Participation in conferences is vital for aspiring and current academics. You should work towards presentation at a conference as soon as possible in your studies, though of course that means you have to have some work worth presenting! Most but not all conferences are expecting completed empirical work to be presented – but it typically doesn’t have to be as much as a full dissertation’s worth, and depending on the conference, work in formative stages, preliminary results, or other types of work are also welcomed. Each conference has its own “flavor” and you have to figure that out: look for the presentations and information from the last year’s conference.
Often a course paper which involves the proposal of an empirical project might provide the opportunity to actually complete the project over the next months for presentation at a suitable conference. Most conferences work by requiring submission of a proposal for a paper presentation by a deadline several (even six months) before the actual conference. Typically you don’t have to have the results in hand at the time you make the proposal: for some conferences you might only have to submit the equivalent of an abstract (without the findings portion, of course, since you don’t have them yet! But you do have to make a strong argument for the potential value of the work).
Then if your proposal is accepted, you are expected to confirm rather quickly whether you will attend, and if so you must make sure the work is complete in advance of the conference – there is usually a requirement to submit the paper (typically 25-30 pages) to the chair of your panel several weeks before the conference date. That is very important. It is VITAL that if you do commit to doing a paper when accepted, you then follow through, complete the work on schedule and ATTEND THE CONFERENCE. Otherwise you are letting your panel and the conference organizers down – because they allocated you a scarce resource. You can hurt your reputation by not following through, and you can lessen your chances of ever getting into that conference in the future.
Some conferences have poster sessions, and if your work is not accepted for a paper/presentation, it may be accepted for a poster. Don’t dismiss this out of hand: when administered properly, poster sessions can actually allow you to get more in-depth conversation in with people who are actually interested than can panel presentations! Posters can still be listed on CVs, though they are not ranked as high as paper presentations. In the natural sciences, posters are completely respectable, and at some very large conferences in the social sciences they are really essential; their use at smaller social science conferences is still tentative depending on the conference. Don’t be afraid to ask for information on how long posters will be up, and how poster sessions will be handled, so you can gauge whether they are going to be used productively or not at a particular conference – before you decide to confirm your acceptance for the poster session.