How to do an academic conference: advice for first time graduate student attendees

By Samuel Hahn, PhD Student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Sarah Teets, PhD Student at the University of Virginia.

Originally published March 21, 2017. Links have been updated to CAMWS 2019 websites, but all other content remains the same.

Attending a conference for the first time can be stressful. The unknowns of CAMWS threaten to deter newcomers from participating in all the opportunities this conference has to offer. We all remember our first conference and the anxiety that accompanied it. So, drawing on past experience, we have compiled answers to the questions that we wish we had known before attending CAMWS for the first time. We hope that you find our answers and resources helpful.

When should I plan on arriving at the conference? Do I need to come on the first day and stay the whole time?

You are not required to arrive at the conference by a certain time. However, a good rule of thumb is to arrive the day before your presentation to give yourself time to settle in after traveling. With your budget in mind, check the draft of the program (here) and decide if you want to attend certain panels or events; use that information to guide your decision.

What is the etiquette like during panels?

When you attend a panel, you are expected to arrive on time and stay for all the papers. You should give your full attention to each speaker and refrain from distracting yourself – especially in noticeable ways. (A panel is not the appropriate venue to put the finishing on your own presentation). During the Q & A, make sure your questions are succinct and pertinent to the paper. The Q & A is not an opportunity for you to demonstrate your own erudition, but rather a chance to receive clarification or offer polite criticism. As a general rule, extend the same courtesy that you would wish to receive from others during your presentation.

I want to hear papers at two different panels that occur at the same time. Can I leave one panel to go to another?

Although it is ideal to attend only one panel at a time and stay for the whole thing, it is also perfectly fine not to stay for an entire panel, or to come in late. The general etiquette is to enter and exit a room between talks, ideally during the applause. If you absolutely must enter or leave a room during a presentation, do so as quietly and discreetly as possible. If you are planning to stay, try to leave the aisle seats or seats near the door for those who will be coming and going.

How do I know what the papers will cover in a panel?

CAMWS publishes the abstracts for all papers online, organized by author name and by title. However, it is important to note that presentations occasionally differ from the outline in the abstract, especially if the presenter has written the abstract before the paper.

What else happens at conferences besides paper panels?

In addition to reuniting with friends and professors at other institutions, CAMWS provides various venues for socializing which are all listed on the program. Beyond the banquet, lunches, and receptions, GSIC is hosting a Happy Hour on Thursday night for graduate students to enjoy each other’s company over drinks. There will also be a book display for you to peruse throughout the conference. While the vagaries of ‘roundtable’ and ‘workshop’ may deter you from attending, these are opportunities to contribute openly to broader discussions in the discipline. GSIC will be holding a workshop on the various issues that graduate students face – from financial constraints to diversity – in which all those attending will be asked to participate. It will be held on Friday morning.

Socializing with strangers is uncomfortable for me. Are there strategies for making this less awkward?

First thing’s first: you’re not alone in feeling this way. Not only is a common sentiment among grad students who are new to the conference scene, but I’d be willing to wager half my Loeb collection that there are seasoned professors who feel this way, too. I can personally sympathize while I also say that it’s worth putting yourself out there for a bit, though as with panel attendance and other conference activities, it’s perfectly fine to pace yourself and take breaks because the whole thing can get exhausting. Know thyself! The standard small talk involves “Where are you from? What do you work on?” If these questions are stressful to you, rehearse a two-sentence answer and a change of subject. It’s also fine to skip these questions altogether and talk about something more fun. Are they sports fans? Do they like craft beer?

If there are lots of people from your home institution at the conference, wonderful! I would say a word of caution against only associating with people you already know, as much as this is a natural reflex for most people at conference social events. By all means, spend time with them, but I suggest you also make a point of meeting at least a few new people per day. If this does not come natural to you, you can always approach someone whose paper you heard with a question or (charitable) comment at a social event, or simply find someone who looks friendly, or like they don’t know anyone, and introduce yourself.

If you’re that person who doesn’t know anyone at CAMWS, don’t despair! It’s perfectly fine to introduce yourself to strangers; I think you’ll find most CAMWS attendees are a friendly lot and perfectly willing to meet new people. You can always try to feel out who the other grad students are if you find it easier to dive in with peers. Sometimes people dislike socializing at conferences because they experience it as a an unpleasant exercise in posturing and being judged. I won’t argue with anyone’s experience, but in my own, most faculty who attend CAMWS are not about to ask you to defend your dissertation on the spot, nor do they seem interested in sizing up your potential for the job market over the wine and cheese reception. Similarly, most of the grad students are not interested in one-upmanship. Of course, there may be people who are unpleasant to interact with, and if you meet one, excuse yourself and find someone more amiable. If someone snubs you because your institution lacks a certain prestige, I am really sorry, and I would again suggest moving on and finding one of the many people in the room who will not behave so disgracefully. It goes without saying, but don’t be that person yourself!

