First-Generation Findings: Eight Strategies for Success at Academic Conferences

By James Steur of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Cloud Gate

 As a first-generation college student and son of two hairdressers, I’ve spent most of my life far removed from the world of academia. I still remember flying into Denver for my first conference as an undergrad and feeling overwhelmed when I entered the hotel. I didn’t know what the word “discussant” meant, how to network, and the unspoken norms of presenting at a conference. This new world I had entered was a strange and frightening place, and I didn’t know how to make the most out of the conference. Now that I’ve attended multiple conferences, I’ve developed eight strategies to help myself get the most out of attending conferences.

Before the Conference

Tip 1: Decide How You’ll Spend Your Time Before the Conference
At my first conference, I was handed a booklet with a variety of presentations, and I picked panels on an ad-hoc basis. I strongly advise against this approach. If you wait until you’re at the conference to select panels, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and attend panels you will not be satisfied with. Now, I make an itinerary for how I’ll spend my time at the conference at least two weeks in advance. Thankfully, MPSA has a preliminary program that divides the sections by time, division, and event. This year, I have many colleagues attending MPSA, and I’m going to propose we get together for an hour before the conference to plan our schedules.

Tip 2: Attend Panels & Meetings that Excite You
Pick panels and meetings that make you feel excited so you’ll attend them. You’ll probably go to a panel that focuses on your main research interests at MPSA, but there are other meetings beyond panels. For example, MPSA has roundtable events that focus on work-life balance, how to do fieldwork, public scholarship, and a variety of other topics. There are also caucus events like the Latino/a Caucus, Minority Caucus Reception, and the Midwest Women’s Caucus. By picking events I’m excited about beforehand, I’m going to enjoy the conference more and get more out of it. It’s a month before the conference, and I’m already excited to attend the panels on emotions and politics.

Tip 3: Prepare (and Practice) Your Presentation in Advance
I’ve attended too many conferences where I spend most of my time working on my presentation in my hotel room. This isn’t ideal. You waste time you could spend going to a panel or exploring the city while you stress about your presentation. Try to finish your paper and presentation two weeks in advance of the conference. You may want to make some finishing touches to your presentation when you arrive, but that’s fundamentally different than making and preparing for the presentation the night before you present. Ideally, you should practice your presentation once or twice with your colleagues before the conference—you want to leave a good impression on everyone in the room.

Tip 4: Email Scholars You Want to Meet with at the Conference
Emails are a straightforward and powerful tool to connect with scholars. If you want to meet with a junior or senior faculty member who is attending MPSA, email them a month or a few weeks before the conference. If someone at your institution knows them, mention that in your email. If you don’t have an immediate connection, tell them you want to meet and talk about their research. Scholars love to talk about their research, and they rarely get asked to talk about it. Finally, don’t ask to meet with them for an hour. Fifteen or 20 minutes over coffee should be enough time.

During the Conference 

Tip 5: Recognize Famous Scholars Are Busy
At last year’s MPSA, I was walking around the Palmer House and saw a famous scholar whose work I’ve admired for years. I couldn’t believe my eyes and got excited. He took a few steps and someone began chatting with him. I waited a few minutes to introduce myself because I greatly admire his work and wanted to talk with him. To my amassment, he ended his conversation, took a few more steps, and somebody else rushed over to talk with him. I now realize that famous scholars get a lot of attention and are incredibly busy at conferences. Respect their schedules and how busy they are at conferences.

Tip 6: Network
Conferences are a useful way to build your professional research network. The simple way to develop your network is by attending panels and other meetings that are related to your interests. Ask interesting questions during the panel presentation and ask for that scholar’s email if you’re having a good conversation at a reception. Personally, I try to make at least three new connections at a conference and get their email addresses. If the person is comfortable with it, follow each other on Twitter or add each other on LinkedIn to stay connected.

Tip 7: Keep a Record of Who You Meet
After I’ve met a lot of people at a conference, it’s easy to lose touch. You send a follow-up email after the conference, a few months pass, and eventually a year has passed with no contact. My solution is keeping a record of everyone I meet at a conference. My spreadsheet includes everyone’s name, university, email, and research interests. This spreadsheet gives me a clear sense of my professional network, helps me remember names after I’ve met a lot of people at a conference, and reminds me to reach out.

Tip 8: Have Fun!
You’ve spent a fair amount of money on your membership, registration, lodging, and travel; remember to have some fun! If you have the time and funds, explore Chicago on your last evening in town. If funds are a little sparser, visit the Chicago Bean or go to the public library—you deserve to have some fun!

Hopefully, these tips can help you prepare to make the most of your conference experience at MPSA and develop your professional career—especially if you’re newer to the world of academia.

About the Author: James Steur is a PhD student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging at this year’s MPSA. You can find James on Twitter at @JamesSteur


MPSA is hosting two online orientation sessions to help make your first MPSA conference more enjoyable. During the online sessions on March 18 (4pm Eastern) and March 26 (11am Eastern) we will discuss ideas to help you prepare for traveling to, arriving at, and making the most of this year’s conference. Topics to include: navigating the Palmer House, highlighted receptions and events, and where to find assistance on-site. Be sure to submit your questions when you sign up for an online orientation session.