Five things you should know about attending professional conferences — observations about the SPJ & RTDNA conference

Attending professional conferences can be very helpful for cultivating contacts and learning the latest on trends in the field. For graduate students, attending professional conferences can be especially important, as the students will be on the job market upon graduation and those professional conferences can be an opportunity to network.

Ashley Carnifax, a doctoral student at the University of Florida, attended  “Excellence in Journalism 2011,” a conference co-sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association. Ashley received a scholarship to be part of The Working Press, a group of graduate students who covered the convention.

I asked Ashley to share observations about attending the convention. Although her experience is with attending a convention of professional journalists and journalism educators, her insights also apply to other professional conferences.

by Ashley Carnifax

Tip #1 – Professional conferences are great places to network and get yourself recognized.

Hundreds of media professionals attend the Society of Professional Journalists conference each year, and, now that SPJ has partnered with RTDNA, there are even more opportunities to branch out and meet people who may become your future boss.

Never underestimate the impression you are capable of making. Even if it means holding the elevator door for someone or striking up a conversation in the line for Starbucks, people will remember who you are. This industry is much smaller than you might think, and word about you will travel fast. Use this opportunity to make a positive first impression.

Tip #2 – Take the time to attend as many conference sessions as possible – You will learn so many new things.

Over the course of five days, the SPJ/RTDNA conference had more workshops and panels than I could ever manage to attend. Sometimes two really interesting-sounding sessions are going on at the same time, and you’ll have to make the tough decision — whether you want to go to “Creating Multiplatform Stories” or “How to Turn Your Website Into a Mobile App.” (Yes, those were real sessions at the conference.) The key is to see as much as you can while still remembering to eat and sleep.

Tip # 3 – Even though attending conferences can be expensive, there are LOTS of scholarship opportunities.

Each year, SPJ offers several scholarships for students wanting to attend the conference. The application deadline for the Terry Harper Memorial Scholarships is June 11, 2012. They are specifically used for allowing journalism students to attend the conference. Another option is The Working Press, which gets its own number:

Tip #4 – Don’t be afraid to sign up to work the conference if given the chance.

Sure, attending the conference is useful and a great place to meet people, but it is also a great place to get some real journalism experience. Each year, SPJ selects a dozen or so college journalists – reporters, editors, photographers and designers – to produce a daily newspaper for conference attendees. I was selected for to work the conference in New Orleans, and it was a whirlwind experience.

We basically had fewer than 12 hours between when we arrived in New Orleans and when we were expected to start working on the paper, so there wasn’t much time to get to know one another. I had to interview the SPJ President by phone before I even got on my plane to New Orleans. It was a lot of work, but I was able to get a lot of experience working on deadline in a real news environment. I did three or four stories a day while I was there, which was completely new to me. If you’re interested in seeing the work we did, there is an online version of our stories at this link.

Tip #5 – Have fun, but remember where you are.

I completely understand wanting to explore the city and enjoy yourself while you are at the conference. In fact, I would recommend taking an evening or two after the sessions are over to do just that.

What is important to remember, though, is Tip #1: This is your chance to make a good first impression.

I’ll give you a little anecdote from my trip. Surrounding my hotel room were rooms packed full of other college students. I’m not sure how it happened, but the four girls in the room next to my room knew the four guys staying across from me, and I would hear them running back and forth to talk to each other throughout the conference. On my last night in New Orleans, I suspect many of them were enjoying the famous nightlife in the city because when they came back they were essentially falling over and shouting at a volume that was unacceptable for 3 a.m.

It ended up not being that big of a deal because they were next door to me, and I stuck my head out of the door, laughed and went back to sleep. But what if they had been staying next to the editor of a major newspaper? The situation could have been detrimental to them finding jobs. So keep that in mind. Have fun, but be smart.

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