Last week I went to the Australian Association of Researchers in Education (AARE) conference in Adelaide. It was a big conference with lots of parallel sessions, and I haven’t gone to a really big conference for 7 or 8 years (let alone not travelling or hanging out with large groups of strangers face-to-face for a few years for pandemic reasons). It was also a conference I don’t usually go to, but I was giving a paper as part of a panel with other authors and editors from our book Unlocking Social Theory with Popular Culture : Remixing Theoretical Influencers. I didn’t know if I would know anyone else at the conference. I met a lot of HDR candidates who had never had a chance to attend an in-person conference before, in all the years of their candidature too. This made me think it would be a good moment to reflect on what it’s like to go to a big conference and what you might look out for if it’s your first time.
First things: what to pack. Academic conferences in Australia tend to be smart-casual affairs, especially for education researchers. I packed wide-legged pants, bright colourful tops, a loose linen dress and a smart denim jacket. A bright print bomber jacket would have been even better. I took one big shawl scarf wrap for the cool nights, and wore flat shoes as there was a lot of walking around. A few presenters wore blazers, but mostly people presented in a collared shirt and chinos or strong asymmetric outfits.
Also pack: all the chargers, your presentation, spare outfits in case you spill coffee all over yourself, everything that will help you get to sleep (I took a silk pillowcase and an eye mask), all your medications. I always take a water bottle, a facial, lots of muesli bars, and a spiky ball for my back muscles after sitting down all day.
Next: plan some catch ups before you arrive. I looked through the program to see if I knew anyone and reached out to them ahead of time. I put out a call on the Twitter hashtag. This meant that, even though I might not be palled-up every minute of the day, I’d have a few coffees loosely planned before I arrived. It’s very hard to enter spaces where you don’t know anyone at all, but if you know one person, they can introduce you to others. As you start talking to your one person, you can intentionally open up your conversation to include new people because at a big conference there are always lots of people just milling about next to you and ready to be included!
It will take forever to get between rooms. This goes double for anyone who has mobility challenges, or who gets lost on campuses. However, this was another great way to meet other people who were also lost. The conference took place all over the University of South Australia campus, so you need to plan for enough time to get out of the room, down five flights of stairs, three buildings over and back up to level 2.
Don’t over-stuff your program. It can feel like you have to arrive first thing in the morning, fill up every single slot in the program and then go to all the after parties. It’s good to have an idea of what you might want to go to in any particular slot, but it’s also absolutely fine to skip some sessions for quiet, rest, sight seeing, or informal conversations that might emerge. I took time each morning to do some yoga and walk restfully to the venue, and I was clear on which sessions I was committed to attending and which I was happy to let go if I was in the middle of an important conversation. To my surprise, I had 4 editors and a co-author at the conference, so I was glad to have had extra spaces in my program to catch up with them!
How to navigate between sessions. There were two kinds of sessions at this conference, seminar panels and individual paper sessions. My experience of conference etiquette is generally that you should only move between sessions during or after the q&a. So if each presenter in a panel has the question time straight after their paper, it is okay for you to get up and go to another session. If the questions are all together at the end, it would be ruder to get up (though sometimes you have to!) The smaller the group in the room, the more awkward it is to get up and go. Different conferences have different vibes though, so keep an eye out for what the mid-career researchers are doing.
While it might seem to be really important to be in the big keynotes, I generally find that you can catch up on them later because senior academics are good at getting things published. It’s the little session with 2 people in the audience, with an ECR or HDR presenter that you will get the information you might not get elsewhere, and where you can have a really good and supportive conversation with the whole room afterwards. So don’t stress if you find yourself in a room as one of the only people there to watch and worry you will be stuck (you will be! but it will possibly be one of the best experiences of your conference).
You don’t have to drink, but you will probably want to go out drinking. A lot of the most important networking takes place after the official conference day is done, in pubs and restaurants. You don’t have to drink alcohol, and you don’t have to stay all night, but do make time to go and be part of these informal gatherings, even if you are an introvert or teetotal. I met lots of people, some of them very senior, some of them very cool, because I was willing to be in places where I only knew one other person and had a glass of liquid in my hand.
Plan some down time when you get home. I made sure not to over book myself on when I arrived back home, after all the late nights, strange beds and travel. I had a slow morning, sent a few emails and one online meeting, went to the gym and booked a dinner out with my partner. Returning home, it’s good to intentionally plan to reconnect to your body, your people, your place and your inbox! Monday morning, I was back in the office and back to normal.
These are absolutely not the only aspects to think about when going to a big in-person conference, but they are the ones that stood out for me, this time. If you want to explore more about conferences, I recommend the blog Conference Inference. And perhaps you still don’t think it’s time to get out there and meet hundreds of strangers (I was quite nervous about it, and am not planning any other big conferences any time soon!) If you ever do have a reason to step into a big in-person conference in the future, I hope this post helps you to plan your moves so you can enjoy it, meet new people, and learn new ideas.