How to Prep for an Academic Conference

Canva design with women Clipart in various poses at a conference. Overlay title: How to Prep for an Academic Conference

So how’s it going for you all? Is it just me, or does it feel like we’re still stuck on a merry-go-round of doom, terror, and burnout? I’ve had to make some adjustments recently to cope, one of which is making a simple, short must-do list each day and often quitting when I finish it to take walks and listen to podcasts and just generally attempt to refill my cup. Next week I hope to have an update for you on my spring 2022 goals, but for now I want to talk about conference prep. Last year I wrote about attending virtual conferences and little bit of what I do to process what I learned at the conference. This year, as I prepped for NeMLA 2022 (my first big in-person conference since 2019), it occurred to me that I should write a post about this prep. Maybe it will be helpful for young scholars who haven’t had the chance to go to many conferences thanks to the pandemic, but also I know I like reading about how others do academic conferences.

Keep Track

At some point during the phd/adjunct/job market years I realized I needed a way to keep track of conference details, so I made a spreadsheet. I use this spreadsheet to note everything from important dates (like when the CFP/CFA due dates are to whether I’ve registered or not and money I spent or received from funding). I also (now) always save a copy of the call for Abstracts, the parameters for the session type I chose, and my own abstract/title in a folder for that year/conference (e.g. NeMLA–>2022. See my post on Organizing Research). This may seem an obvious thing to do, but I had to learn the hard way over several years that I will not remember what I did 6-12 months ago for a given conference.

Less is More

I’ve written about this same philosophy in terms of feedback, but it also applies to conference materials such as your paper and slides. Like anything that you seek to translate from one context (writing for publication) to another (writing for a speech), you need to do the work required to meet the best practices of the new genre. One way to do this is to slash your writing down by, in some cases, half. The fact is we can read faster than we can speak. It makes sense to write a 30 page article for publication where the audience can read it privately, pause when they want, make annotations, etc. It does not make sense to try and read this same paper in 10-15 minutes to a listening audience. The same principle holds for slides. Sort of. I’m actually a fan of more slides with less stuff on each slide. Moving through more slides with less content on each one (e.g. a single quote, a single image, a stimulating animation) at a good clip (1-2 min) adds visual interest to your talk and helps keep the listener engaged. A good rule is if you spend more than 3.5 minutes on a single slide, you should have more slides. Do yourself, your audience, and your fellow panelists a favor and remember: less is more.

Find Your People

While I’ve certainly just showed up to conferences without reading the program ahead of time and made my schedule on the fly, these days I prefer to look over the program (especially for big conferences) and search for my people. This means searching a) for people from my (or my area) institutions. I’m ashamed to tell you how long it took for me to figure out how advantageous this was not just for internal networking, but, in some cases for very practical considerations like carpooling. B) I let people in my network know I’m coming to the conference. This has been awesome for meeting up with people who, in some cases, I’ve only known via Twitter, etc. C) I search for keywords of topics I want to hear about (e.g. “digital”). It is always thrilling to find others whose research interests overlap with yours. And d) I search for groups that I want to connect with (e.g grad students). None of this precludes my hanging out with new people I meet who don’t fit any of this criteria. Once I’m there, I’m happy to let the conference take me where it will, but I like going in knowing you have options.

I have other little things I do depending on the conference (planned excursions etc.); however, the above advice is my main advice.

Do you have any advice to share about preparing for conferences? Please share in the comments below.

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page). Btw, I am happy to announce that I recently launched a biweekly podcast called Vita Abundantior in which I conduct interviews with awesome women and ask them how they go about living such abundant lives (avail on all major streaming platforms).

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