Sunday, March 9, 2014

Making the Most of the AERA Annual Meeting: A Primer for Graduate Students and Other Higher Education Scholars

Greetings, Fellow Graduate Students and Higher Education Scholars!

As we approach this year’s Annual Meeting, we’ve been thinking about what we as Division J graduate students stand to gain from attending AERA’s major annual event, particularly given that it will take place in the awesome city of Philadelphia!  As such, we’ve performed our own AERA Annual Meeting attendance cost-benefit analyses.  Our findings suggest that the Meeting is surely worth the costs.  While it certainly can be an expensive and time-consuming event, the unparalleled opportunities for 1) cross-disciplinary learning, 2) meeting other graduate students, faculty members, and practitioners, and 3) professional development tailored specifically for graduate students (not to mention all that Philadelphia has to offer) make this Annual Meeting one you don't want to miss! 

Enhance your scholarship through cross-disciplinary learning.
It’s true, AERA is MASSIVE. For those of us who have attended other higher education conferences, AERA might sound overwhelming and perhaps impossible to navigate.  AERA brings together thousands of scholars from all over the country and even the world; in fact, in the hosting city, you’re basically guaranteed to see at least a few people with AERA nametags anywhere you go. While such an immense event is understandably intimidating for graduate students, AERA’s size is actually one of its strongest assets. AERA is the only conference that offers higher education scholars numerous opportunities for inter-divisional learning and interaction: 

      Interested in the politics of higher education?  Division L scholars are doing some exciting work in policy and politics in education that you can couple with Division J activities
      Interested in the social context of higher education? Division G
      History of higher education? Division F
      Administration? Division A

Even the best graduate programs are limited in their ability to expose students to various research topics, theories, and methods, particularly because graduate student instruction is often dependent upon the expertise of the faculty members in the department.  For this reason, conferences are invaluable opportunities to complement the training offered by our programs and gain exposure to those topics, theories, and methods we might not otherwise encounter.  AERA, in particular, has the added value of providing insight from other disciplines and niches within education research, practice, and policy, making it one conference no graduate student should miss!  For more information on other divisions and their events at this year’s Meeting, search by Unit-> Division on the Online Program Portal:

Establish meaningful relationships.
More people = greater probability that you will establish a meaningful relationship. 

Whether you are…
a)     On the job market and looking to meet other practitioners, faculty members, or administrators,
b)     Looking to find a scholar with whom to collaborate or bounce ideas off of for a research project,
c)     Curious about the graduate student experiences in other programs,
…you’re bound to find someone with whom you’ll connect!

Of course, for some of us it can be an anxiety-inducing experience to attend a social, introduce yourself to someone, or ask a question at the end of a paper presentation.  But don’t fret! Within the Division J graduate student community, we’ve tried to make this process more amiable by creating a sense of community. Here are a couple of things you can do to make AERA smaller:

      Attend our graduate student breakfast social. Our Division J Vice President, Dr. Adrianna Kezar (University of Southern California), has been kind enough to offer her hotel suite as the venue for our graduate student breakfast.  This is an informal, casual opportunity to meet other graduate students and faculty members (and, of course, Dr. Kezar).  We’ve intentionally scheduled the social at the beginning of the conference to provide an opportunity to make a buddy or two from the start (trust me, it happens). Be sure to like our Facebook page for up to date announcements about the location of this event. RSVP here,

      Join our Mentoring Match program.  Our two awesome coordinators, Jason T. Jones and Luis Leyva, have created a program to match graduate students for the 2014 AERA Annual Meeting. Graduate students are matched based on professional and personal interests.  As a mentor or mentee, you can meet with your buddy once or you can attend multiple conference events together.  The best part: registration is now open. Sign up to be a mentor or mentee today!

