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Careers Café

Surviving conference season: What to pack


We are fast approaching conference season in academe. As academics everywhere put the finishing touches on their presentation notes and confirm hotel reservations, we at University Affairs  are collecting your advice on how to survive conference season. Some of these posts will be specific to the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, since a large part of our readership will be attending, but many of the tips can be applied to any academic conference.

In this first post, I tackle how and what to pack for an academic conference. Since I am a journalist and not an academic, I asked our PhD to Life blogger Jennifer Polk (she has a PhD in history and is a career coach for PhDs) to help me out since she has attended her fair share of conferences.

No checked bags!

I don’t have a lot of patience, and waiting is one of my biggest pet peeves, so when attending a conference, I never check any bags. That way you don’t have to print off baggage tags when checking in; there is no worrying about your bag ending up in Winnipeg when you are going to Calgary; and you can walk right off the plane and into a taxi upon landing. Now, if you are attending a conference for a week in Europe or Asia, this rule goes out the window, but most of us don’t have that kind of budget. Plus, some airlines have started charging for checked baggage. So make it easier on your wallet (and sanity) and stick to the two carry-on item limit.

For the first carry-on item, I take a roller suitcase (this is considered a “standard item” by most airlines). This item should not exceed the following measurements: 21 inches x 9 inches x 15 inches, and should not weigh more than 20 pounds. The second item I take is a backpack.

What goes in the roller suitcase

Say you are attending Congress in Calgary this year, are flying in from Ontario (like me!) and will be staying for three to five days. Obvious things to pack are clothes, PJs, hairbrush, etc. However, here are some things you might not have considered:

    • Comfortable shoes that can be considered “nice”
      When Congress was in Fredericton in 2011, I made the mistake of only packing heels. After the first day of running from building to building at the University of New Brunswick, I was cursing myself for not having brought proper footwear. Opt for flats or nice looking sneakers.

jennifer_polk_biopic_146Jennifer says: “I sometimes bring heels with me, but I almost never wear them. Unless you’re used to wearing, and walking in, heels I suggest opting for flats and making sure you break them in before your travel.”

  • Blazer or sports coat
    If you are presenting your paper, you want to look as professional as possible. There is no easier way to look the part than throwing on a blazer. (Seriously, they go with everything!) And if you walk in the room and everyone is in jeans, you can easily take it off and hang it on the back of your chair.
    • Cardigan or sweater
      In case the weather takes a turn or the AC is cranked (universities, like government buildings, are notorious for the latter).

jennifer_polk_biopic_146Jennifer says: “Because Congress is hosted on university campuses, temperatures will vary from room to room. Layers are key. So I’ve always got something with me just in case: a sweater, a blazer, or a large scarf or shawl.”

  • Light jacket
    If you are prone to being cold or, again, if the weather turns
  • Empty plastic grocery bag
    For dirty laundry

What goes in the backpack

Again, things like your wallet, phone and ID should be obvious, but here some other useful items:

    • Empty purse or canvas bag. (You can use this to carry around your stuff while at the conference.)
    • iPad or iPod (with charger, and preloaded with podcasts and magazines for the flight)
    • Earbuds or headphones
    • Phone charger (ah, how quickly some of us forget about this one!)
    • Small amount of cash for snacks at the airport ($40 should be more than enough)
    • Travel pack of Kleenex
    • Snacks for the plane ride
    • Book for reading
    • Toiletries in a large Ziploc bag (for easy removal when going through security)
    • USB key with a copy of the paper you will be presenting, as well as any presentation notes. If you are feeling paranoid, you can also save these documents “on the cloud” in Google Drive or DropBox.
    • Notebook and a few pens for note-taking
    • Small file folder with a print out of your hotel reservation info and one copy of your presentation notes. NOTE: The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences is pretty well set up for Congress, so if you ever need to print something, just find a staff member and ask.
    • Some empty sandwich bags or envelopes to keep any receipts for reimbursement

jennifer_polk_biopic_146Jennifer says: “Umbrella (you never know!), water bottle (empty for travel), business cards — and yeah, I recommend students have them, too. If they can’t or don’t want to get university-branded ones, they can fairly cheaply get nice ones made for themselves. ”

How do you pack for a conference? Did I forget anything? Have something that you always take with you that you want to share? Comment below!

Want more help on how to travel light? Check out

Tara Siebarth
Tara is the Depity Editor for University Affairs.
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  1. Karen / May 13, 2016 at 09:48

    Portable charger/power pack thingy!

  2. Greg / May 17, 2016 at 09:30

    Great advice! Two suggestions — if all your clothes coordinate, you can stretch your wardrobe out without taking a lot. Easier for men, but I try to stick to a color palette so anything can be worn with anything else. Secondly, I find a small flashlight comes in handy more often than you would think. Some can do double duty by charging your cell-phone as well. And a tip — wear your blazer when traveling so you don’t have to pack it.

  3. T Kanagasabai / May 27, 2016 at 09:57

    Thank you for this great post!

    Would the poster tube be considered as the second carry-on?

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