What do I need to know about the book display?

Every year at CAMWS (and the SCS/AIA, as well as some other conferences in our field), there is a large room devoted to exhibition. You can find this room’s location in your program, or ask at the registration table. Most of the exhibitors are publishers displaying books for sale. These books are usually being sold at a discounted rate, so if you’re looking to buy, this can be a great opportunity to save a little cash. It  certainly makes for fun browsing! Books aren’t the only thing on exhibition, however. Other professional organizations in our field (such as the American Classical League) have tables with representatives and information, as well as interest groups, including yours truly, the Graduate Student Issues Committee (come say hello!). You’ll find representatives from other groups, such as the Paideia Institute, as well. It’s always worth spending time browsing the tables and learning about what other people in our field are doing. If you’ve never heard of an institution before, don’t hesitate to ask the representative what they do! There’s often Classics-themed swag to be had, sometimes even things like raffles with prizes. And a matter of extreme importance at any conference: when the program indicates that a break has a sponsor, that usually means that there will be complimentary coffee, and sometimes snacks, available for all in the exhibition room.

What do people wear?

The standard of dress at CAMWS, as at other academic conferences, is business attire. This is because the context of an academic conference is professional. Some attendees will dress more formally than others. The majority of men wear suits and ties, though quite a few will forego the coat or the tie, or even both. The majority of women wear slacks or skirt and a blouse, blazer, or nice sweater. Some wear pantsuits. Some wear business/professional dresses. Heels are neither necessary nor out of place. It is also the case that there are usually a few attendees who dress more casually. I have seen both grad students and faculty who have worn jeans vel sim. at CAMWS. I have also on occasion heard people comment on the appropriateness of such casual choices.

For the Friday evening banquet, some people will dress more formally than during the day (think evening wear), but many if not most will wear what they’ve been wearing that day. Another consideration for first-timers is that if you’re staying at the conference hotel, you may well end up unexpectedly in close quarters with other attendees outside of conference events. Thus, if it would embarrass you to run into a distinguished professor at the ice machine while wearing your pajamas, take heed.

In addition to this more descriptive than prescriptive discussion of dress (that is the intent, at least), I would also like to acknowledge that it has long been observed that standards of professional dress have historically tended to be sexist, cis- and hetero-normative, and racist. It can also be the case that professional dress is beyond the means of grad students subsisting on meager stipends. It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to delve into the full history of this issue, or survey the array of possible responses. For many of us, the extent to which our identity puts us outside the dominant norm combines with the anxiety that many grad students feel in a conference setting that they are constantly being judged by others. What I said in the question about socializing, I believe, holds true about dress as well: I cannot guarantee that you won’t meet someone who judges you unfairly on the basis of your appearance, but I do believe that when you’re presenting your paper, for instance, the vast majority of your audience will be more interested in the quality of your argument and presentation than in the price tag of your outfit.

For those who are gender non-conforming or non-binary, I cannot pretend to any personal knowledge of how to navigate dress in this particular context, but I have marshaled a few resources that I hope may prove helpful:

How to Dress for an Interview as a Butch Dyke (from The Professor Is In)

Gender Neutral Interview and Business Clothing (from The Balance)

Dressing Professionally as an LGBTQ/Non-Binary Grad Student (from The OUTgroup Project) [Site no longer available]

How do you give a successful conference paper?

This is a huge topic that can’t really be answered fully in such a short post, but these tips that may help.

