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The Academic Conference: tips and advice

One of the topics that pops up regularly on the #phdadvice Twitter hashtag are questions about academic conferences – how one should dress, how to prepare, how to make the best of the opportunity and suchlike. Having been to a fair few of these across several subject areas I thought now was the time to do a quick run down of academic conference tips and advice. I’ve organised this into dos and don’ts. This may seem overly negative and prescriptive but there really are certain social niceties that need to be adhered to. I’m going to cover the main positions you could find yourself in at a conference – Chair and Panellist before finally thinking about what makes a good academic audience. (There is of course the role of discussant, but that’s a little more complex and deserves a blog of its own)

The Chair

The function of the chair is twofold: to bring order to the proceedings by introducing the panellists, keeping time and fielding questions and also to prompt discussion, keep the dialogue flowing and hopefully preside over a stimulating sharing of ideas.

Do:

  • Make sure you know all the people presenting on your panel. Introduce yourself to them, check how to pronounce their names and that their institutional affiliation is correct in the programme. This will avoid much embarrassment later.
  • Introduce yourself to the audience! It helps create a more communal atmosphere and produces much better discussions. Think of yourself as a compare and try to warm the audience up a little. If there are links (and there should be!) between the papers then point them out and highlight that they would provide a good basis for subsequent discussion.
  • Direct discussion if it becomes tied to one very specific point or gets too exclusive between a panellist and questioner. Keep the dialogue as open as possible, be inclusive, make sure everyone can participate.
  • Make suggestions to speakers about avenues they might explore – but do it kindly, don’t be presumptuous about your own expertise: ‘I wonder whether….’ is always better than, ‘You need to read….’

Don’t:

  • Let panellists plough on and on when they’re clearly running out of, or over, time. Never be afraid to interject (at a polite moment) and ask them to wrap up the paper. It’s incredibly rude to go over time and frustrating for other panellists and audience members when Chairs allow it to happen. Fairness for all is crucial in this scenario. There’s only so much time and everyone is deserving of their 15 minutes.
  • Do not respond to papers by giving your own lengthy appraisal. You are not a discussant.
  • Never let the silence go on too long after a speaker has finished. It’s incredibly debilitating and can wreck confidence. Always have a question ready in case nothing is forthcoming from the floor – often this is just initial reticence anyway and once one person (you!) has started the ball rolling more will usually follow.

The Panellist:

What’s key in being a good panellist is remembering what you’re trying to achieve. You might – very probably have – done significant amounts of research. Your paper is likely to be connected to ongoing career work or your thesis. You probably know a lot. But you don’t have to put it ALL in the paper. Conferences are great for testing out a work in progress, or disseminating the results of your research but you can’t fit it all in. I’ve seen far too many people try to tell their audience the whole remit of their PhD thesis in 20 minutes. Invariably it runs over and wrongness ensues…

Do:

  • Practice, practice, practice! Make sure you know your ideas inside out. If your paper is theory heavy you might want to have an outline on paper but as far as possible try not to just read the paper. Act it. PRESENT your research. I can read and if I want to do that I’ll find your articles and sit down with them. Conferences are much more dynamic – try and make your contribution fit in with this ethos.
  • On the subject of practising, make sure that you’re UNDER the time limit. If you’ve been given 30 minutes prepare 20-25 minutes of talk. If you’ve been given 15 minutes prepare 10-12 minutes of talk. Here’s the one incontrovertible golden rule of conference speaking: DO NOT GO OVER YOUR ALLOTTED TIME. IT IS RUDE. Nothing – nothing – frustrates me more as an audience member or chair than someone who, even with repeated reminding of time limits, still goes over their allotted time. You were told how long your paper should be and you prepared something that doesn’t fit. Take heed of the fact that the audience isn’t just there to see you, that others have worked equally as hard on their paper and are due their time. As a rule of thumb if you’re writing it out a 30 minute paper is usually about 3000 words. Remember too that you should be presenting not reading it so you need to factor in doing this at a decent pace whereby you don’t garble your words and lose your audience.
  • Try and use some visuals – PowerPoint is the obvious choice but Prezi is gaining and looks more sophisticated. Do you have handouts that might be useful? Or examples of research you could pass around your audience? Can you make the presentation tangible?
  • Arrive early to set up…simple stuff so often missed.
  • Do what feels comfortable for you in regards to presentation style. Sit if you want to sit, move if you want to move. Don’t be restricted by what others have done before you.

