Undergraduate Psychology Students Participating in Professional Conferences
Ronald G. Shapiro, Ph. D.
Barbara Fritts, Ph. D.
Attending a regional professional conference such as the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA) or the Midwestern Psychological Association (MPA) Annual Meeting can be one of the highlights of a psychology student’s undergraduate experience. Similarly, organizing a conference for students from multiple colleges and universities, as well as for professionals outside of academia, can provide students with valuable experiences as event organizers, presenters and attendees. Thus, every effort should be made to afford each student the opportunity to participate on at least two occasions. Ideally, capstone projects should be aligned with conference proposal dates so that students completing high quality capstone projects will have an opportunity to present their work to a broad audience. Why should each student have the opportunity to participate?
For students likely to pursue an advanced degree, the convention experience provides:
- An introduction to what will be a highlight of their entire career—doing and sharing research.
- Insights on what they might want to study in graduate school.
- Learning how to navigate conferences prior to attending graduate school.
- An opportunity to present their work and possibly obtain feedback.
- Great networking opportunities to meet faculty and graduate students at schools they may wish to attend.
- Opportunities to explore career opportunities outside of academia.
- Opportunities to have conversations with professionals in the student's desired field—these professionals may be willing to provide guidance and mentoring.
- Resume/CV building.
- An opportunity to determine that they do not want to pursue graduate studies in psychology, thereby saving themselves (and graduate faculty) a costly, non-productive experience.
For students not likely to pursue an advanced degree, the convention experience provides:
- A culminating and great summary of their undergraduate years.
- An opportunity to practice the professional skills, which we tell students they will learn as a psychology major regardless of their career choice, but often do not have the opportunity to practice within their own university psychology department.
- Exposure to conferences, conventions and trade shows, which will be very valuable to them if they chose a professional career.
- An opportunity to network and possibly develop friendships, which may help to land great professional jobs.
- An opportunity to determine that they want to make a career change and pursue an advanced degree, but possibly in a specialization that they did not become familiar with at their home college.
There are also numerous advantages for the university. Encouraging student participation in professional conferences ought to provide the university with a competitive advantage in recruiting potential students. Conference photos may be featured in recruiting materials.
Not all undergraduate students will have an opportunity to participate in professional conferences as undergraduate students. Neither of the authors did. Barbara chose to participate after completing her undergraduate degree before applying to graduate school. She later wrote:
The value of that first convention could best be summarized for me as "initiative paying off". My undergraduate institution did not have a big research lab and so I had no opportunities to attend APA as a student prior to graduate school. Unlike most of my counterparts, my presence at my first convention was completely self-motivated. I was not third presenter on a poster that my undergraduate research group had put together, for example. I wasn't with an advisor or program. It was just me. Twenty-two year old, Bachelors in Psychology, naive, me. I saved my money, planned a trip to Washington DC because my aunt and uncle lived there and I could stay with them, navigated the public transportation system in a city I did not know, and made the most out of that convention because I had a dream of getting my PhD in psychology I and wanted to make it come true. Akin to the initiative that brought me to the convention in the first place, I took risks and talked to as many people as I could and gathered as many email addresses as I could. I did not let the fact that I was alone stop me. I am convinced that it was this practice in self-motivation which propelled me into becoming a desirable doctoral student and it was what helped me to get into graduate school.
While Barbara’s story is motivating, her undergraduate program could have made life easier for her. If her program had included attending a professional conference in their curriculum, she would have been guided in this endeavor by her undergraduate faculty and may have had the experience and contacts she needed for acceptance into graduate school sooner.
Tips for Optimizing Conference Participation
The remainder of this article is focused around optimizing the conference experience for the undergraduate student. It is written to the student, so that faculty may simply forward it on to their students without the need to rewrite.
One of the primary purposes of attending a professional conference (whether presenting or not) is networking with other students and professionals. Prepare for these networking opportunities at least three months before the conference by considering the following:
- Order business cards. The cards should look professional and contain name, professional title (could be Psychology Club President, Undergraduate Student, or whatever is most appropriate), University, email, phone, and mailing address. Use contact information which will remain current for many years.
- If you plan to visit book or other exhibitors at your conference consider bringing some pre-addressed labels or an address stamp to the conference so that you can sign up for their mailing lists without needing to take the time to write your name and address.
- Listen to your voicemail message. Does it sound professional? If not, update it. If you do not have one set one up. Voice rather than texting is the professional way to communicate.
- Establish a LinkedIn profile and connect with a number of professionals.
- Check your Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. accounts. Is there anything visible you would not want a future employer or graduate school to see? If so, adjust accordingly. Be aware of what the pages of your online friends may indicate about you. Consider trimming friends or adjusting your privacy settings, but do not become invisible. Future employers may be suspicious of a candidate who does not have social media presence. Encourage friends whose pages are not professional looking to upgrade their pages. As a last resort, consider the possible consequence of being connected to people with unprofessional pages and consider disconnecting from them.
- Assume that your prospective employers or graduate school advisors (or their graduate student assistants) will Google you. Do your own internet searches of your name and look for postings which you may have made as a high school student. Do they look professional? If not, adjust accordingly.
- Prepare an “elevator” speech, a one to two minute summary which tells the listener about your background and why you would like to connect with them. Whenever possible, be sure your speech indicates why it will be of benefit the listener to connect with you. Practice this speech.
