Getting the Most out of a Professional Conference

Elizabeth Wilcox, Sr. Consultant for Advising

Reflect On Your Professional Goals Before You Attend

You may want to spend some time reflecting on your professional goals before attending a conference. Conferences can be highly effective at helping you advance a wide range of professional objectives. For example, they can help you build and extend professional contacts, find a mentor or collaborator, gain experience presenting original work, advance your subject matter expertise, extend your knowledge of resources, introduce you to new theory, methods or tools, gain ideas for new programs and workshops, develop new skills or simply refresh your interest in and enthusiasm for managing programs and working directly with students. Whatever the goal, be intentional in the way you seek to advance your professional identity, contacts and knowledge.  Don’t passively attend the conference use it to advance your career objectives!

Attend the Orientation for New Attendees

If you have never attended a professional conference before, take advantage of the orientation for new attendees. This will help you understand the conference themes, structure, organization and opportunities and will help you better navigate the event.

Use the mobile conference apps (at NACADA use Guidebook)

Take advantage of the new technologies. Conference apps are super convenient and efficient ways to navigate a conference.  They are easy to use and will help you review important conference information as you move through sessions and events.

Focus on Variety

There are normally a variety of session formats to select from including pre-conference workshops, panel discussions, team delivered presentations and of course single presenter presentations. Each offers a special experience and learning opportunity. Branch out a bit and see if you can sample a range of presentation approaches and styles.

Read the Conference Materials and Do Some Preliminary Planning Before You Attend

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the range of activities happening during a conference. Spend some time before you go reading through the program to get a sense of what seems most interesting and relevant. Large conferences may also offer a common reading for thought and reflection and if these are accessed in advance they may add much to your overall conference experience. Taking the time to prepare in advance will help you feel more relaxed and organized once the conference begins. Conferences offer so much – it can be helpful to review, reflect and strategize in advance.

Use a Tag Team Approach to Accessing Concurrent Sessions

Conferences can be packed with interesting sessions and it can be hard to choose between interesting concurrent sessions. Although it may be tempting to attend individual sessions with trusted coworkers, consider asking your friends and workmates to spread out over the conference and attend different concurrent sessions. This strategy will ensure maximum exposure to what the conference has to offer.  Set some time aside to debrief and share materials and handouts with these workmates during breaks. This will help you gain access to much more of the conference than you could as a single attendee.


Raise your hand, offer a comment, tell a story, frame a challenge, suggest a solution, give an example, reflect, engage and engage others! Be an active rather than passive participate. Much of the learning that takes place at a conference happens through peer-to-peer sharing and interaction. 

You may also wish to consider volunteering at a conference. This can be a great way to gain professional experience and engage more fully in the conference as it is happening.

Venture into New Territory

Choose to attend at least one conference presentation in an area that you are not familiar with. This might help you discover a new passion, resource or opportunity. Focus not only on extending existing knowledge and expertise, focus on growth.

Introduce Yourself 

Conferences are great ways to engage with your familiar and trusted workmates but make it a point to expand your professional contacts by introducing yourself to at least three new people. If you feel awkward approaching others, network with an extroverted friend who can help with introductions. You are likely to meet some amazing people.

Take Notes and Apply Key Learning to Your Practice

Write down a few key takeaways from each session you attend. Consider how you might use what you learned in your professional practice. Be determined to take away at least one idea, tool, concept or bit of information that can be applied to your daily practice. Hang on to your handouts for future reference.

Attend the Social Events

Attend the scheduled social events! These are actually a lot of fun and really help to extend the excitement, enthusiasm and energy of a conference. If you are shy, take a friend with you. Don’t be afraid to relax and mingle.

Share What You Learned with Others/Bring Conference Highlights Home

If you are one of only a few people in your immediate working group who is able to attend a conference you may want to focus on what you can take back to others who are not able to attend. Consider yourself an emissary for your entire working group and be committed to sharing what you learned with others. Bring conference highlights home by presenting to your department, host a brown bag debrief and share key takeaways with colleagues.

Follow up

Use the business cards you collect at a conference in the future. Reach out to others and look for ways to share and collaborate on new projects. This is a great way to form and strengthen professional networks over time.

Hang On To Your Conference Program

Conference programs can be really great professional resources. They are literally directories of expert level knowledge and subject matter expertise and can be accessed for a wide range of reasons following a conference. Perhaps you’d like to invite someone to speak at a gathering, act as a mentor, or collaborate on a related project or future proposal? Let your program act as a professional resource and directory going forward.

Thank Your Boss for Allowing You to Attend

Tell your boss what you learned and express your gratitude for the release time and funding that allowed you to attend. This will help demonstrate that sending you to the conference was a worthwhile investment. You may find it easier to have professional development opportunities subsidized in the future.  

Keep Your Eyes on Future Events

Make conference attendance a regular professional goal and keep track of upcoming events. Note your own professional growth and accomplishments from one conference to the next. You’ll be amazed at what you’ve done, who you’ve met and what you’ve learned over time.

For more on this topic...Please vist The Ultimate Guide to Getting Ready for a Conference by Mark Lavercombe