Don’t:

  • I’m going to say it again: DO NOT GO OVER YOUR ALLOTTED TIME. Just don’t.
  • Don’t be tempted to respond negatively to attacks from your audience. Sadly it does happen and it’s not to be allowed but you won’t look good by being dragged down by it. Retain your composure and act professionally – this will reflect well on you even if the criticisms were valid but terribly expressed.
  • Don’t grandstand. This is not a time for egos.
  • Don’t put in everything you’ve ever learned ever in your life since you were in Reception class. Pick a sliver of your research. Then narrow it down and present a portion of the sliver. This means you’ll be more likely to keep to time and honestly, it will be much easier for your audience to engage with your work.
  • Try not to be nervous! This is easier said than done of course but your work will be understood with far more authority if you present yourself as collected and calm. Drink lots of water during it – use this as a way of pacing yourself and not speaking too fast.

Audience member:

  • Make sure you engage with the paper that has been presented not the one you would have written. It’s not your research, it’s something that could influence you, intersect with your work or be looking at in tandem. If everyone was writing from the same perspective we wouldn’t need universities and academic life would be very dull indeed.
  • Be respectful in your questions – remember that the speaker you’re interrogating is a person! Be kind, don’t let your ego get in the way.
  • Don’t try and turn the discussion round to your own work. For obvious reasons.
  • Make suggestions to the speaker(s) but frame them in the way recommended to the Chair.
  • Don’t play with your phone during presentations. I was horrified at a recent conference as to how many people were blatantly checking their emails and messages during presentations.
  • Similarly think about whether you really need to use your laptop – are you just checking emails/playing Solitaire? Of course some people take notes this way but for conferences you’re unlikely to be taking the sort of copious notes that require a laptop. Could you do without it? They seem more and more to be a barrier to communication and inhibit a sense of a collective forming at a panel.

As @afrayn commented on Twitter ‘[I’m] alarmed how much of this advice boils down to ‘be inclusive + don’t be obnoxious’. Lots of this is really quite obvious – social skills, manners etc. It’s simple really – so many of the rules of life apply to academia as well. Conferences are great fun – I know they’re academic events but try not to take them too seriously. Go along with the intention of simply talking to interesting folk and presenting an aspect of your work and you won’t go far wrong. And most of all enjoy the experience!

*NB: I received lots of really great suggestions for conference dos and don’ts from people on Twitter – many thanks to everyone who made a suggestion. You can read the original contributions on the Storify here and keep the debate going via the #phdadvice hashtag.

Also I’d like to continue this discussion – have I missed any tips/techniques? And what should the role of the discussant be? Are they well used or a pointless level of talk? Let me know what you think here or on Twitter @msfloraposte

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9 thoughts on “The Academic Conference: tips and advice

  1. Pingback: Opportunity knocks more than once « Amicae Curiae

    • Indeed, I had this discussion with people on Twitter. Personally I still find that a bit distracting and would rather a collective was created in the room than attendees being concerned with live tweeting but I have also simply seen extreme rudeness – checking of emails etc. Generally speaking I’m more for giving the speaker your full attention and engaging with what’s happening in the room rather than thinking too much about twitter followers. Though admittedly others have said that live tweeting helps them to concentrate…perhaps it’s just good manners to ask first?

  2. Nice post! I will link it to the one I wrote about a recent academic seminar in Nottingham. All the panellists ran over time, naturlich.
    http://manchesterclimatemonthly.net/2012/06/23/event-report-a-game-of-one-half-witnessed/
    Also, there’s something on page two of the latest “Manchester Climate Monthly” that may amuse – about “comment tennis”.
    http://manchesterclimatemonthly.net/2012/07/02/manchester-climate-monthly-7-july-2012-out-now/

    All best wishes
    Marc Hudson

    PS Compere, not compare.

  3. Pingback: Event Report: A game of one half – witnessed | manchester climate monthly

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