You might hate the term, or hate the practice, but there's no doubt that networking is important. It helps you build professional connections, can help you find a mentor, meet friends, and might even open up job, internship, or research opportunities. Going to a national conference places you at the heart of your discipline, and it's a great way to introduce yourself to others - in essence, it puts you "out there." Bring your business cards, pay attention to panels and presentations, and don't forget to enjoy yourself!
Scholarship and Skills
Work presented at national conferences is usually the most recent, cutting edge developments in the field. If this is important to you or your research, this is a top reason to think about going to these conferences. It also introduces you to a variety of people doing research you're interested in (ie, see above), and can be helpful in thinking about your own research and work.
In addition, many national conferences will have special seminars for graduate students. These can be incredibly helpful because you can hear from established professionals about things like breaking into the field, interview advice, polishing your CV or resume, different job opportunities, balancing work/family, and more.
It can be costly to attend a national conference, especially if you have to add in airfare and lodging. You might also have to be a member of the national organization, which is another fee (it's typically reduced for graduate students, but it's an expense, nonetheless). That being said, many schools have funds set aside in each department to help students attend conferences. They don't cover the entirety of the experience, but can help with travel expenditures or attendance fees. It might also be worth emailing the conference (far in advance) to see if there are any volunteer or work opportunities in exchange for reduced or free admission, or whether they offer funding opportunities at all. To help cut costs, find some classmates who want to attend, and then room together or travel together, if possible.
The decision to attend a national conference in your field is a personal one, and of course the pros and cons can look different for each person. That being said, it's often a good opportunity professionally and personally, and it can be a lot of fun - and don't we all need some fun during our graduate careers?
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