Tips for Attending Your First STEM Conference

Fall is definitely conference season.  As a STEM major there are many valuable conferences that you may wish to attend.  If you’re planning to attend a conference whether it be a regional or national conference here are some tips to optimize your experience.

1) ALERT YOUR PROFESSORS

Since you’ll likely be missing a few days of class you should let your professors (and TA’s) know as soon as you find out you’re going to the conference. Email is best but be sure to do this well in advance. If you don’t get a response then talk to them in person. Once you’ve confirmed then follow up with an email thanking them for accommodating you so that you can attend the conference.

What do you say? As with most professors a concise email is best but be sure to explain the nature of the conference. Spell out any acronyms and include a link to the conference site to give them even more information. If you’re presenting a poster or giving a technical talk even better. I once had a student whose professor asked her if she wanted to present her research talk to the class to prepare. The professor was so impressed with her talk that he invited her to work in her lab as a researcher. Professors are very supportive and understand the value of these types of professional development opportunities. But remember the sooner you let them know the better.

2) MAKE A SCHEDULE

Take a look at the conference schedule and plan out the workshops that speak to you. 
Although you’ll likely get a hard copy of the conference at the registration be proactive and make up your own schedule.  Some workshops might be limited or require advance registrations so you’ll be glad that you have looked at the schedule beforehand. 

3) UPLOAD YOUR RESUME & BRING PRINTED COPIES

If you have the option, upload your resume.  Many conferences ask that students upload copies of their resumes.  Before you upload your resume go to your campus’ Career Center or another reliable source to get your resume critiqued. Always save your resumes as PDF that way you can be sure the formatting isn’t weird. 

4) BRING BUSINESS CARDS AND USE THEM

Who do you give business cards to?  Speakers, students from other schools,upper division students,  industry representatives, and anyone else that you’d like to connect with after the conference.  

What should you include on your business cards? 
You can easily create business cards and include the basics such as:
Your first and last name
Major
Year you will graduate
Phone number 
LinkedIn URL (optional but recommended)
If you do include a LInkedin URL be sure to customize it as much as possible.  
If you have your own website include that as well. 

5) UNPLUG YOUR LAPTOP AND PLUG INTO THE OPPORTUNITIES THAT AWAIT YOU

If you’re flying to the conference then this is a great time to catch up on homework, however,  once you step off the plane plan to fully engage. Do not stay in your room the whole time studying. Remember the reason why you decided to come to the conference in the first place which is to network and for professional development.

6) GO TO THE CAREER FAIR AND/OR RESEARCH FAIR

If your conference has a Career Fair be sure to  scan the list of all of the companies scheduled to attend.If you’ve uploaded a copy of your resume you’ll likely be contacted.  Be sure you know what the company does before you talk to them at the career fair.

Research Fairs are similar to career fairs but instead of companies you’ll find universities and labs promoting research programs (REU programs) and graduate school programs. 

It is never too early or too late to visit either the Career Fair or the Research Fair. Thinking about graduate school?   Ask if the graduate program has a Graduate Preview Day. Many schools will fly students out to schools (for free) to introduce them to their graduate programs.

Fun Fact: many schools will give graduate school fee waivers to conference attendees so don’t be shy about asking about fee waivers

7) DRESS FOR SUCCESS

Business casual is always a good option but business professional is even better. Maybe even bring something formal is there’s a formal banquet.  But formal doesn’t mean club clothes it means business professional. Think about what you might wear to an interview because attending a conference in some ways is an interview and if you play your cards right at the career fair you’ll likely get an interview!  

Collared shirts or a nice blouse are good choices. No ripped jeans or faded jeans. If you do wear jeans make sure that they are dark jeans and pair them with a nice blazer.  No shorts or tank tops. Also, if you’re wearing a suit be sure to wear dark dress socks. Nothing ruins a great suit worse than a pair bright white gym socks.  Always wear comfortable shoes since you’ll likely be doing a lot of walking.  If you’re a West Coast person you’ll notice that folks on the East Coast tend to dress a little more formal.  You might even see snow for the first time!  

Quick Tip:  Wear your school sweatshirt or t-shirt when you’re traveling to the airport of during times when you can wear casual attire. It’s a great way to connect with people especially alums from your school who might be attending the conference.

8) WEAR YOUR CONFERENCE NAME BADGE

There’s nothing worse than getting up early going downstairs to start your day at the conference and forgetting your name badge. Forget your badge and you’ll either need to walk back (or even worse take the shuttle) back to your hotel and get it. If you lose it, you might even have to pay.  Think of your name badge as your key because it literally is, it’s your key to getting into the conference so don’t lose it.

Once you attend you’re first conference then you’ll likely be looking to attend more. Check out these upcoming Diversity Focused STEM Conferences.

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