Conference Survival Guide

Conferences are one of my favorite parts of engineering! The opportunity to learn from other engineers, get inspired and network all while visiting a new place is one of the coolest parts of being an engineering student. Right now I am in San Francisco at an IEEE conference learning about some of the newest circuit and chip technology. In this (longer than usual) post I’ll share everything from what conferences are and how to go to them, to what to wear and how to plan your days.

What is a conference?

There are a few different types of conferences you will come across in engineering. There are technical conferences that are focused on innovative technology and consist primarily of people presenting their work. There are also conferences that focus more on professional development, diversity, or leadership in engineering. Examples of this type of conference are SWE, NSBE, Grace Hopper Celebration and more.

How do you go?

Going to these conferences depends on the type of conference. Let’s start with the technical conferences. You typically go to these conferences if you submit a paper about your work and get accepted. This usually happens as a result of a research experience. This usually includes presenting at the conference. It could be a paper you are presenting or even a poster presentation. You might also go to one of these conferences if it is in your focus area and an advisor or professor encourages you to go.

You usually get to go to the other conferences if you are involved in the organization that puts the event on, or if you seek the conference out. For example, I attended the SWE conference every year with the SWE section of my school. I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration one year because I applied for a scholarship that covered the registration and travel costs and another year to recruit for my university.

How do you Pay?

This part is tricky and usually depends on your school. Most universities have funding for students to travel to technical conferences if they have work that is accepted. This typically includes registration and travel money.

For non-technical conferences, there are a lot of scholarship options to help you with the cost. If you are going with a student organization they may provide funding or your university may have funds as well. The trick here is to ask. Be prepared to explain what the conference is and how it will benefit you and / or your university. With SWE I often explained how I would share and implement what I learned at the conference in our section which could ultimately lead to more students getting internship offers.

Booking Travel

I won’t touch on this too much because everyone’s travel situation will be different but my big tip is to stay near the conference. Don’t think you will take a 20 minute uber every day to and from the conference to save money. You will probably end up spending more this way and you won’t be able to leave and sit in the quiet of your room in the middle of the day when you need a break.

Planning your day.

Conferences usually have an opening plenary or keynote session and then breakout sessions and sometimes social events at night. Look through the conference guide and plan your day ahead of time so you can go to the sessions you want. I like to go to the opening plenary or keynote sessions, take a little break, and then go to a few breakout sessions in the afternoons.

The trick here is to take breaks. Go to one or two sessions back to back and then take a 15-30 minute break to have some food, sit down, organize your notes and whatever else you need to do. Don’t give into the “I came all the way here so I have to go to everything” pressure because going to sessions back to back to back all day will make you miserable.

What to wear

This is never easy to figure out and it depends on the role you are playing at the conference. Though I’m all for self expression through clothing, there are some guidelines that make it clear that you care about the event and the people you are talking to. If you are speaking at a technical conference or going to a career fair Business professional is ideal. This means slacks, a skirt or a dress with a nice top and some kind of a jacket. It doesn’t have to be the black slaks and black blazer but a jacket along those lines helps you look more professional. 

If you are just attending or even speaking at a conference such as SWE my favorite outfit lately has been black jeans, a black top and a colored blazer or a patterned pencil skirt with a sweater.

I’ve also recently been wearing loafers. If you do wear heels make sure to bring a pair of sandals if you have to walk to and from the conference location.

The last suggestion I have, which I have yet to buy, Is a nice looking backpack, the kind that almost looks like a purse. Carrying a big purse around is rough especially if you have your laptop, charger, notebook, water bottle and extra shoes but my grey Northface backpack isn’t really the look I’m going for either. I’ll definitely be getting a cute backpack for the next conference.

At technical conferences, you can sometimes feel like you don’t understand any of the material being presented. The conference I am at now is super technical in an area I am new to, so I am using it as a way to identify gaps in my knowledge. As they talk about different techniques and technologies, I make a list of things to google or ask someone about later. I also find that I can understand the motivation for the work and use the presentations as an example of how to build a story around your work.

Don’t let the conference environment intimidate you. No one there knows everything about every topic and they all started out where you are now. Ask questions, ask other people you know what sessions they are going to and go with them.  Make a conscious effort to understand but don’t feel bad if you can’t!

Use conferences as an opportunity to learn but don’t take them too seriously and, if you travel, go out and see the city!

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