- Practice having professional conversations with students and faculty at your school.
- Register early for early registration discounts and shop for great hotel rates near your conference.
- Investigate scholarship or other funding opportunities for students attending conferences from your college or university.
- Prepare a resume (or Curriculum Vita) that ROARs (is Results Oriented And Relevant)
- Results Oriented: For every job, major volunteer experience, and academic experience, be sure to explain your contributions in a way that really excites the reader.
- Relevant: Prepare a statement which goes right under your name at the top of the resume that links the needs of a potential employer (or graduate school advisor) with your Results Oriented accomplishments. This should hook the reader.
- Be certain that your resume (or CV) stands apart from any you will find in a resume book. If you are applying for graduate school immediately after graduation ask an advisor or faculty member give you feedback. If you will be applying for jobs outside of academia please be sure to have a recruiter, manager who hires professionals or equivalent business professional review your resume.
- If you are considering many different career options, it is fine to have multiple versions of your resume/CV rather than a one size fits none version.
- Volunteer to help out. Volunteering to help out may provide you with a great opportunity to network. If you have the opportunity, consider the following:
- Distribute name badges to the dignitaries attending a conference. You will be positioned to meet many, and hopefully speak with some. This may be a highlight of your undergraduate years.
- Volunteer to run the projection equipment at a workshop that you are interested in. You will have the opportunity to attend the workshop for free and speak with the presenters. You never know where this opportunity may lead.
- Do not do behind the scenes volunteer work such as preparing registration packets while at the conference unless it is in your home town. While volunteers normally receive reduced or free conference registration, when one considers the total cost of attending a conference (travel, hotel, registration fee, food, etc.), even with the registration fee waiver you are probably paying to volunteer, so be sure that you are benefiting, not just providing a service.
- Discuss appropriate dress with people who have been to the conference before. Generally business dress is appropriate, but business casual may be appropriate, too.
- Be sure to bring writing utensils and paper, your resume and business cards as well as electronic devices you may chose to use to make notes.
- Review the conference program online and research the work and background of professionals you're interested in before the conference. This will help with conversations and give you the opportunity to formulate your questions to them ahead of time.
At the professional conference:
- If you are presenting or planning to attend a really important session, be sure you know where the session will be and how to get there on time, even if the elevators are over packed.
- Try to meet people everywhere you go. Talk to people while waiting for an elevator, if you arrive early at a session, or if you are sharing transportation.
- Have dinner (or go on a side tour) with people you do not know. You will have plenty of opportunity to network with your friends at school. Try to meet and get to know people you do not already know at conferences.
- Trade business cards with people you meet. Make notes on the back of each card to help you remember the people. If your new acquaintances are not as prepared as you are and do not have business cards, record their information (perhaps in your phone, along with a note indicating why they are relevant to you) so you can still keep in touch.
- Take photos
- If you are particularly interested in a presentation, tell the presenter. Ask questions. Trade contact information. You never know where these contacts may lead.
- If you are comfortable being on stage, participate as an on-stage volunteer at a demonstration during a program. You will learn more than just sitting in the audience, hopefully have fun, and possibly even obtain a job offer. No kidding, some of Ron’s on-stage participants in his activity based programs have gotten job offers from members of the audience who liked their performance. Others have established long lasting professional relationships. For example, Barbara and Dr. Margarita Posada Cossuto (our external reviewer) met Ron when they participated in his programs at a psychology convention.
- Always be thinking about how you might work with new colleagues in the future. Not all of these ideas will work out, but hopefully many will.
After the conference:
- Connect with your new friends on social media, particularly LinkedIn. Send your new friends an email.
- Follow up with an email to the presenters whose work interested you the most. Share your ideas with them.
- Write (and photo illustrate) an article on your conference participation for your university
- If you’ve done your job right, you may still be in touch with some of your new conference friends 10, 20, 30 or more years after the conference.
Authors’ Note: We would like to thank Industrial Consultant Dr. Margarita Posada Cossuto for helpful comments.
Ronald G. Shapiro is a Speaker and Consultant in Career Development, Leadership Development, Learning, and Human Factors/Ergonomics. His recent presentations at professional conferences and academic institutions focus on 1) careers and 2) game show style programs to help participants and organizations become safer, more productive and better communicators. Ron received his PhD and MA from Ohio State University and his BA from the University of Rochester. He is a Fellow in the American Psychological Association (APA), the Eastern Psychological Association, and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) and has served as President of APA Division 21 and Secretary-Treasurer of HFES. . He spent most of his career as a technical employee, corporate staff member, and manager in IBM in both Human Factors/Ergonomics and Human Resources/Learning. He has also taught psychology at community colleges, colleges and universities.
Dr. Barbara Fritts is a licensed clinical psychologist who works in private practice at Walpole Behavioral Healthcare in Walpole, Massachusetts. She received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology in 2012 from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, following a B.A. in Psychology, emphasis in Women's Studies, from Elmira College in 2003. Her areas of clinical specialty include perinatal and postpartum mental health, LGBTQ issues, and trauma and abuse. Dr. Fritts contributes to OnTrend magazine and values writing as her voice for teaching and mentoring, helping people understand and have compassion for one another, and advocating for those who are not able to advocate for themselves.