Just last month, I had the opportunity to attend my first academic conference! The title of the conference was SWPACA (short for Southwest Popular/American Culture Association), located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I presented a postmortem of a board game that I designed about the Anti-transgender Bathroom Bill. The conference had its own area for game studies people. Going into the experience, I was beyond nervous. I didn't know what to expect or how to prepare. However, it turned out to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life - the atmosphere created by the attendees was so accepting and encouraging. I wanted to pass on some sage advice for other undergraduates or graduate students who may be in the same position that I was in.
1) Pack a water bottle.
It's important to stay hydrated! Especially if you're presenting... And also nervous about presenting. Drinking water will help combat a pesky dry mouth when you're speaking. It will also help you feel physically better after adjusting to new cuisine. (The food in New Mexico is so spicy, oh my lord.)
2) Write questions down for presenters while they're presenting.
Conferences can be intellectually exhausting. Every new voice presents more information and argues different points. It's hard to be diligent with your attention for the duration of the event. When it comes time for Q and A, you may find that you only vaguely remember the first and last things said. This makes it hard to ask meaningful questions. If you take notes or write questions down in the moment, it will be much easier for you to engage in the discussion afterwards.
3) If you're at a panel and it's Q and A time, ask questions of those who haven't been asked questions.
Someone has taken the time to research and investigate an interesting topic! Encourage them and respect their work by asking them a question. It will make you feel good to participate and it will make the presenter feel good that someone listened to them and cared enough to take it a step further.
4) When you meet someone, make sure you find a way to stay connected.
Build your professional network! The more that people know your name, the better! You might meet someone who is doing work related to yours or who you would enjoy keeping in contact with. That opens up an opportunity for future collaboration. Don't let the conversation end until you've exchanged email addresses or Twitter handles. (As a side note, if you want to start a conversation with someone who had a wonderful presentation, just walk up and ask them for a copy of their paper. Then go from there.)
5) Pay attention to recurring cited works.
Knowing what things people in your area of study are citing is valuable. If an authors name keeps appearing and you haven't read any of their publications, consider adding them to a reading list. This will not only help you stay current on the research being done, but it also may introduce you to seminal material that will enrich your academic perspective.
Post image from the SWPACA Website.