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A Graduate Student's Perspective on Academic Conferences

In the last year, I've been able to present my research at two international conferences. I'm fairly new to the conference "circuit" and to be honest, I often find the environment overwhelming because of the sheer number of people in attendance. Despite this, I have found conferences to be a very rewarding experience. For example, in July 2011, I had the opportunity to present my master's research on "The Effect of Mood Induction on Adolescent Speech Behavior" at the plenary meeting of the International Society for Research on Emotion (ISRE) held in Kyoto, Japan. I attended the conference just before I sat for my comprehensive exams and was in part hoping for a dissertation "aha" moment. It never came, but what I received instead was equally rewarding: this conference was rich in methodological diversity and interdisciplinary discourse. I was impressed that each researcher took time to explain their choice of research methods, and how those choices influenced the outcomes of their research. Geisha Performance at the ISRE 2011

Aside from the intellectual engagement, conference organizers made sure that we were immersed in an authentic Japanese experience as well. We were treated to a Geisha dance performance, sake tasting and a tour of an ancient Noh theater where musical dramas are still performed. Aside from conference-organized activities, I did a lot of my own exploration of Kyoto.

This May, I presented "Speech Intelligibility: Its Scope and Purpose in Technical Communication" at the summit conference for the Society of Technical Communicators (STC), held in Rosemont, IL. It was there that I caught up with one of our master's program alumni, Cynthia Laughlin, who received her MS in technical communication and information design in 2009. Cynthia works at Northwestern Memorial Hospital as the lone writer for the Information Services department. She said that the skills developed in her master's program have allowed her to refine an internal time-tracking system, document an agile intranet-development project, and assist with the foundational design of a Help Desk ticketing system. But conferences also provide Cynthia with further opportunities to continue learning about technical communication as a discipline.

About the STC summit she said, "The summit contained different tracks about technical communication such as information design, usability, content delivery, and web design. Because I am a lone writer and content manager, I enjoyed learning from the experience of others. I was particularly inspired by sessions about pattern matching, building taxonomies, and creating personas. These sessions presented ideas I could immediately use at work. Applying the knowledge learned at the summit is rewarding; however, part of the fun of the summit is seeing the breadth of the technical communication field. I don't currently use DITA for authoring and publishing, write for tablets, or work with speech recognition, but I enjoyed learning about these areas."

And it's not just about the professional and academic development (and sightseeing); conferences provide great networking opportunities. This year the STC waived registration for students interested in volunteering at the conference. On the first day of the conference, students were treated to luncheon, giving us the opportunity to connect with others enrolled in similar programs all over the US. I also had the opportunity to chat with two researchers in the private sector who shared my interest in user behavior and emotion, and we discussed opportunities for collaboration in the future.

I'll end with this: If you haven't had an opportunity to attend a conference, give it a try. With regards to funding, I have found the humanities department extremely supportive of these types of student activities. So even if it's in "exotic" Rosemont, IL, you never know what kinds of opportunities and experiences await.

-Halcyon Lawrence (TECH, Ph.D. Candidate)