Many psychologists look back on their first APA Annual Convention as the moment when they started feeling less like students and more like professionals. The convention is where they found job opportunities, eliminated their public-speaking jitters, or first joined divisions and started networking.
At the same time, many students say convention can be daunting and expensive for first-timers. But, with advance planning, as well as insights on time-saving and money-saving strategies, APA's convention can be an invaluable career development opportunity for students, say loyal conventioneers.
"Students can network with their peers, meet the experts in person and familiarize themselves with the most recent advances in clinical practice and scientific psychology across the entire spectrum of psychology," says Marcus Patterson, chair of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS). "Convention is one of the richest professional and educational opportunities available to students of psychology."
The top advice from seasoned conventioneers is to pre-register for the convention so you can receive and digest the program beforehand.
"The program is massive; you can't read through it on the spot," says Louis Franzini, PhD, who, along with Sue Rosenberg Zalk, PhD, has been giving talks on how to survive and thrive at APA's convention for 20 years. The two also co-authored the book, "Convention Survival Techniques: Practical Strategies for Getting the Most Out of Your Professional Association's Meetings."
"Map out a schedule early on that allows for flexibility for when you get really involved in a poster session, meet someone new or find a new interest while you're there," Franzini says.
Study the city map and hotel layouts in the program, adds Franzini, and try to avoid scheduling back-to-back sessions that are held more than one or two blocks from each other. The weeks before convention are also a great time to set goals--a strategy that has worked well for graduate student Arcella Trimble, who will attend her fifth convention this year.
"Ask yourself what you want to accomplish at the conference," she says. "Is your goal to meet people, talk to a particular researcher, get involved with APAGS? Set goals for yourself and plan ways to achieve them."
Trimble, who spoke to students about networking strategies at APA's 1999 Annual Convention in Boston, says students shouldn't leave home without their most important networking tool--business cards with their name, contact information and student status. Similarly, Franzini advises making time-saving preprinted mailing labels to avoid writing out your address time after time when you want to request papers from presenters.
So much to see
A smart first stop for students upon arriving at convention is the APAGS booth, says Patterson. "The booth is one of the most important resources students have at convention," he says. "It's manned by students who are experienced with convention and can direct students to wherever they need to go. We'll also have up-to-date information on housing, social hours and possible schedule changes."
The booth offers schedules of APAGS programming and convention "survival guides" for gay, lesbian and bisexual students; ethnic-minority students; and students with disabilities. Among this year's APAGS programming are a session on internship strategies, a session on self-care for students and a session on thinking creatively about professional practice (see article below).
Beyond APAGS programming and events, students are welcome to attend any event or session listed in the convention program, Franzini and Zalk point out. Many students mistakenly assume "invited address" requires an invitation, or that "roundtable discussion" means they cannot just observe the dialogue, says Zalk.
"Students are a desired commodity at every event at the APA convention," she says.
Students are also welcome to attend division events--many of which are student-oriented--even if they aren't division members, notes Zalk. Arrive early at popular events like the opening session, which often fill up fast, adds Jane Crawford Miller, chair of the APAGS Convention Committee. And, most importantly, don't overwhelm yourself.
"Plan for mental exhaustion; you can't attend everything," she says.
Franzini also passes on words of wisdom that, unfortunately, too many convention-frequenters forget: show consideration for each speaker and presenter. Arrive at each session on time and, if you plan to leave early, sit in the back or on the side of the room and leave between, not during, speakers. Don't talk to others during the presentations.
After a session, introducing yourself to the presenters is appropriate and a great way to network, says Franzini. But don't overwhelm them.
"Don't ask a presenter to read your dissertation on the spot," says Franzini. "Make contact, let them know you have questions and are interested in their work and request to call or e-mail them later--generally people are flattered."
Social hours and other less structured events are a better time for discussions, says Franzini. But students should also keep in mind that not everyone wants to talk shop during cocktail hour.
"If someone shrugs you off, don't take it personally," says Zalk. "A lot of people are extremely busy at convention and students need to read signals as they would in any social encounter."
Not to say that students shouldn't assert themselves by posing questions to and sparking-up conversations with researchers, internship training directors or leaders they want to meet, adds Miller. "Convention offers so many fantastic opportunities to network," she says. "I have shared a cab with people I wanted to meet and made contact that way."
Convention offers countless opportunities for students to present talks, posters or research each year--through APAGS, APA Divisions, Psi Chi and other groups.
"When I want to present, I try to find a topic that's missing in convention programming and then I suggest or develop a program on that topic," says Trimble.
You can help make your first presentation experience a positive one by rehearsing and measuring your talk so the moderator doesn't stop you before you relate your research findings and prepare answers for likely questions, says Franzini.
"Students typically fear that questions will be hostile and demeaning," he says. "But that rarely happens. It's more likely that you might not know an answer to a question, and if that happens, admit it and offer to find out."
For students already saddled with mounting debt and little disposable income, the price for convention admittance can be intimidating. The best money-saving strategy is to share hotel rooms, says Miller.
"Travel with friends to defray costs, and plan ahead to get the best travel rates," she suggests.
Likewise, staying with relatives or friends in a nearby town can save money, but such accommodations may not allow a student to make the most of convention, say Franzini and Zalk.
"Relatives will expect a lot of your time," says Franzini. "You won't get the most out of convention if you are expected for dinner each night with family."
Adds Zalk, "It's also hard for students who travel back and forth each day to get a break--you can't change clothes or take a nap in your hotel room."
Students can also save money by seeking out cheaper restaurants and becoming familiar with the city's public transportation system, they suggest.
Advance planners can also take advantage of awards and volunteer opportunities that enable students to attend convention for less, says Miller. APA's Science Directorate, for example, sponsors an annual competition to help graduate students travel to the convention to present their research, and Psi Chi sponsors the Psi Chi/APA Edwin B. Newman Graduate Research Award, which covers convention travel expenses. In addition, APAGS sponsors two annual awards to encourage students to participate in convention: the APA/APAGS Award for Distinguished Professional Contribution by a Graduate Student and the APAGS Outstanding Professional Development Program Award.
For those who want to work their way to convention, each year APA's Continuing Professional Education Office seeks graduate student volunteers to assist presenters in continuing-education workshops. In exchange for a day of work, volunteers receive free convention registration and, when not working, may attend one CE workshop free of charge.
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