Attending a conference, especially if it is your first one, can be very scary. However, it is almost essential to any graduate student or postgraduate student to stay current and up-to-date with the latest research and professional issues of the counseling field. If you are currently planning to attend a conference or the thought of going to a conference increases your stress, then this post is here to offer support. Surviving and thriving at conferences can be an overwhelming task whether it is your first conference or you just feel like you would appreciate some extra guidance. This post will not cover every aspect of a conference, but I do hope that it will provide a few tips and ideas to help you survive the conference season. It is important to remember, as well, that these tips are just suggestions, and you will find that sometimes they do not apply (i.e., a local compared to a national conference). Given that, I would like to start with a tip that can apply to any conference.
I realize that a conference is a professional event, and we should respect that; however, conferences are also a celebration of counseling as a profession and the counselors that thrive within it. To celebrate in this way requires enjoyment and fun. My first semester in my master’s program, I presented for an hour with a colleague at the state counseling conference and I remember feeling terrified and not very excited as I was getting ready for the conference. Some of this was clearly related to presentation anxiety; however, it was also my perception that I had to maintain a professional image for the entirety of the event. I barely looked at what sessions I wanted to attend, and the conference had become a work activity instead of something in which I could find enjoyment. I struggled with being able to separate my one presentation from the rest of the conference. Since that experience, I have made an effort not to let that happen again and have created more balance between professionalism and having fun. Conferences are about letting yourself enjoy what you are learning as well as networking regardless of what actually occurs. It can be a difficult mentality to maintain during a conference; however, I challenge you to find that balance.
There are two general rules I follow and find to be helpful when it comes to the question of “What do I wear?” The first is always, always, always bring comfortable footwear. Even at a relatively small conference, you will most likely be walking more than usual, and even shoes that you think are comfortable may not always be your best bet. The kinds of footwear you bring will be somewhat dependent on your role at the conference, and if you need more professional attire, I suggest you wear uncomfortable shoes during the presentation and bring a more comfortable pair with you so that you may change. This might not be feasible all the time. However, it could be life-changing if you are stressing about comfort and longevity. The second rule for your wardrobe at a conference is to wear layers or have the option to do so. You can generally prepare for the weather outside, but it is almost impossible to prepare for the temperatures inside the conference space. Bringing a cardigan or jacket can come in handy when trying to match the temperature in room. Also, be sure to pay attention to the attire requirements of the conference you are attending, most conferences will let you state “no ripped jeans” or “business or business casual attire is required”.
Personal Care at the Conference
There are many things that could be listed in a section devoted to other items potentially needed at a conference. In fact, there are too many options to cover them all, so I will highlight a few of the ones that are roughly universal. The first is personal care products. One thing that is often overlooked in planning is the fact that you will potentially be sitting in rooms with anywhere from 10 to 1,000+ of your fellow professionals. Along with the previous tip regarding indoor temperatures, this means there is a high probability that extra care will be needed to handle perspiration. One thing I have learned at conferences is that the clinical strength or strongest antiperspirant/deodorant is both my friend and yours when unable to go back to the hotel room during the day. I also recommend bringing some pain reliever (Tylenol, Advil, etc.) as it can be incredibly frustrating to be in the middle of a session during those long days and to be without a way to relieve the pressure. This is especially true in multi-day conferences, and the need is more likely to increase with each new day. Along with the pain reliever, I would recommend cough drops or lozenges.
Another courtesy that many might not consider is to decrease or eliminate wearing perfume/cologne during the conference (or at least during sessions; social events can be a bit different). There are many individuals that suffer severe headaches, allergies, and other concerns when in close proximity to powerful scents. Be mindful that smelling like flower is not always the best choice when amongst a large number of people.
Conferences are pricey and if you have ever found yourself hungry or thirsty only to find that the only options are on the other side of the venue, or seem to cost more than you prefer, then it might be worth considering bringing your own small snacks and a water bottle. A water bottle can be incredibly handy, especially if it can hold hot or cold beverages. You can potentially bring some coffee or tea with you in the morning and have some water throughout the day. There are many options to consider when bringing snacks, and it is best if they are easy to carry. Having them as a booster throughout the day can be the one thing that keeps you on track. Suggestions for easy snacks include fruit, granola bars, mints, and gum. An important note here: make sure to follow the venue policies related to food and beverages.
Planning your schedule
Deciding what sessions and events to go to is often an overwhelming task. Luckily, many conferences, big and small, help by providing multiple resources that can be used to guide your path. If possible, take some time to sit down with the conference program in advance and review it. Many conferences now provide a digital copy of their program via their websites.Taking the time to identify any items that are “must attend” will not only help you to pick different sessions but also will help you to familiarize yourself with the venue and manage your time. Similarly, the same can be applied if the conference utilizes an app to distribute its program. Many conferences use apps to display their conference schedule as well as events. Some will even include evaluations, messaging, and maps, all of which are meant to help you while at the conference.
Another highly related aspect of this is that a flexible attitude is necessary at the conference. There will almost certainly be sessions and events scheduled simultaneously that you'll want to attend both. There will also be things going on that may not have been on the schedule beforehand (even at the most well-planned events) and last minute changes are probably going to happen. Coming into a conference with the flexibility to handle these situations will help decrease much of the stress that can occur. Finally, don’t forget to visit the exhibit halls. For my first few conferences, I briefly walked through them and did not take in all that was being offered. I felt like they did not apply to me in the beginning. Similarly, as a graduate student or new professional, you may also feel the products and materials being shown in exhibit halls might feel like they do not involve you. However, they can have significant value. I have since found that rarely are exhibit halls void of material for students and new professionals.
As mentioned earlier in this post, conferences are professional events that allow colleagues, new professionals, faculty/staff, and other members of the counseling field to get together and learn the latest research or best practices. It is also a time where attendees are able to meet individuals from across the country. Some of these meetings will be in a more social gathering, while others might be more formal or related to employment. In a broad sense, this is all networking, and for many, it is the number one reason to attend conferences. This means that being comfortable and prepared to network can be an incredibly useful skill. The next blog post will discuss tips for networking, so stay tuned!
Lukas Presley is a Board Certified Counselor, Provisionally Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Missouri, and a doctoral student at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. His research interests include counseling adoptees and their families, LGBT advocacy, Counselor Self-efficacy, and counseling individuals living with long-term illness.
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