Develop professionally.
What if you’re not presenting?  The great thing about AERA is that it’s much more than just a research conference. In addition to simply demystifying the conference and presentation process (an important step for graduate students), AERA presents a myriad of opportunities for professional development.  For instance, the Division J Graduate Student Reps will be hosting two exciting panels with top scholars in the field:

      Alleviating “Teamwork” Anxieties: How to Establish and Sustain Successful Collaborative Publication-Oriented Relationships –
Drs. Shaun Harper, Ryan Gildersleeve, Cecilia Rios- Aguilar, Nick Hillman, and Riyad Shahjahan will discuss ways in which you can get more involved with research (as graduate students) and, more importantly, how to navigate the collaboration process.
      Beyond Academia: Reaching a Broader Audience –
Drs. Gary Rhoades, Marybeth Gasman, Erin Castro, and Liliana Garces will discuss challenges related to reaching a broader audience, including those that arise from engaging in efforts that are not traditionally rewarded in academia.

And now for the elephant in the room: the cost of attending AERA 2014.  We’ve wondered, too, why the “big” conferences in higher education always seem to be in the most expensive cities!   Especially for graduate student budgets, we understand the challenges associated with travelling to Philly and paying for a hotel.  Here are some ways to ease the pain:

1.     Split the room! We’ve put together a Division J roommate matching program. Check it out: 
2.     If possible, take a bus or train
3.     Once there, take advantage of FREE FOOD at the many receptions throughout the conference, such as the Division J Graduate Student Breakfast and the Division J Business Meeting.
4.     Seek out departmental/institutional funding or travel grants

Now that you've decided to go (or at least are considering it), here are a few tips to make the best of your AERA experience:

      Consider your goals. What do you intend to get out of your trip?  Do you hope to meet a faculty member? Do you hope to learn more about your dissertation topic? Do you plan to make at least one graduate student buddy? Do you want to learn about some potential methods to answer the research questions in which you’re interested? Do you want to successfully present your paper? (Do you want to visit the Liberty Bell?)
      Review the Online Program. You don’t need to plan out every hour of every day (in fact, it’s probably a good idea to leave some room for unplanned activities), prioritize the socials you might want to attend and the presentations you might want to see. What topic are you interested in learning more about? What methods? Is there a scholar whose work you’ve been following and would like to learn more about?
o      Go to socials! These are the best opportunities to meet potential collaborators, other faculty members, or even a new friend. Don’t like to attend socials alone? Find a buddy to join you (perhaps a mentor or mentee).  Or, come talk to us (Div J Grad Student Reps)!  We’d be happy to introduce you to other grad students and would love to meet you!
o      Don’t be afraid to look outside Division J! Look for presentations, socials and other activities in other divisions that might be relevant to your research, personal or professional interests.  This is one of the coolest things about AERA - take advantage of it!
      Set up meetings. Have an old colleague you want to catch up with?  How about a faculty member from your master’s program, or someone your advisor recommended talking to (e.g., regarding your research topics)?  Email them to see if they have some time to chat.  Don’t be discouraged if their schedule is booked – there’s always next year! If you do set up a time to chat with a faculty member, especially one with whom you’ve never met before, be sure to prep!  Know what you want to get out of the meeting and do your homework ahead of time. This might be an incredible opportunity and you certainly want to make a good first impression!
      Pack appropriately. Make sure to pack professional clothes, casual clothes, and comfortable shoes. As you may have noticed, there are multiple venues for conference activities, which means you may be doing a lot of walking.
      Finally, if you’re presenting, don’t forget to bring your materials, including printouts, a USB or whatever you might need.  Also, be sure to practice beforehand and to prep well for Q&A. Whether you’re presenting or not, be sure to hit as many of your Meeting goals as possible and, most importantly: HAVE A BLAST!  

As always, if you have any questions or comments regarding the Annual Meeting or anything else Division J Grad Students are doing, please don’t hesitate to contact us at Finally, consider getting more involved with AERA Division J!  We are currently looking for a graduate student representative and committee member- at- large.  Check out our Facebook page for more information on the call for applications.

See you in Philly!!

Denisa, Blanca and Catherine
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