With questions about college debt and gainful employment weighing heavily on the minds of most college students, one surefire way to help connect a college degree with employment is often missed: attending professional conferences.
Here are six tips to speed you on your way to connecting your degree to a career.
If you were playing college baseball, and you had a chance to be part of one of the teams in the World Series, would you hesitate? If you had a chance to meet your favorite celebrity or maybe even to intern for him or her, wouldn’t you show up? Professional conferences can provide a similar big league opportunity in your own field of study.
As Allison M. Vaillancourt of The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in “Making the Most of Professional Conferences,” the adage, “It’s not who you know, but who knows you” (3 October, 2011) holds true for those who want to enhance their careers. Professional conferences are basically annual gatherings of the movers and shakers within certain fields of study, and you want them to get to know you.
From a couple of days to a week each year, many professional organizations sponsor an event for their members to participate in presentations on the latest best practices in their field, to visit with vendors who provide support (e.g. technology) specific to a career, to socialize and get acquainted with one another, etc. The overall goal is to advance the profession by strengthening knowledge and relationships.
Almost all careers have these conferences. To find professional organizations and the events they may sponsor, consult online databases, career description resources that link to professional organizations (e.g., The Occupational Outlook Handbook,) or simply ask professors and others working in your subject of interest what conferences they attend and which ones are the best.
Conferences can be expensive, but many offer student discounts and/or take place regionally, which makes them less costly. Some may also offer free attendance to students who volunteer to help out. They are also well worth it in terms of the opportunities they provide to enhance scholarship.
It may help to realize that attending a conference is a pleasant way to obtain more in-depth information about your career and its various specializations and opportunities. This will help augment what you are learning in your classes about your field of study.
A nursing student, for example, who attends the American Nursing Association’s 7th Annual Nursing Quality Conference in February of 2013 will have a chance to learn more about areas such as “Cultures of Safety, New Technologies, Research and Evidence to Practice, and Patient Engagement in Quality” (2012). Although some of this may be covered in nursing classes, a student attendee will have some additional information to share with classmates and professors.
Furthermore, it’s vital to your success to learn how to communicate within your field. What are the social “dos and don’ts” and what are the trending topics among professionals? What areas are of interest to you as you move forward in your education and career?
Obtain Cutting-edge Information
The opportunity for scholarship goes even deeper at professional conferences. Think about it. These events tend to draw those presenters who are taking the lead in their professions. You may learn about trends, developments, advances and other such cutting-edge advancements years before they become known to the general population.
For instance, as an Information Technology student who attends next year’s 2013 IT Futures Summit at Microsoft, you may learn more about “new Microsoft initiatives, innovations, and products and subsequently the impacts, challenges, growth, demands of technology as it relates to education” (2012). There may also be sessions geared specifically toward advancing in a new(er) area of your field of study. Last year’s IT Futures Summit, as an example, featured keynote speaker Lee Anne Caylor, Director of Programs, Microsoft Learning, who spoke on the topic of Workforce Readiness for and through the Cloud (2012).
Don’t you want to be the student who has this forward-looking information to share in your classes and to make use of as you pursue your career post graduation? Be proactive. Get involved.
As wonderful as this all is, don’t just sit there. Participate! Vaillancourt offers two good tips:
• “Review the attendee list in advance.” Then pick a few presenters whose sessions you will attend. Introduce yourself to them and engage them in a discussion about their work. Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to let them know you are a student interested in their work. They’ve been where you are, and most will be more than happy to provide further information and guidance to you.
• “Thank your presenters” and “send follow up emails” that show you appreciated the hard work they put into the session, the information they shared, and the opportunities to apply new knowledge in your own academic and professional life. (6 October, 2011)
As you follow these suggestions, share your own interests as well. You are an attendee at the event, so participate in the ongoing conversation. Don’t shy away from vendors either. Some of them may have resources you should or could know about to help advance your career.
Take participating a step beyond the presentations and formal events. Conferences often offer some free meals, and if that isn’t enough to entice a student, you may also get to sit with some of those you most admire in your field, giving you a chance to get to know them in a more relaxed setting.
Here Vaillancourt says you should:
• Not “sit with people you recognize,” but choose those whom you do not know and use the opportunity to get better acquainted. For example, I did this at the last conference I attended and ended up at a table with the organization’s leaders. I also met attendees from the university that won an award my own university intends to apply for next year. All within about a 45-minute conversation.
• “Help others forge connections.” You might introduce those you know to those you’ve just met. I introduced my colleagues to those “strangers” I had just befriended. You could also follow up when you return home with additional resources or information.
• “Challenge your inner introvert to attend the social functions.” Especially if this is your first professional conference or you feel intimidated by the big leaguers in attendance, you may want to avoid some of the social events, but avoid the temptation. Vaillancourt makes an excellent suggestion to challenge yourself to attend an event for at least an hour. Look for an empty seat in a group, someone else who seems a bit uncomfortable, or an opportunity to pitch in to help with something. I once helped pass out sample books to conference attendees, and it really became an ice-breaker for me as I also got to work the room and get to know others a bit. (6 October, 2012)
Finally, think about long term involvement. If the conference met or exceeded your hopes and expectations, consider joining the organization. Get on their mailing list, check out their electronic resources, see if there are some committees you can join—anything which will help keep you involved throughout the remainder of your education and into your career.
Memberships in these organizations look good when applying for jobs, especially if you can say that you’ve attended events, that you keep up-to-date on the latest developments in the field via their resources, or that you helped in some way. They also often sponsor job listings or even other forms of gainful employment assistance.
Moving forward past your first visit, consider submitting a presentation proposal with some colleagues. Poster presentations are a good first step as you merely set up a display with information and discuss it with those passing through the room similar to what you probably did at your middle school science fair.
Now that you know about this often overlooked technique to get your academic and professional career on the fast-track, why would you wait? Be sure to report your experience and make additional suggestions in the “comments” area below this post or via any of my social media accounts.
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