The Conference Guide for Grad Students

In a few weeks, I will be presenting at the National Council on Public History Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The opportunity to present at the NCPH Conference, a prestigious conference in the public history field, has me reflecting on my experience last year when I presented a poster at NCPH’s 2014 Conference in Monterey, California. A version of this post was originally posted in NYU’s Archives and Public History Program blog in May 2014.

Last March, I traveled to the National Council on Public History Annual Conference in Monterey, CA to present a poster inspired by my work with incorporating African American history into small public history institutions. At the NCPH Conference, I had the opportunity to network with fellow graduate students and public history professionals and to hear from on-the-ground public historians about the pitfalls, triumphs, and issues currently facing those who work in the field.

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A conference selfie with my poster.

Although the NCPH Conference was a success for me, there are things I learned along the way and things I plan to do differently at my next conference (which is coming up soon!). I encourage every graduate student to attend at least one professional conference during your time at graduate school, ideally as a presenter. It is a valuable learning and networking experience. My experience at the NCPH Conference inspired me to create this list of conference tips for graduate students.

Bring business cards. Most universities will print business cards for graduate students, or there are services such as that let you design your own high-quality business card just the way you want it. Before you attend a conference, have professional business cards printed. Hand out your cards to people who you have meaningful conversations with during the conference, and don’t forget to take their card too.
Pro tip: If you do receive other people’s business cards, it is a good idea to follow-up on your conversation after the conference is over through a quick email or tweet.

Apply for travel funding. Almost all graduate programs have funding available for students to attend conferences, particularly students who have been accepted as presenters. I have received travel funding from diverse sources at NYU, from the Department of History to the Dean’s Office. If you’re lost about where to apply for funding, consult your Program Director or ask your on-campus student activities center.
Pro tip: The conference you are attending might also offer scholarships or travel grants for graduate students.

Sign up for a workshop. Many conferences offer intensive workshops, which usually take place a day or two before the official conference begins. These workshops are generally on a very specific topic and offer participants the opportunity to explore this narrow topic in great depth. To me, this sounded exactly like graduate school, so I decided I did not need to attend a workshop. However, what I learned at the conference was that workshops can be a great networking opportunity as well as a learning opportunity. They also offer a good opportunity to get comfortable with the style and content of the conference hosts so that you can hit the ground running when the official conference begins.
Pro tip: Most workshops cost money, but conferences often have scholarships for graduate students.

Participate in the mentor/mentee program. Professional organizations usually have mentor/mentee programs designed to connect graduate students and young professionals with seasoned professionals within the field. At the NCPH Conference, mentors and mentees were able to meet each other at a separate reception on the first night of the conference. Many of the pairs went out to lunch the next day to talk further. I didn’t participate, but I heard from fellow conference-goers that the mentors were an incredibly valuable resource.
Pro tip: Sign-up usually happens a month or two ahead of time, so plan early and search the conference website for directions on how to participate.

Don’t attend every session. Here’s the big secret that the professionals don’t tell you: It’s okay to not go to a session at all every now and then! Conferences are exhausting. You are going to be given a lot of content to think about. Attend several sessions, but don’t wear yourself out. I find that I get more out of a conference when I allow myself time to process information and don’t get too obsessed with attending everything.
Pro tip: Your downtime outside of sessions can also be a great time to have conversations and build relationships with people at the conference.

Participate in an activity. The NCPH Conference offered several locally-based activities such as walking tours, a trip to a local attraction, and peer group lunches. I skipped a session on one morning in favor of a conference-promoted walking tour of Historic Monterey. It was great to get out of the Convention Center for a morning – I got some fresh air, I learned about the history of Monterey, and I made connections with the people who were on the tour with me. I even met a few graduate students that I ended up chatting with about future collaborations.
Pro tip: It isn’t “cheating” to take a step out of the Convention Center every once in a while!

Tweet! Conferences often have a hashtag that participants can use to tweet throughout the conference. The NCPH hashtag this year is #NCPH2015. This hashtag is already active a few weeks before the conference as people prepare and it will continue to be a place for people’s follow-up ideas after the conference is over. During the conference, many people live-tweet sessions, share interesting ideas, or propose a lunch meetup through Twitter. I live-tweeted one session at the 2014 conference, which really helped me parse out the interesting ideas from the session and summarize them, and also created a forum for conversation with people who were not in the room.
Pro tip: Even if you don’t feel like live-tweeting yourself, follow the hashtag on Twitter – you never know what information you might find!

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Conferences are an awesome place to dive deeper into your field. Above all else, have fun at your conference! Prepare, participate, and share your experiences with your peers when you return.

Ready for Nashville,

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