Getting involved with conferences

My reading week was split into two tasks: (a) grading midterms for the class I TA, and (b) presenting at an conference in Michigan. I've been at UofT for five years, but this is my first year applying to conferences. Upon reflecting, I wish I had done so earlier, and I want to spend this blog post trying to convince you to at least consider applying to conferences (even if you don't plan to continue into higher higher-education!).

Photo of woman buried under stacks of paper with a general look of anguish and despair playing across her downtrodden face.
Basically me grading midterms [source]

Why apply to conferences? There are a few good reasons. First, it's a great opportunity to get feedback on your work. A prof's comments on an assignment can only go so far. Here, you can have a number of people providing important insights on your work that you might not have gotten otherwise. Second, it's a great way to practice presentation skills. Whether you're planning on staying in school, or going into the work force, presentation skills are valuable. Third, it's a great way to network and meet people you may be studying or working with in the future. And finally, it's a chance to explore new ideas from other people. (It also looks good on a resume or CV, if you're into that sort of thing).

Am I good enough for a conference? Despite what you may think, you probably are! Firstly, conferences usually have more lax criteria than do journals, and are in part there to provide you with a platform for testing out your work in progress, as much as sharing it. Secondly, while you might want to apply to specific or big conferences (and there's nobody stopping you!), there are a lot of undergraduate conferences out there dedicated to accepting only undergraduate work. So you can feel safer amongst your peers. Don't think your GPA has any bearing on how you can perform at a conference, and know that it's OKAY to present a not-so-perfect paper. That's how we learn, and that's how we improve.

Picture of some conference I found by googling "conference"

What if I'm a poor public speaker? That's okay too! Most of these conferences are great learning experiences for speaking practice, but you should also note that many conference speakers (even professionals) will read off their pages or prompts, as much as they'd like to do otherwise. Nobody has high expectations of speakers in reality. Don't put yourself down and out of the count: you can take this as an opportunity to improve!

Can I afford it? UofT likes to brag about it's accomplished researchers and to facilitate thinking, even in its undergraduates: there are many resources available. Most colleges and departments have some travel funds to help with the cost of travel and lodging, and some of the conferences themselves might have some assistance available on request. If you're a full time arts & sciences student, you can also apply for travel support from the Arts and Sciences Student's Union. Finally, you can often skip the hotel fees for another student's couch.

photo of child on a surfboard on a couch. A little too literal if you ask me.
Not this kind of couch surfing, mind you. [source]

How do I find a conference for me? UofT holds a number of undergraduate conferences run by student clubs and course unions: try asking around! Beyond that, some disciplines have websites specifically for collecting CFPs (Calls For Papers) and CFAs (Calls For Abstracts) where you can find out. I've even found Facebook groups dedicated to sharing conference calls within subdisciplines. But, if you're in doubt, you might want to try asking your department's undergraduate coordinator or your professors: they're also often in the know.

That's it for me trying to convince you. Maybe in upcoming weeks I'll talk about the actual process: it can be nerve-wracking I know. But hopefully you're at least thinking about the option.

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