I attended my first national conferences last year for professional organizations in my field, The National Council on Family Relations and The Association of Family & Conciliation Courts. I had worked with a few professors, and our conference proposals were accepted. I was stoked because 1 – I got free trips to California and Arizona, 2 – I was excited to present my research and learn from other research presentations (yes, I am a dork), and 3 – I knew I would be applying for graduate schools this year and these conferences would be a great opportunity to network with students and professors at other Universities! At the same time, I had no idea what to do with myself. So, I talked to my professors and other mentors about what I should wear, how I should approach others at the conferences, and how I could make the most out of my conference experiences. Was the process intimidating at times? Yes. But, I survived and you will too. One of the most valuable things I learned was how to approach professors and professionals I was interested in working with.
From my own online searches and discussions with my professors, I learned that “best practices” for approaching a professor at a conference include four stages: pre-conference, at the conference, the interaction, and post-conference.
Pre-conference: A lot of anxiety can be avoided by doing your homework. Research what the professors have been up to (projects, manuscripts, presentations, and other scholarly activities they are involved in). Sound a little stalker-like? Maybe. Yet, it will help you to have a better understanding of what you want to ask them, help you to be more knowledgeable, and show them that you can take initiative. Also, it is important to rehearse what you want them to know about you and what you want to ask them. Being able to articulate your own interests will help you to stand out more. If you are applying to graduate schools, you could email some professors and ask them if they would be willing and able to meet with you at the conference. If not, you can look at the conference program and see when they are speaking, so you know which sessions you want to go to when you get there.
At the conference: Dress appropriately. What is appropriate? Ask your professors or mentors what typical attire is, but I’d rule out jeans and your hello kitty t-shirt. Do you drink alcohol if everyone around you is at the conference? This is a personal preference, but see the Career Skillet article, Alcohol Dilemma for more tips in that regard. Attend session, be friendly, and do not hesitate to put yourself out there and introduce yourself to those professors you have been following or are interested in working with! If you planned to go to sessions that professionals you want to meet will be at, put yourself out there and introduce yourself. Tell them you are interested in their work. IF that person is presenting, you might want to wait until after their presentation is over to approach them (I was told to go up to them AFTER because they might be trying to get ready or more stressed before their presentation).
The interaction: It’s easy to be intimidated by these grand professionals who have done so many wonderful things, but remember they may be looking to interact with people just like you who are interested in their work and excited about the opportunity to work with them in the future. Smile. Show them you are happy to be there. They will likely lead the conversation. Engage. Ask questions. Listen to what they are saying. Give them your contact information.
Post-conference: Follow-up and show gratitude. Thank them for taking the time to meet or talk with you. Tell them something you learned from the interaction. How and what you say when you follow-up with professors after the conference may be different, depending on your goals, whether or not the interaction was positive, and what you learned from the interaction.
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