How to Make the Most of a Conference

A few weeks ago, I attended a research conference specifically aimed at creative writing researchers and their supervisors. Though I have attended writers’ conferences and festivals in the past, this conference was different. Perhaps this was due to the specificity of the conference, the cosy number of attendees (30-40) or the individuals themselves. Perhaps the main reason why the conference was different is that nobody was trying to get something out of anyone else. We weren’t there to pitch to agents, publishers or editors and we weren’t there to have a D&M with a beloved author. If anything, people were attending the conference with the specific intention of connecting with other researchers/writers, not because they want to “get” something out of that exchange, but because they want to learn from others’ experiences while sharing some of their own insights. With that sentiment in mind, I wanted to talk about the five things you can do to get the most out of a conference experience.

If you prefer to consume video content, you can find the YouTube version of this blog here.

Network, but not in a gross way

As we all know, writing can be a lonely business, but the plus of attending a writing conference is that everyone there will be just as socially awkward and weird as you. 🙂

I have to admit that the conference I attended had a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere. I felt as though I could have gone up to anyone and struck up a conversation because a) I already know what their interests are, researching and writing, and b) we were all there for the same reason, to connect with other researchers/writers.

To be completely transparent, most of the students I spent my time with were from my university. I wasn’t treating them as a personal safety net, I just hadn’t met any of them before! I am currently halfway through Honours while the other students were a combination of on and off campus, Ph.D. and Doctorate students. For this reason, our paths had never crossed. The being said, I did have some great chats with students and supervisors from other universities, but I’ll admit that most of my break sessions were spent socialising with my own university cohort.

Put a face to the name and introduce yourself

There were several lecturers and researchers whose names and publications I was familiar with. Personally, I think it’s pretty cool to put a face to a name and to see the real live human being behind the academic papers I’ve read and journals I’ve submitted to. You don’t have to talk their ear off, but a quick hello and “I read your paper on [insert topic]” is always nice.

Learn from others

One of the most exciting things that came out of the conference was the ability to hear from other students who were further down the academic path than myself. Obviously, everyone’s “journey” (I hate that word!) is different and yet there were several topics that came up repeatedly over the course of the two days.
Here are a few:

Managing time and stress

I don’t think I need to unpack this one too much, but one of the biggest issues for students was a desire to reduce their stress level and to become more efficient with their time. Obviously, there is no “one-size” fits all solution to this problem. However, some of the advice that did crop up during group discussions was a need to figure out a system that works for YOU. Students need to figure out if they’re a morning person or night person, if they’re self-driven or a procrastinator, if they’re good at meeting deadlines or not, if they’re good at handling stress or not, if they’re good at prioritising, organising, researching, writing, editing, rewriting, analysing on and on and on.

Whatever your weaknesses are, you then need to figure out how you’re going to work with or around that weakness. If you’re a procrastinator, maybe you can set up fortnightly meetings with your supervisor or have a weekly “accountability” meeting with another research student. Only you can design a system that is going to work for you, your lifestyle and responsibilities. This is one step that cannot be “winged.”

In discussing time management, one student pointed out the need to view the project in blocks. You may spend two or three mornings doing nothing but reading and notetaking and then spend the next week writing. You may spend the first three months reading widely before going deep on one particular topic or area. It’s likely that you will cycle through stages of mostly reading, mostly researching and then mostly writing. To aim for a “balanced” day is to set yourself up for failure or burnout. You only have so many good hours in a day, so you need to prioritise what needs to get done now, and what can be done later.

The last six months is intense

Almost every student and supervisor said that the last six months of a Ph.D./Doctorate was intense. This is due to the (often) large volume of revisions that occur prior to the final submission. This particular tidbit was one of my biggest takeaways because SO many people said it! This final sprint before the finish line may be unavoidable, but knowing that this is a common trend amongst research student means that I can attempt to ease this situation for myself by having the appropriate processes and procedures in place.

Stress (again!) and Mental Health

The pastoral care offered by your supervisor is one thing, but there is a host of other ways to make sure that you aren’t slowly going insane. One way is by being engaged with other researcher and building a sense of community. I know that at some universities, the creative writing students have weekly on-campus meetings, monthly dinners or attend conferences/workshop together. Weekly meetings don’t have to be purely social. This time can be used to practice confirmation presentations or to critique one another’s journal submissions or creative works. Though… commiserating over lattes does have a certain appeal…

However, if you haven’t worked on your project in….a while….or if you’re starting to slip into depression, burnout or some other distressing mental state, it is important to know that there are counsellors and resources available through your university. Don’t wait to seek help!

Opportunities

One of the most exciting and unexpected things to come out of the conference was the opportunity to collaborate with other writers on other projects. By the end of the two-day symposium, a fellow researcher had invited me to be part of a research presentation by providing the “student perspective,” students from my own university decided to start an on-campus writers group, I joined the conference committee for next year and I volunteered to be a part of a different conference that is scheduled for the end of this year. I didn’t attend the conference with the intention of seeking out opportunities, I just wanted to learn and connect with other writers. The opportunity to collaborate with other writers and to join new communities was simply an added bonus!

Go for walk

As writers, you would think that we would have no problem sitting down all day, but by the time the second day rolled around I was eating my lunch while standing and taping my toes during seminars. Sitting down for 8-10 hours is actually pretty uncomfortable, so I highly recommend that you go for a walk before the conference begins. The reason I say before is that a) you’re going to be totally exhausted by the time the conference is over and b) you may get an invite from another writer to grab a coffee or drink after the conference, and you’re not going to want to turn down that down. This final tip may seem small and trivial, but I think it’s an important one!

There you have it, my top five steps for getting the most out of any conference! I know this week’s topic was pretty different from my normal blog content, but I hope you were able to find something useful in the above suggestions. If you enjoyed this blog or if you have any tips of your own to add, please leave a comment below!

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