Academic Conference Advice


I don’t know if I’ve ever stated it on the dope, but I’m currently working on my master’s in American history. I have submitted papers to several conferences. One of them was kind enough to accept my work and invite me to make a presentation. Its pretty straightforward. I’ll give a fifteen minute talk, and then participate in a panel discussion.

I’ve never even been to a conference, much less presented at one. Obviously I’ll consult with my classmates and professors, but I’d love to get advice from the dope as well.

I have to send in a one paragraph biography to appear in the program. What kind of information should I include? What should I expect from this experince? Any advice on what to do or avoid? How should I dress? All advice is greatly apprecitated.

My field is education and I’ve presented many times - almost always symposia with colleagues researching similar topics.

My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. From early grad student days to professor, people have been very interested in my work and positive with feedback. Unless you are researching the hottest topic of the day, the people who attend your session will likely be enthusiastic and interested in your work. So a lot of networking opportunities abound.

I would definitely consult with someone who is familiar with the vibe of your particular conference. However, here’s some things I’ve done:
[li]Check to see if there is a newcomer’s session, or a mentor system for the conference, where they pair you up with a veteran.[/li][li]Always carry business cards. Have your 30-second spiel about your research ready.[/li][li]Set up a website with your paper and slides and include the URL in your presentation. You don’t want to heft around thirty copies of your paper if you can avoid it![/li][li]Consider a “takeaways” one-page or half-page sheet for audience members, and those who are interested in attending but can’t make it for whatever reason.[/li][li]Be social! Go out for drinks with colleagues and network. As much as you are on display, you’re also checking out people in the field and different departments. If you find out they’re douchebags you have little to lose at this point in your career.[/li][li]Make a point of e-mailing people doing research on topics of interest to you before the conference - see if you can meet up for a few minutes to say hi. Same goes for luminaries in the field.[/li][/ul]
As far as dress goes, I go business casual during the day, business formal when I present (suit/tie), and evening casual at night - something you can wear to a mixer, but also a lounge. There might be caucus or university meetings at the evenings - go to these; there might be free booze and food… and schmoozing.

I think your bio should include your current affiliation, your current research, and any awards you have earned (fellowships count). Stick to the minimum - if it’s a paragraph they ask for, make sure it’s no more than that.

I think you should avoid being a wallflower - I am not a super social person, but I get in the mode for conferences. It’s fun, it’s what you should be doing, and you can recover when you get back home.

Walk through your talk and invite some colleagues to listen - giving you feedback but also asking questions about your work, so you’ll be ready for the panel part. Some of the uncomfortable moments I’ve observed come up when it’s clear someone has rehearsed their presentation umpteen times, but hasn’t thought about questions - methodological concerns, validity issues, parallel research in the field - and it might sound as if the presenter is defensive, when the questioner was really wanting to hear the presenter’s thoughts on a development.

Have fun, carry your presentation in multiple locations (flash drive, CD-R, website), be sure to check out the venue the day before you present, and make sure your powerpoint slides look okay!

If you’re new the academic scene I’d keep your bio brief: affiliation, thesis title (if you have one already), advisor, few broad areas of research.

The #1 thing to ask is whether or not you will be expected to prepare and read from a script for your talk or speak extemporaneously, with some notes for guidance. One of my research areas is highly interdisciplinary, so I have presented at conferences across multiple disciplines (not history, alas). Nothing, in my experience, distracts an audience more than reading when the expectation is that you won’t (you will be “that person who read” to the audience members) or speaking with notes when the expectation is that you will read. Expectations can vary in the same discipline, so be sure to ask people who are doing research that is close to your own. Also be sure to check out expectations in re: the use of powerpoint slides or other technology.

If History is anything like my discipline (and it is an ally, of sorts), then unless you’ll be at a huge conference like AHA, I would expect the atmosphere to be pretty casual (as a first time presenter you’ll probably be shocked at how blase the seasoned veterans are). At the big conferences there is a slightly higher risk of more posturing (OK, there’s a HUGE risk of more posturing) and that the audience in Q-and-A will be more hostile (because there are always the folks who think they can draw attention to how intelligent and critical they are by being a belligerent twit to one of the panelists…if this happens to you just stay calm and act confused; that sort of behavior almost always reflects poorly on the questioner).

I’ve never been to a smaller conference that wasn’t friendly, and that type of conference would provide the types of social networking opportunities that Hippy Hollow talked about (I agree with everything in his/her post).

Even if it’s not required, I would circulate a copy of your remarks/paper among the other panelists beforehand. Some disciplines ask that papers be submitted 2-3 weeks before so that another panelist may read and comment; if that applies to your discipline, no one will string you up if you are late, but try to have it in a week before the conference.

I agree with the above advice in general, and want to add that you should begin building your good habits now by not waiting until the last minute to write your section. I’ve watched colleagues write their talks on the plane trip to conferences and I think it’s contemptuous. Tweaking your comments closer to the conference is okay, but have your outline or talk written before you go.

I, too, am a history grad student, and have my first not-just-my-friends-and-profs conference presentation coming up in March. I will be following this thread eagerly!

First of all, congratulations on the invitation. At your level of studies that isn’t common, so someone must think you’re pretty with it.

