re moving between lots of different presentations.
If you are presenting
Many conferences now request you send them your presentation in advance. If so, check what format they need it in, and always take a backup copy on your phone, laptop or memory stick (plus any notes you require). It’s worth printing a one-page summary to hand out, and include your name and contact address at both the start and end of your talk, or link to this online at the end of any talk or workshop you give. If you plan on some heavy-duty networking, taking some business cards with your details on can be helpful (you can get these made up in many shopping centres or major rail stations, or for post graduate students your college may provide these).
You will be told how long your presentation should last, or what specifications your poster should fit. Always abide by these instructions, since an overly large or small poster can look odd, or may not be able to be displayed; and it’s awkward if you’re interrupted halfway through your oral presentation because it’s gone over time. If you are giving a talk, rehearse with friends or colleagues, and anticipate the type of questions you’ll be asked. Tailor your talk to fit the theme of the conference – a very light-hearted account may not go down too well at a highly scientific meeting. A good idea is to use your talk to advertise your work. That means you summarise ideas and invite discussion, rather than give a mini-lecture including lots of tedious references, or reading loads of quotes straight off the overhead. Remember, it’s not a test or a trial; and if it’s your first presentation, then tell the audience. Many people worry they’ll be asked difficult or hostile questions, but from my experience this is pretty rare, and those that ask tricky questions usually end up looking silly, so anticipate questions, but don’t worry about it too much.
A cleaner’s perspective
As stated, my job throughout and after my time at college was as a cleaner so I know exactly how delegates treat conference staff. Spare a thought for those looking after you. If your room is unsatisfactory, complain immediately, but politely. However, be realistic, there’s no point in expecting 5-star service in university accommodation. Whether you’re in a hotel or university keep your room tidy so the cleaner can do their job, and leave the room in a reasonable state (e.g. put rubbish in the bin, and check you’ve taken all your belongings). If there’s a form to rate accommodation, then complete it – especially if you think the cleaning staff have done a good job (it’s a fairly thankless job, so it’s always nice to get nice feedback). If you have any change, particularly if you’ll be changing currency, then leave it for cleaners/porters. A tip is always welcome (depending on your means, then length of time you’ve been staying, and the service given to your room). Finally, remember to vacate the room at the requested time. Many conferences have a rapid changeover, meaning the cleaner has to prepare upwards of twenty rooms for new delegates who will be arriving that day. If you’re still in bed or haven’t checked out, this can cause problems to those who need to get work done and whose wages may be dependent on readying rooms in a limited time.
Conferences are places for learning, socialising, and fun. They’re full of people just like us, and so we assume they’re safe. In most cases they are, but there are always risks with travel, particularly if you’re alone. People of colour, people with disabilities, women, those who are LGBT+ may be more vulnerable to harassment and assault. To check your own safety on arrival at your accommodation check windows and doors – and report any loose windows or damaged locks. Ask to be moved rooms if you don’t feel safe). Read the fire instructions and familiarise yourself with fire exits and assembly points, and keep all valuables in a safe place. If you are abroad, ask for your passport to be kept in the venue’s safe, and always take a photocopy or photo on your phone of the relevant parts of your passport and store copies of important documentation in secure files on your phone or laptop. It’s a good tip for any lone-traveller to carry a doorstop to put inside their door when they go to bed, and if your room has a door-chain, use it. Remember to keep an eye on your personal possessions and don’t take any unnecessary risks. You can find out more on safety advice for travel and daily life here:
Suzy Lamplugh Trust
Objective Gap Year
You should expect a conference to be supportive, friendly and enjoyable. However it is sadly not unheard of for events to be spoiled by racist, sexist, Bi/Trans/Homophobic, or abelist abuse. Many conferences now have guidelines noting expected standards of courteous behaviour but if you experience problems alert conference organisers during the event if you are able or give feedback afterwards. If you are travelling outside your country check you’ve the relevant travel documentation, innoculations and medications if needed (e.g. anti malarials). Also note the different laws, customs and cultures of any country you will be visiting, particularly if you are LGBT or a lone woman traveller.
• Take a tracksuit or shorts and a t-shirt to wear, since dressing gowns aren’t likely to be provided and you may be sharing a bathroom.
• If you are travelling by air, take toiletries and a change of clothes in your hand luggage, along with your passport, money/travellers cheques, credit cards and, if you are giving a presentation, the notes for your talk. That way, if your luggage is lost, you won’t be. Remember to sort out money in the right currency and have travel insurance.
• Take a novel or two. You may be stuck waiting for transport, or may have some time in your room to read (particularly if you arrive in advance of other delegates, or just want a break from the conference at some point). Download your favourite music or podcasts so you’ve something to listen to.
• Don’t feel you have to go to absolutely every presentation. It’s worth checking out what ones you have to see, and those you want to see, but also giving yourself time to think about the things you’ve been learning, and also to network.
• Don’t forget your toothbrush – and paste!
• Take your phone and check it’s set up for use in a different country if you’re travelling abroad.
• Try and go in a group – it’s more fun and cuts the travel/accommodation costs.
• Socialising and drinking is fine, but remember to know your limits. You want to be remembered for the fascinating talk you gave, more than the impromptu karaoke performance during the conference dinner. I say this from experience. I’m better known for the latter than the former.
Before you head out, read this lovely, reassuring post about how you want to BE at the conference you’ll be attending.
Every conference is different. Some you’ll find you return to on a yearly basis, others are just a one-off, but hopefully this guide will mean wherever you end up, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the event.
Let me know how you get on!
[Image used in this post is of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House].
A previous version of this post appeared in PsychTalk, Issue 42, December 2003 ps.35-39. BPS Publications, Leicester.