Grad Tips: Conferences

May 13, 2024

By Katya Hrichak

As a graduate student, you have a lot to learn. Scholarship and research aside, there are many facets of the graduate school experience that are important to your success but might not be obvious or easy to figure out. Between achieving a sense of well-being, attending to basic needs, maintaining relationships or caring for others, etc., there’s a lot to keep track of.

The Graduate School is here to help. With the Grad Tips series, we’ll be providing insight into different aspects of the graduate student experience, sharing tips and advice on how to get the most out of your time at Cornell. To vote on the next topic in the series, check for a poll in upcoming issues of the Graduate School newsletter, News and Events.

This week’s topic: conferences.

Professional development opportunities come in many forms. One of the ways graduate and professional students can enhance their scholarship, practice a number of transferable skills, and prepare for their futures is by attending conferences.

What is a conference? What types of conferences are there and who can attend?

A conference is a formal gathering of individuals around a chosen topic. The gathering can range from small to large in size, and the topic can be narrow or broad, focusing on one specialized subsection of a discipline or a larger thematic area.

Some conferences are designed for academics specifically, while others are geared toward industry professionals. Still others invite a mix of individuals, comprising researchers, industry professionals, policymakers, advocates, and others. The intended audience depends largely on the conference’s focus and aims.

Graduate students are often encouraged to not only attend conferences, but also present talks and posters. The capacity in which students attend will be shaped by how far into their program they are, what results or work they have to share, and what they hope to accomplish by attending.

How do I find a conference to attend?

A great place for students to start is by talking to their advisors. Advisors are knowledgeable about conferences held in their disciplines as well as their advisees’ work and can provide guidance on which conferences students might best be suited for. Other professors or postdocs in the field and advanced graduate students in the program can suggest specific conferences too. Another option is checking professional organizations’ websites for upcoming events and searching the internet using research keywords.

“It’s all about building backwards from your goals,” said Susi Varvayanis, executive director of Careers Beyond Academia, housed in the Graduate School’s Office of Career and Professional Development. “You don’t always have to have a specific goal going into a conference, but you can be strategic about the conferences you choose based on your larger goals.”

According to Varvayanis, it is also important to take into consideration a student’s comfort level. Someone who identifies as an introvert, for example, might not want to attend a large conference with thousands of attendees for their first experience, instead choosing one with a few dozen.

“There are pros and cons of every type of conference, so you have to evaluate those to help them match your goals and stage and what you want to get out of it,” she said.

Why should I attend conferences? How will I benefit?

In a word, Varvayanis says: “Exposure.”

Conferences provide students with exposure to the research taking place in their field, experts and other students with shared interests, topics and ideas that could spark future projects, possible sources of funding, and even potential career paths and opportunities.

The academic growth a conference can prompt is important, but so, too, is beginning to curate a network containing potential mentors, peers, collaborators, and even employers. Plus, traveling to a new destination could help rule the location in or out for a future job.

When giving a presentation, students have the opportunity to practice research communication skills and get feedback on their work while also adding to their CVs. When attending in any capacity, students have an opportunity to learn. It’s important for students to present later on in their academic careers, but attending early in graduate school can prove just as beneficial.

What can I do to prepare for a conference as an attendee?

All students should practice introducing themselves and their research succinctly before attending. Rehearsing an introduction with peers can provide a good opportunity to receive feedback and become comfortable with introductions before attending a conference. It can also be helpful to review suggestions for getting the most out of chances to network. Cornell Career Services offers an online toolkit that contains pointers for successful networking, along with other helpful career tips.

Other preparation will depend on individual comfort zones. More extroverted students may already be comfortable with approaching  and striking up conversations with new individuals, but for introverted students, this may take more work. Practice can take many forms and occur in low-stakes environments: chatting with a stranger on the bus, another student in class, someone in the coffee line, etc.

What can I do to prepare for a conference as a presenter?

Deciding to prioritize a presentation a month away when more urgent tasks must be done sooner can be challenging, but preparing in advance will aid success. Students who prepare their presentations early have a chance to practice with peers and solicit feedback before giving the presentation.

Careers Beyond Academia offers workshops on preparing for conferences and giving talks and provides opportunities for students to lead panels or seminars on campus, all of which can make them that much more ready for a conference presentation.

“Invest some time early on and that will have huge benefits later,” said Varvayanis.

In addition to practicing a talk or poster session, students can make use of the poster and specialty printing available at Mann Library on campus. This, too, will require additional considerations, including if it will be printed on paper or fabric, whether or not a tube will be needed for transport, etc.

Is there any financial support to attend a conference?

There are many places students can look for financial support for conferences, though most funding opportunities will not cover the entirety of the expenses and will need to be supplemented. Because of this, Varvayanis recommends being strategic about which conferences students choose to attend.

The Graduate School offers Conference Grants to students presenting, whether online or in-person. Grant totals vary based on location and are awarded to eligible students once per year, though grant applications are rolling.

Students’ advisors and fields may also offer funding opportunities, and some fellowships allow funds to be used for professional development. It is also worth looking for mission-aligned funding opportunities and grants from campus organizations, such as the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the Einaudi Center, and others.

Careers Beyond Academia offers guidance and funding to eligible students, postdocs and collaborative groups to create their own activities that will help them gain skills needed for conferences, by initiating or supplementing career and professional development aspects to one right on campus.