Conference Survival Tips

university of sydney
The University of Sydney Quadrangle Clock-Tower

It’s upon us again (has it really been two years?) – the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (ANZAMEMS), hosted in 2019 at the University of Sydney.  Conferences are a fantastic opportunity to meet people, experience some fantastic papers, and generally remind yourself why you love academia after a hard year at the books, the marking, the teaching, the meetings. ANZAMEMS is no different, as hundreds of medievalists and early modernist from Australia, New Zealand, and the rest of the world gather to share their research, network, collaborate, and socialise.

Love them as we do, conferences are pretty intense and can be as exhausting (and expensive) as they are exhilarating.  With that in mind,  and in preparation for the IMC Leeds 2018, our Deputy Reviews editor Kirsty Bolton sought out some tips from Cerae’s network of experience conference-attendees. Here are a selection of those to help you make the most of your conference attendance, keep the budget down, and remember to look after your mental, physical, and emotional well being.


  1. Write your twitter handle on your name badge.  I have made so many academic friends and contacts on twitter, who I have possibly partially recognised at conferences but been unsure about approaching.  A trend has started at the IMC and other events for writing your twitter handle on your name badge so that twitter friends can become IRL friends with ease.
  2. Say hello.  Dr. Sara Uckelman points out that big conferences can be lonely places.  If you see someone looking a little lost or awkward, ask them what session they have just been in.  Sara also says that you are likely to be that person at some point, and not to worry about it, as we’ve all been there.

Getting the most out of papers

  1. Sticky tabs.  I filled a whole notebook at the IMC last year.  Everything that I wrote was absolutely vital.  And I haven’t looked at it once since.  This year, I’m planning to take a pack of sticky tabs with me, so that I can signpost what is important and why for when I get back to my desk at home and open that thesis chapter.  This could get messy, but it’s definitely going to be colourful!
  2. Share the workload.  Each time slot at the IMC has about 50 sessions in it.  How can you possibly get the most of your time without Hermione’s time whizzy thing?  Even at a conference with only two parallel sessions, you could miss out on something relevant.  While it might be nice to sit with a conference buddy, consider splitting up, attending different sessions, and comparing notes afterwards.
  3. Plan your schedule.  Dr. Marjorie Harrington recommends planning out the sessions that you want to attend in a grid calendar and colour coding them by priority.  Don’t feel guilty if you don’t get to everything – focus on your priority sessions.

Eating and drinking

  1. Load up at breakfast!  Eating can be expensive when you’re away from home, and lunch is only sometimes provided at conferences.  If breakfast is included in your accommodation costs, eat well to get you through until lunch.  Maybe even sneak a banana or cereal bar into your pocket for an emergency snack.  Ssh!
  2. Drink water.  Writing those two words has just reminded me to text my little brother, as my response to his every complaint seems to be “drink more water!”  It’s my go-to solution for a reason, and staying hydrated at conferences is important.  You’ll stay more focused and possibly not suffer the after effects of the free wine as badly.  Plus, if you invest in a quirky water bottle, you might get some compliments and strike up some interesting conversations.
  3. Have a stash.  Dr. Alicia Spencer-Hall recommends having a stash of high-energy foods in your room and in your bag, such as granola bars.  “Conferences devour energy, you will likely need to supplement your normal intake to stay the course.”  Feed your brain, my lovelies!

Travel and accommodation

  1. Pack accordingly.  Alicia also reminds us that conferences are not normal life, and that you should pack things that you wouldn’t normally have in your bag but will make conference life a lot easier – business cards, sunscreen, hand fan, many pens, water bottle, anti-chafe stick, many pens…
  2. Check out local transport options.  Telling PhDs and ECRs how to keep the cost down is like teaching your grandma to suck eggs, right? (Whose grandma ever actually sucked eggs?)  But, here it is anyway – if you are not staying on-campus, or if you are a local student, reach out at uni or on twitter and see if anyone is driving to the conference, and ask if they would like to split the cost. For most of us, the best option will be to check out Transport NSW  to find your best fares and ways to get about Sydney – we’ve linked you straight to OPAL, which is the local smart transport card. Sydney Uni is in a great little transport hub with buses into the city, throughout the Inner West, out to Coogee Beach, and close to Redfern train station. Wherever you are staying, you should be able to get to Sydney Uni via public transport.
  3. Book appropriate accommodation.  Okay, you’re on a budget, but don’t be checking in to an airbnb shared with five strangers and a goat (unless that’s your thing).  We all have our own idea of what is roughing it, but it’s essential that you feel safe and comfortable in your bed at night and while you’re taking a shower.  If you don’t feel comfortable with a shared bathroom, pay the extra to book a private one and cut back in other ways.  If you’re booking accommodation without guidance from the conference organisers, check the location and make sure you know how to get to the venue.

Well being

  1. Don’t try to do everything!  Conferences are both time and money expensive, and you will put pressure on yourself to do everything that you possibly can – attend every session, all the keynotes and roundtables, all the drinks receptions…  Dr. Uckelman and Dr. S.C. Kaplan both recommend giving yourself some downtime – skip a session, sit in the sunshine, catch up with a friend, sleep!  You don’t have to be in conference mode the whole time, and you’ll probably get more from the sessions that you do go to if you take a break.
  2. Bring something to keep you focused.  Many people pay attention better if they have something to do with their hands.  Dr. Kaplan recommends bringing something to do with your hands, such as crochet, to help keep you focused.  You will know best what this might be, whether you’re a doodler or a crafter.
  3. Enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it.

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