A College Girl’s Guide to Professional Conferences

October 25, 2017

Hello friends – I am writing from beautiful, sunny Austin, TX today!

I’m here to attend the Society of Women Engineers National Conference, and I couldn’t be more excited. Even though I’m missing class, opportunities to go to professional conferences are ones I almost never turn down.

If you’ve got a professional conference coming up, don’t worry if you don’t know where to start. I was pretty nervous for my first professional conference – I had no idea what to bring, wear, or how to prepare! But now that this isn’t my first rodeo (ha, get it? Because Texas.), I hope I can answer some of the pressing questions I had at my first ever conference experience.

The Basics

First – what is a professional conference?

A professional conference is a gathering of a bunch of people related to one industry or common purpose. For example, the Society of Women Engineers holds conferences every year for – you guessed it – female engineers.

It’s a really cool way to supplement your understanding of the industry or field you are currently in because there are so many opportunities to learn. Often times, conferences have a variety of events – panels, workshops, career fairs, lunches, and even research presentations!

What should I bring/wear?

Not to sound superficial or shallow, but this was honestly the hardest part for me at my first conference. I found myself uncomfortably dressed, lugging around a super heavy bag the entire day!

Learn from my mistakes – dress professionally, but also keep comfort in mind! You’re probably going to be on your feet for a good portion of the day, so now is not the time to try out those killer new heels.

Personally, I always have a hard time figuring out what clothes are “appropriate” to wear in a professional setting, so I tend to look to Pinterest for style inspo. Also, one of my favorite YouTubers Tess Christine recently put out the best lookbook of workplace fashion, so I highly recommend you check it out.

As for what you should bring, here are the top three things I recommend packing:

Tips & Tricks

Check out the schedule ahead of time.

This is my number one, holy grail tip! Professional conferences typically have a wide variety of panels and information sessions for attendees, and that can feel super overwhelming on the day of.

9 times out of 10 conferences are run by go-getting people like you, and they’ll have a schedule of the day’s events posted ahead of time. I highly suggest you take advantage of it! Plan out the sessions you want to see in advance.

Even though you will have to be flexible with your time depending on the group you arrived with, having a general idea of what you want to see will help you set a purpose for your trip.

Conferences are for networking!

Conferences are filled with panels and lunches and keynote speeches and so many things, but at the end of the day, the main purpose is to link professional communities for mutual gain. That’s a pretty cool idea, don’t you think?

Whether it is through strengthening an already-made connection or developing a new one, I do my best to connect with at least one person at every single conference. Yes, networking is awkward, but honestly can be so rewarding.

You have the opportunity to gain so much knowledge and even advance your career just by introducing yourself to someone – you never know who you’ll meet!

Find a way to leap out of your comfort zone.

The overwhelming nature of big gatherings like this makes it easy to just fade into the woodwork and not take any risks. But, as my economics teacher says, without risk, there is no reward.

Make it a point to try something new at your conference! Attend a workshop on public speaking even though you’re terrified of it, or listen to a seminar on coding Java even though you have no experience in Computer Science.

At last year’s SWE conference, I stepped a little out of my comfort zone and went to a talk on applying to graduate school. Despite being skeptical of grad school, after the session I still felt super inspired to look at graduate programs. It opened my eyes to a world I had never considered before! Even though I don’t want to continue school right away after I finish undergrad, I’m thankful that I now have the knowledge to keep my options open.

Take a lesson from me, friends. This is the perfect opportunity to do something that you’ve never done before, so jump in and take it!

Final Thoughts

Professional conferences, I’ve concluded, are amazing. You get the opportunity to gain knowledge about the working world, learn more about the industry, and develop relationships all along the way.

Have you ever been to a professional conference? What are your tips?

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