Work Hard, Play Hard, Be Mindful: Getting the Most Out of NASP as an Early Career Professional

February 13, 2017

By Leandra Parris, Illinois State University

Attending professional conferences is arguably one of the biggest perks of being in school psychology. The week of NASP offers some of the greatest opportunities to network, explore research topics, and increase your involvement in the field. There is, of course, the added bonus of traveling to cities that you might not have otherwise visited, catching up with friends, and perhaps enjoying an afternoon by the hotel pool. For many of us, the week of NASP is a respite from our day-to-day grind and, dare I say it, a chance to relax a little. But despite all that NASP has to offer, it can be easy to let the week pass by without being productive. Here are some lessons learned and tips to help you get the most out of this year’s conference.

Prepare. As a graduate student, I could not wait to get my convention program and read through all the sessions, planning out my week. Unfortunately, I often waited until the first day of the conference to do so. Early career professionals will find that their time is quickly filled up if they are not careful. Between sessions, workshops, meetings, and social hours it’s hard to keep up with everything you need to be attending. Instead of waiting until you get to the conference hotel, look ahead weeks in advance. Treat the week the same as you do any other work week, be it Google Calendar, Microsoft Outlook, or the tried-and-true paper agenda. Block off events as you agree to them and organize your commitments carefully, keeping in mind that you may have to travel from one hotel to another between events. As good as a blank week in your calendar looks, you’ll be grateful for the advanced organization once you get to NASP.

Network, Your Way. For some people, networking is fun and exciting. For others, it can be one of the most anxiety provoking or exhausting aspects of their career. The trick is to find the strategy that is most comfortable for you while also meeting your needs. The good news is that they are many ways of networking at NASP. In fact, there are so many we had to break this category down:

Seek support from colleagues. One strategy is to attend events or meet up with your senior colleagues. Having been in the field longer they have already built their network and being introduced by a colleague can be less stressful than the walk up version of a cold call. Pairing yourself with someone they already know also helps other professionals remember you, while giving you a slight boost in comfort approaching them on your own in the future.

Get out and about.Whether it’s dinner, a social hour, or conference event, if you are asked to join someone or a group, do your best to seize the opportunity. Some of the best working relationships I have were the result of a spontaneous coffee break. If you are less comfortable working a large room, smaller venues such as lunches or group receptions may be your best opportunity for networking. Regardless, the more visible you make yourself, the greater your chances of expanding your network.

Participate in mentoring events. There are multiple mentorship opportunities throughout the convention. From the Early Career Forum Speed Mentoring to the Student and Early Career Professionals of Color Mentoring Round Table, these events provide structured opportunities to network with others in the field. The purpose of these events is not only to provide a chance for mentorship for one night, but also to help you establish connections that last beyond the conference. Whether you’re looking for advice for training, research, service, or navigating the field in general, these events are a must for early career school psychologists.

Reach out. It helps look up sessions and events where you are most likely to meet the people you are hoping to add to your network. For example, poster sessions are often a mingling spot for those interested in similar research. If there is a particular person you have in mind, attend their talk and introduce yourself afterwards. This strategy is also helpful for building a network that includes faculty in similar stages of career development. Most people think of networking as building relationships with already well-established individuals. Just as important is the ability to build working relationships with those who share your interests (e.g., research, training) and will have similar experiences as a growing professional. A strong, collaborative cohort is priceless.

Distribute business cardsFor those times that you only have a few minutes to introduce yourself, always have a business card as a back-up. This is a good way to handle the “I really want to touch base again but I need to go” moment that so often happens. And don’t be afraid to ask for contact information in return.

Rinse and repeat. Regardless of your personal style, repetition is required for successful networking. Everyone is busy and often introduced to many people throughout the week. So don’t be surprised if someone you met at the last conference doesn’t remember you. Be prepared to re-introduce yourself, and your interests, multiple times. And if your first meeting didn’t go quite as well as you had hoped, start over with a clean mind set the next time you get the chance to introduce yourself.

Attend Special Topic/Group Events: There is always at least one, if not more, break out sessions that you will find helpful for improving your research or training. There are also events sponsored by the Society for the Study of School Psychology that offer guidance and networking related specifically to research. In particular, the Early Career Forum is also hosting several events, listed at the end of this post. Additionally, there are several interest groups that meet throughout the conference. Learn more about groups you may want to join by visiting booths in the exhibit hall or reaching out to the organizers. These groups are a great way to get involved.

Be a Learner. With all the networking, socializing, and business meetings it can be easy to forget that one of the main purposes of the conference is to learn from others. While it is good to attend sessions relevant to your research, it is also helpful to attend sessions about topics you don’t know as much about. This is particularly important if there are topics included in your courses that you are not as familiar with through your research or clinical experiences. This is a chance to learn something new, as opposed to spending the week absorbing information you already knew. Listen to those around you, hear others’ ideas and experiences, and learn from them.

Get Comfortable. NASP can be a long week and involves a lot of walking. At the same time, there are also long periods of sitting in chairs that vary in comfort (or even the floor). You should dress for the occasion, but do so comfortably. Breaking in a new pair of shoes is not recommended, nor is wearing clothes that would keep you from power walking to your next event. Along those lines, it’s helpful to pack a snack and bottle of water just in case meals are delayed (or missed entirely).

Work Hard, Play Hard, Be Mindful. As school psychologists, we work hard. And we know how to play hard. The most successful of us do both in equal measure. The NASP convention offers plenty of opportunities to get work done while having fun as well. Plan out a path for the week that gives you the greatest chance of meeting your professional goals (e.g., professional development, networking, getting new research ideas), but be flexible in its execution. Explore the local culture, but be back in time for that reception/social hour/networking event. Be mindful in the experiences you seek out by choosing activities that will be the most beneficial to your professional growth, do not try to do it all. And if you have a moment, stop and take in the fact that you are in a field that allows you to be a lifelong learner, build lasting professional relationships, and all while impacting the services provided to those who need it the most.

Finally, don’t forget about the Early Career Forum events at NASP 2017 listed here.

See you in San Antonio!

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