  • Finish writing your paper and handout or powerpoint before you leave for the conference. It’s one thing to tweak the odd sentence or two in your final read-through before your panel, but if you are doing substantial writing in the airport and/or hotel room, the quality will likely suffer. You will also probably be much more stressed out. It’s also important to think about how your ability to be fully engaged as a conference participant will suffer if you’re holed up in your room instead of hearing papers and meeting people.
  • Practice presenting your paper before you arrive, ideally in front of other people. Many departments are perfectly willing to hold mock conference panels for graduate students who are presenting at conferences; some even do so as a matter of course. This is an excellent opportunity to get specific feedback from faculty and fellow grad students about how to improve your paper prior to the main event. You can always request such a practice session from your DGS, chair, or placement officer, provided you leave them enough time to organize it (at least a few weeks). If faculty are unable to hold a practice session, ask some of your peers if they would listen to you read your paper. Barring that, a mirror or even your cat can give you some much needed practice.
  • Do not exceed the allotted time for speaking. This is one of the reasons why practicing is important! If you know your paper is too long, edit it down (at an average of 2 minutes reading aloud to 1 Word page, 12 pt. font, double spaced, a CAMWS paper should not be more than 7.5 pages). Do not speed up your delivery to make time, or people will not be able to follow your presentation.
  • Remember that the medium of your paper is oral delivery, which means that some elements of style and structure that make for good prose writing will not work as well in this context. Remember that long, periodic sentences are harder to listen to than shorter sentences. Lists of numbers (such as passage citations) are hard to follow. Quotations in Greek, Latin, or any other language are hard to follow if the audience can’t read along with you on the screen or on your handout. Be sure to give your thesis at both the beginning and the end of the paper, and as you’re describing your evidence, make sure to say explicitly how it connects to your argument. As one of my professors once told me, to write a good oral presentation, “at the beginning of your paper, you have to tell them what you’re going to tell them. In the middle, tell them what you’re telling them. At the end, tell them what you told them.”
  • Your handout or powerpoint should aid your audience in understanding your argument, not hinder it. To that end, make sure all passages you quote appear there (with full citations), as well as citations for any secondary scholarship you mention (you should have a bibliography). Don’t give huge blocks of Greek or Latin text to which you refer only briefly and expect your audience to be able to read and ponder while you’re reading your paper. They will either read the text or listen to your argument; it’s impossible to do both. If you print your translation of a text (which you should if you read it in your paper), make sure the translation you print matches the translation you read.
  • In the future, whenever your hear paper presentations, make mental (or actual) notes about what works or doesn’t work, and imitate the good while avoiding the … less good.
  • Try to get a good night’s sleep the night before your presentation, and mind your Ps and Qs. The florescent lighting of the conference rooms will not be improved by a hangover!

What do I do if someone is rude during my Q & A?

You’ve probably heard horror stories about what can happen during a Q & A. First of all, it is very unlikely that you will have an audience member whose behavior toward you is rude or inappropriate. CAMWS in particular is known for having a friendly environment for grad student speakers. Of course, once in a blue moon, someone may hijack a Q & A period as a soapbox for their own work, or decide to excoriate a speaker for utilizing the work of a scholar with whom they disagree, or make some similar display of a total lack of professional decorum. In the unlikely event that this happens to you, know that at least 99% of the people in the room will think that the person is behaving poorly and will sympathize with you. They are the ones who look bad, and it’s not a poor reflection on you as a scholar that someone else decided to behave so unprofessionally.

That’s all well and good, but it feels really bad to have this happen! What do you do?! Try to stay calm and poised. Take a deep breath (or three). I see two basic strategies. The first is ignore the rudeness, either by giving a brief comment (“Thank you for your observation. Are there any other questions?”), or with a lengthier response that steers the conversation back to the specifics of your argument but without addressing the rude behavior. The second strategy is to stand your ground. If someone is being truly rude, don’t pay them back in kind (that is unprofessional), but it’s also OK to acknowledge what’s happening. You can say something like, “That tone isn’t necessary, but my use of so-and-so’s arguments about text X is perfectly valid because of Y and Z.” Or, for the soap-boxer, it’s legitimate to ask what the relevance of their musings is to the specifics of their arguments, especially if you can do it tactfully (and with an eye on the clock). Whatever happens, try not to respond with heat or let yourself get too flustered (this is hard)! You can deliver a profanity-laden rant about the experience to your friends over beers later (ideally not within earshot of other conference attendees); while you’re still at the podium, if you can stay calm, collected, and come across as professional in the interaction, you will win the exchange in the minds of your audience.

Remember that it’s normal to feel bad about receiving any criticism, and you may receive legitimate criticism from an audience member which may feel bad even though your critic has not behaved poorly. One reason why practicing your paper in front of faculty and peers is so important is that they can help you prepare to answer valid criticism.

Any advice on not breaking the bank for someone living on a grad student stipend?

In addition to applying for travel grants to offset your costs and claiming the discounts from CAMWS, you can almost always save more money on your flight and hotel. You can search and compare Hopper and Skyscanner to identify the cheapest flights or bundle your flight and hotel (as well as car rental, if needed) with similar services (e.g., Expedia, Kayak, etc.) to save. (Keep in mind that certain airlines [e.g., Southwest, Frontier, Spirit, etc.] will not appear in these searches. Take the time to check these prices before buying your ticket to guarantee the best rate possible). Most of these services will allow you to set alerts that will inform you when is the best time to buy your ticket. While many websites claim to offer the lowest rates on hotel rooms, the official hotel website usually has the best price. Nevertheless, websites like Trivago can help you research hotels more quickly. Lastly, with the advent of Airbnb and Homeaway, you can almost always find cheap accommodations very close to university/hotel where the conference is being held.


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