The Skinny on Academic Conferences

So, we’ve been on the grad school journey almost two years now and we recently had the chance for my husband to attend/present his first big conference.  When I found out the conference was being held here, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, it took about two seconds for me to conclude that we were indeed all going.  Yes please!

The conference was to be a week long.  A week long in sunny Croatia.  Lounging by the Adriatic Sea, eating gelato twice a day, catching some rays, all the while cheering on my husband as he lectured and learned at his first major conference of this sort.  Right??

Haha…not exactly.

Not to say that it wasn’t close to this.  We did indeed eat a good bit of gelato, we did enjoy the Adriatic Sea in all it’s glory and we did even catch a few rays…however the entire week looked a lot different that I had envisioned as I shopped for a new bathing suit and read up on Croatian travel guides online.

I can’t speak from a lot of experience (obviously) but I wanted to throw out a few tips and pointers for other naïve :) (just joking) grad wives out there planning possible trips like this in the near future.

1)   If this is your spouse’s first conference of this sort, don’t plan on it being a full on vacation.  They are going to need the time to prepare their slides (rather than lounge by the pool drinking caiparinias with you).  They are going to need time to process, share and practice all they are learning and preparing to present.

2)   Plan ahead if you bring the kids.  With your spouse out at the conference all day and with you in a new country, make sure you have done your research.  I made sure our hotel (amazing place with stellar deals in off season! Yeah!) had a nice heated indoor pool.  I packed many of my daughter’s favorite books, scouted out the closest mini-mart to fetch milk boxes from time to time, packed a few small but special toys and a lot of our regular everyday snacks to have on hand. (Not just for her, but for us too! It saved a ton of money to have pre-packed snacks.)

3)   Give up control. Just give it up.  It was raining half our trip (and hadn’t rained in ages apparently), I had a cold, my husband’s talk got slotted for Friday afternoon-which meant he had to spend all week working on it/questioning it, and my daughter had a hard time with the time change and wouldn’t fall to sleep all that well. It was a good reminder that I am not in control…and that is ok, and that being open and flexible is a much better attitude to have when traveling on a trip like this, than not.

4)   Travel with other grad families or try to connect with some there?  Unfortunately, no other families with children (at least to my knowledge) attended this conference, but it would have been fun to meet some of them and to enjoy exploring the city with some of them as our spouses were in the conference.  Maybe try to set something like this up before the event by emailing the conference coordinator and asking if other participants might be bringing spouses?

5)   See if you can attend any of the conference or if there is a special banquet or closing dinner you could plan to attend?  I couldn’t do this with our daughter, but otherwise would have loved trying to pop in.  We did manage to make it over to the conference centre so that we could at least meet a few of the other guests during a coffee break and we got to see the facility where my husband was spending so much of his time.

6)   Get an early presentation slot. If it is at all an option for your spouse to choose their time slot for presenting, try try try to get an early slot, so that if you do want to do some relaxing/site seeing, they won’t be too focused or mentally distracted the entire time as they anticipate their presentation.

7)   Encourage your spouse to study the conference schedule beforehand and try to determine before you leave what talks they could or could not miss out on.  That way you can have a realistic idea of how much time you might have together during the week.

All in all, we had a great trip, it just looked quite different than I had thought it would.  If you are able to get extra funding or take off work and make it happen, I think it is a great idea to attend the next conference with your spouse.  Although frustrating that we couldn’t be together the entire time, I know that it was so encouraging for my husband to have us there to cheer and support him during the week.  Then again, others of you might be saying ‘yeah right!’ about attending a conference with your spouse.  Some might need to go alone, focus, get it done and would much rather do it by themselves than have cheerleaders waiting for them in their hotel room.  I suppose you should feel it out for yourself and talk it through with your spouse before planning anything.  If you ask me :), I’d say research some crazy conference in an exotic location, apply for funding if possible, and spend hours planning a trip with Rick Steves.  But, just be open minded, patient and ready to be flexible when your role as ‘supporting spouse’ takes on a whole new look while traveling.

 –M.C.

 Do you have any more tips, thoughts or stories to share about your experience with attending conferences with your spouse?

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