I recently attended NeMLA 2018 in Pittsburgh, PA. As a graduate student, I did a bit of research ahead of time to find out other graduate student experiences at international conferences (what to do, wear, expect, etc.) and found very little information that was relatable. So I’m here to share my experience for other young scholars out there.
I have three main take-aways from this conference experience:
1. Academic Opportunity and funding; 2. Planning; 3. In-Conference Obstacles
1. Opportunity and Funding:
I am a third year Ph.D. student in Humanities. Most of us under the liberal arts umbrella are encouraged to present our work (or related subjects) at conferences every year. This sounds both wonderful and horrifying to me. I’m not at all shy speaking in front of crowds, but I am a penny pincher and hate to spend money that I don’t have to. There is always a tension between wanting to further my CV for future jobs by attending conferences and saving money to pay off my student loans (yeesh). Sometimes programs will give money for conference travel. My university allows for applications, but no guarantee of funds to cover the full cost. It is precarious.
In any case, I attend one international conference a year. I choose NeMLA because it is a friendly conference that usually has multiple opportunities for graduate students. This is they key for me: more opportunity to be involved means that the money I spend to attend the conference can go farther. Instead of getting one presentation per year, I could possibly have two presentations and be a chair for two other sessions. I’m know that I’m in the humanities, but that math looks good to me! Four different things to add to my CV rather than one. Taking advantage of multiple opportunities at one conference helps to alleviate the issue of funding (at least for me). For this conference, I was accepted into 3 different areas ( 2 chair positions and 1 roundtable). Triple Check!
Second, this particular conference had funding for graduate students. It was a competitive process that was not based on a statement of need. I made the mistake of explaining why I needed money (hello Canadian exchange rate), rather than explaining my academic development through the conference (hence, I did not receive any funding). Sometimes it can be confusing on whether or not to “talk“ money when you are asking for it. If there is a bursary for you to apply, you can email the committee beforehand to clarify what sort of reasoning they are looking for in the application process.
The final note on academic opportunity: Network like crazy. Though conferences can lead to extended days, participating in panels and events other than your own is a good chance to meet other scholars in your field from various locations. This year I did a job clinic that provided a mock interview, which went very well. It was an insightful learning process and the professor who interviewed me gave his card to me at the end of it for future contact. I also attended a Women’s and Gender Studies Caucus breakfast and met so many inspiring women scholars. I’m not going to lie, I usually expect for scholars to be cold and haughty…. but that IS NOT THE CASE 99 percent of the time.
Also, Business cards are essential.
I had two big questions going into the conference:
Where am I going to stay?
What should I wear?
I ended up rooming with two other friends from my program, which did help with the cost of the room. I have stayed in air bnbs to help with the cost too. This conference also had a forum for graduate students to connect and plan on rooming together. Staying at the hotel that the conference was held at was a huge convenience. You are floors away from the sessions, and I found that I did not need to carry my backpack around all day since I could go back to my room to exchange items if I needed to.
The fashion is always interesting to see at conferences. From business casual to full suits, there is not really a firm rule on what to wear. I like to dress up a little, but still have comfort for walking and sitting. Here is one of my outfits from this year:
The next day I wore blue jeans and a structured top. The day after that I wore a skirt, white tee, and denim jacket. I never felt under dressed, and I imagine that if I had worn the blazer that I packed that I would not have felt over dressed either. The rooms were very cold, so I am glad that I brought cardigans.
One final note on clothing: I rarely saw anyone in heels. Everyone wore flats, sneakers, or mules. I think that heels would work out great if you were dedicated to them, but I did notice a general lack of women choosing them as an option. It was like a consensus for comfort, which may alleviate your anxiety on whether or not to pack them for your next conference.
I also found that I became the ibuprofen distributor to my friends, and even strangers. Make sure to pack that head-ache medicine! Another item that I needed more than I thought was a reusable water bottle.
3. In-Conference Obstacles
I bet you can guess the biggest obstacle at a conference…. technology. Wi-fi can be spotty, flash drives can become corrupted, and cables can be incompatible with your device. Ask about technology beforehand if you do need it, and always show up early if you plan on using it in your presentation. This year, I brought a flash drive, my computer, and also emailed my powerpoint to my chair beforehand. I also went by the registration table to see if they could bring a Mac adapter to the room. Going through the motions of having back-ups for back-ups was the best thing I could have done. Once I met my co-presenters, I realized that I was the only one who needed to use technology. I felt more competent having taken care of the situation myself beforehand, rather than assuming there would be someone to take care of it for me.
Another “obstacle” is low attendance. Don’t let this throw you off your game! If you have only one person in the audience, that person came to hear what you have to say. So give ’em your best shot! If you can walk out of that room feeling like a rockstar, do it. Your best presentation is dependent upon your strategy of relating information, not how many people are listening. Also, it would be nice if anyone from your university came to see your talk; however, it may not always work out. Don’t take it personally.
The final obstacle that I noticed this time around was a lack of affordable food in the immediate area of the hotel. This is something that I could have planned for by packing a few granola bars for breakfast and snacks. Getting lunch was a hassle each day if I wanted to make it to the sessions I had planned on seeing. I ended up going a little over budget on food because I chose to stick near by rather than going out of my way to save money on food.
So that’s it. I had a great experience, met some new friends, and I’m already planning on returning for next year’s conference. Do you have tips or tricks for conferences? Ways to save money? How to make the most of it? Leave a comment!