Navigating professional conferences as a YP

Conferences are a large part of both the academic and professional worlds. Hosted by ‘professional associations’ such as AWWA, WEF, and local water groups, the goal of these events is to share ideas, knowledge, new technology, and experiences, to solve problems, address challenges, and make changes in the sector. They often offer continuing education credits essential to the engineering and operator requirements for ongoing learning and professional development, and to remain certified. There are HUNDREDS of these conferences in the water sector, spanning from vast interest events to small, local, or very specialized ones. In addition to the CEU credits and training aspect, conferences are also a critical avenue for networking in the water sector as you build your professional career as an emerging water leader.

As a Young Professional (YP), attending conferences can be daunting for many reasons:

  • Feeling young and new to the industry can create feelings of impostor syndrome.
  • Scarier still is when it’s not impostor syndrome but an actual “new-to-the-industry” level of inexperience which makes us feel like we’re in way over our heads in some of the technical sessions.
  • In larger companies, YPs may be passed over for opportunities to attend conferences in favour of more established colleagues.
  •  As professionals building our careers, we may feel we have too much work to be able to take a week away from the office, and a week away can be challenging to manage with other life stuff, like families and friends at home.

However, it is important to conquer those fears and obstacles to take advantage of the opportunities that conferences offer. They are the confluence of people from all areas of the sector, in roles ranging from operators, to administrators, to suppliers, to regulators, to cutting edge innovators – and everything in between. This makes them key for meeting people who can help both your knowledge base and your career path grow and develop over the coming years.

Here is a handy guide to not just survive but ROCKING your conference experience as an IWA-YP

  1. Be Prepared!

Have your cards, a small notebook, and a pen on hand for jotting down new contacts’ names and details. Also, in the weeks leading up to the conference, reach out to other YPs you’ve met to see if they will be attending conference as well. They can be a great resource for networking, but also make it much less overwhelming to attend a conference when you know there will be friendly faces to look for at the happy hour.

2. Read the schedule!

Find out about the events in advance, highlight the sessions that interest you. Professional conferences often offer golf, bike rides, fun-runs, facility tours, and other activities which can serve as a less intimidating place to connect with new contacts who happen to share similar interests. During the conference itself, take notes on engaging topics and contact the speaker after the session. They could be great contacts for career progression, as you may take a winding career path and end up working in their area of expertise.

3. Stay nearby!

Book your hotel at or near the conference’s location. Typically, the conference’s official hotel is a great place to meet up with or just run into people participating in the conference and find out about industry-sponsored events during the conference week. The conference will usually offer a block of rooms at their host hotel with preferential rates, but be sure to book early because they sell out FAST.

4. Go to the happy hours!

This is tough when you’re new to the industry and attending a conference alone, especially for introverts who may already be well outside their comfort zone. However, happy hours are a fundamental part of the experience – it is in these informal social situations that you can develop more meaningful connections with the people you’ve briefly met throughout the day. You can find out about hobbies in common, mutual connections, or just interesting facts about interesting people. I promise, most of them feel as nervous and uncomfortable talking to strangers as you do. A fellow YP can be a great support system for going into these events with a buddy, instead of taking them on alone.

5. Follow Up!

After the conference sessions and happy hours are all over and you have made it back home, make sure you touch base with the people you met at the conference – email them, look them up on LinkedIn, etc. The key part of the conference experience for YPs is solidifying those brief interactions for a broad base of contacts and opportunities as your career evolves.

6. Recover!

Busy conference weeks are IN-TENSE. Not to mention the additional fatigue if they require travel or are in a different time zone. Be sure to take the time you need to decompress and recover your energy. As much pressure as there is to get straight back into your work and other commitments as soon as you get back, talk to your boss and your family/friends about carving out some time to recover from the week.

Hopefully, this little guide helps you take full advantage of the opportunities for learning, networking, and professional development that conferences are designed to offer. That person you chat with in the coffee line at session break could be a connection that leads to a stand-out collaboration, a key new client, your next specialist committee role, or even a future job!

Now get on out there and grow your water network!

Written by Alexandra Webb – Regional Director IWA YWP Canada

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