Conference Opportunities for Undergrads

If you're an undergrad student and thinking about a PhD, one of the best things you can do for yourself is do your own research project and present it at a conference. This is a great way to understand what the research world is really like. Plus, it will show PhD admissions committees that you already have what it takes to carry out a new research project and present your work in front of a group of experts

There are different ways to do this. If you wrote a term paper for a class, talk to your professor about further developing it and submitting it to conferences. Most schools have "honors theses" or "independent research" courses, in which you pair up with a professor and conduct your own research project with the professor's guidance. Talk to your adviser about what options are available to you.

Even if you cannot get academic credit for your research project, I recommend conducting a research project anyway as an "extracurricular activity"; ask one of your past or current professors if they would be willing to be a mentor for your project. Most professors are happy to assist eager undergraduate students, especially when they hear that you are aspiring to do a PhD.

Once you have finalized a project idea, discussed it with your research mentor, and completed preliminary data work, you are ready to apply to conferences. The process for applying to these conferences may vary, but typically you need to submit an extended abstract of your paper. To maximize your chances of getting accepted, your abstract should clearly articulate your research question and why people should care about your research; what is your unique contribution to the literature, to the field, to policy, or to society. Your abstract should also succinctly describe your data, methods, and conclusions. Note that conference deadlines are often several months before the actual conference date, so the first thing to do is to look through this list and note the deadlines.

  1. Eastern Economic Association (
  2. Midwest Economics Association (
  3. Council on Undergraduate Research (
  4. Harvard's National Collegiate Research Conference (
  5. Carroll Round Conference at Georgetown (
  6. Missouri Valley Economic Association (
  7. Posters on the Hill (
  8. International Atlantic Economic Society (
  9. Many universities hold their own undergraduate research conferences. Find out if your university has this type of opportunity and start there. 

Most conference organizing committees will take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to review submissions and select abstracts for presentation. If accepted, you may be asked to present your findings in either a poster format or as a podium presentation. Prepare your poster/slides well in advance, and get them reviewed by your mentor. (Find out from your university library if they have a plotter printer to print your poster...this is often much cheaper than trying to print at FedEx!)

During the conference, make the most of it by trying to meet as many people as you can during and in between sessions. Study the list of conference attendees a couple weeks before the conference. If there are specific grad schools you are thinking of applying to, plan to meet with professors from those schools to express your interest and learn more about the program. (Ask your own professor to send a quick introductory e-mail before the conference to help schedule a meeting.) If you're not able to schedule a meeting beforehand, attend one of the sessions where the professor is presenting and introduce yourself after the session. After the conference, send follow-up thank you e-mails and stay connected.

One more thing to note is that conferences can be expensive, particularly out-of-town conferences. Your mentor may be able to help defray the costs using his/her own research funds. You can also find out from your school as well as from the conference organizing committee whether there are travel scholarships available for undergrads. Try reducing your costs by sharing a hotel room with another student, staying with family/friends, and traveling by bus rather than by flight.