What you need to do before you go to a conference (Jo Byrne)

Photo by Calum MacAulay | unsplash.com
Conferences can be awesome!

You get to listen to the latest research, rub shoulders with the people whose work you keep citing and you’re surrounded by people doing some really exciting work.

What’s not so awesome is the planning and prep-work that you have to do, on top of your already busy schedule!

This is a quick guide for interstate and international conferences that will hopefully take some of the worry out of it for you.

3-4 months before the conference:
  • Did you get an email? Great! Read it. Every word. Then read it again. The emails you get from the convenors of the conference will provide a wealth of information – timetables, prerequisites and sometimes even discounts on accommodation. These are all extremely useful when you’re planning your stay.
  • Budget, budget, budget. Whether you’ve secured funding or funding yourself, you’ll need to set out a reasonable budget for the trip. Flights, accommodation and conference fees are the most costly (and pressing!) expenses but you also have to take into account:
    • Food: Lunches, conference coffee, and nibbles might be provided but breakfasts, dinners and drinks are up to you. 
    • Travel: Taxis to/from the airport, and transport to/from ‘cocktail events’ or evening talks may not be covered by your funding. Always check the details and make sure to budget accordingly. Look into public transport. Most major cities have some form of it – look up where you need to go, whether you need daily tickets or a weekly pass and see if you qualify for any concession rates. 
    • Incidentals: I thought wifi was a standard hotel feature nowadays. Nope. Check to see what amenities your hotel offers and make arrangements for the things you know you’ll need.
    • Cost of living differences: If you’re travelling internationally (and sometimes interstate), the amount you pay for food/travel/incidentals may be much higher or lower than you’re used to. Sites like numbeo.com can give you a rough comparison of how much basic groceries, a meal or an average cup of coffee costs in two locations. This, for example, is a comparison of Melbourne and Berlin. 
    • Your health: Give smarttraveller.gov.au a quick look to see if you need to get any vaccinations and consider if medical and/or travel insurance is necessary. 
    • Your sanity: if possible, set up the dates of your flights/travel so that you’ll arrive the day before the conference starts and leave a day after it ends. Sometimes that’s not possible, but it certainly helps keep your stress levels low when you’re in an unfamiliar place. Rocking up to the first plenary bleary-eyed and out of breath just plain sucks! Leaving a day after also give you the opportunity to go to the (inevitable and very cathartic) farewell drinks.
  • Let people know you're going, and check that you can go! All universities have travel policies and forms for staff and graduate researchers - make sure you've let the right people know you're travelling (and collect those tax invoices, if you're entitled to claim expenses!).  
1 month before the conference:
  • There’s been a number of attempts to get rid of the business card, but it looks like they’re sticking around for the foreseeable future. Check with your School or department if you can order La Trobe business cards through them. If not, there are heaps of free design layouts on the web that you can modify to fit your style and discipline. Card paper is relatively inexpensive and most printers will be able to print on it.
  • Check out who else is going. By this time there should be at least a list of key speakers, if not a schedule of events on the conference website or in the emails from the conference convenors. 
    • Start to plan out which talks/workshops look the most interesting and relevant to you. Before you go, you should know what you want to see and when. 
    • That being said, remember that anything can happen (people drop out, more interesting/relevant people rock up), so make a personal schedule with the caveat that it is subject to change.
1 week before the conference:
  • If you’re on Twitter, follow relevant people who look interesting; you should also follow the organisation that’s hosting the event. Most conferences have an associated hashtag, so see if there’s any Twitter chatter yet. 
  • Book your taxi to the airport or buy the relevant airport bus ticket. 
  • Download a detailed, up-to-date map of the conference venue and surrounding areas and save it on your phone. 
  • Begin packing. As well as appropriate clothes, money and numerous backups of your talk, don’t forget the easily forgotten essentials:
    • Chargers
    • A good adaptor (if travelling internationally)
    • A formal outfit for cocktail events/evening networking events
    • Headphones, water and snacks for the plane
    • Reliable pens
    • A decent, sturdy bag for carrying your laptop/notebooks to and from the conference
The night before the conference:
  • Breathe and get a good nights’ sleep.
Now, all you have to do is go to the conference! Good luck!


Joanne Byrne is a research assistant and PhD candidate in Anthropology at La Trobe University.

Her current ethnographic project looks at the use of digital social space by entrepreneurial women. 

She can be found curled up in the corner of the library, making cups of tea (only to forget and let them grow cold), or on twitter @Byrne_JC.