I’ve done talks too numerous to recall, and have been on or organized lots of panels, one award winning. I’ve also been session chair for lots of sessions, been on the program committee of a very large EE conference for over 15 years, and have been program chair and general chair for it. I’ve founded a bunch of workshops, and have been program chair for quite a few.

First of all: bio. Not that important. It is needed for the session chair to introduce you - it is often done seconds before the session. All you need is where you are going to school now, where you got your BA, and your research interests.

I don’t know about history, but no one in my field ever reads from a script - unless they are foreign presenters with a very fuzzy knowledge of English. Reading your presentation sounds terrible.

The best advice I have for your talk is - practice. Make sure you will hit the time alloted. Running over or running under is a bad thing. Start a stop watch, and do your talk, over and over, until you get the timing right. Look for places where the flow of the talk seems off. For me this is when I start referring to things five slides in the future. That means you might want to reorganize it.

Assuming that you are using PowerPoint, follow the guidelines the conference gives out. If they don’t give out any, try the following:

No more than five or six bullet points per slide.

Bullets no more than one line, two at the very most.

Make sure the colors you use are visible in a large room. We use yellow on blue.

Use lots of pictures if possible.

Don’t use complete sentences.

Most of all, don’t read your slides. The bullets should be a guide to you to jog your memory about the next point.

Don’t worry about questions from the audience. Our conference has a rule that session chairs should cut off hostile questions to students. If your professor will be there, he or she should come to your defense, but most people are reasonable. Professors and grizzled industry veterans are expected to handle any hostility.

Is the panel the way presenters answer questions, or is about a specific subject? If the former, my points about questions apply. If the latter, think before your answer.

One more thing, that my advisor taught me. Listen to the talks before yours, and refer to them, briefly, if appropriate. It makes you sound more with it. Sometimes consecutive people make the same point - acknowledging this will win you points with the audience.

For dress, ask your professor. Suits or jackets are pretty much always fine (and they’ll cut you slack for being over-dressed) but most experienced presenters at my conference no longer wear them. I did in 2006, but only because my talk was right after me being on stage for the plenary.

Basically, use this experience for networking and practice. My first talk was as a Masters student, and I was in the dark because my advisor had just died on me. Looking back I made a perfect hash out of it, but the audience was very nice and I eventually did well in the field, eventually becoming program chair of the conference. The best thing about it was that I was at the lunch table of the author of the paper that got me interested in the area, that was cool. When you network, listen, but don’t hesitate to ask some questions. Look for people whose work you especially like.
Good luck, don’t worry, and practice!

If you use PowerPoint, assume that it won’t work, and have a copy of your slides available for your reference.

ETA: Clothing–dress up, not down. Students look particularly ill-prepared if they’re not in at least business casual. Your sneakers aren’t charming with this outfit. Faculty sometimes underdress, but usually not until they have tenure. Remember that people who see you at the conference are your colleagues, and one of these days they’ll be deciding between you and some other person to fill their vacancy. You do not want to be “that student in '08 who looked like s/he just crawled out of bed!”

Voyager, at the conferences I’ve attended (including the Big One in my discipline), presenters all read their papers, and I can’t recall anyone using PowerPoint, so maybe that’s (as ACC_Expat noted) one of those differences. I definitely plan on reading mine - there’s no chance I’ll be as precise in my language or my points if I just speak off the cuff.

What they all said, with an emphasis on networking and socializing. You will get more information and access than you can believe once people know you as you, not just as a name. Most of my interesting offers and such are a result of after-hours get-togethers years ago.

Interesting. While PowerPoint is fairly recent, the first conference I attended, back in 1975, used view-graphs, and my conference used to use 35 mm slides before we switched to computers.

Do people ever refer to graphs or tables? If so, do they have flip charts, and how does that work in a big room?

Of all the excellent advice, I’d agree that this is most important. At least in computer science, where absolutely no one reads their presentation. And don’t make the mistake of doing it silently in your head; it’s entirely too easy to think “I’ll cover this point here”, then totally botch it when actually speaking the words. And one minor, imprecise point can derail your entire presentation, especially if someone takes it upon themselves to delve.

On the other hand, I have to say that not all disciplines are like computer science; I went to a philosophy presentation where the (tenured, top-in-his-field) professor literally read his paper word for word. I was aghast, not to mention rather disappointed, but later found out that that’s simply the way it’s done. If that’s the case in your field, it makes practicing much less important.

Even reading from your paper is much improved by practice and makes your work that much less excruciating for the audience to sit through. Projection, eye contact, and familiarity with the flow of the material are all important.

Definitely. Even if you read a paper, reading it as if you had memorized it and looking down only every so often helps a lot. I try to make eye contact with a few people in the audience.

But the biggest factor in a good talk is animation, and I think that is not something easy to teach. We’ve improved slide quality a lot, thanks to PPT which lets program committee members edit bad slides, but we can’t do anything about boring speakers. A presentation is a performance. But, like acting, people either have it or they don’t.

I actually wouldn’t worry too much about botching it in this way. We collect feedback on talks, from cards we leave on the chairs, and I’ve read hundreds of comments on hundreds of presentations. I’ve seen people criticizing speaking style, slide format, and the gist of the talk, but I’ve never seen a comment about a bad detail. (If it happened, you should get a question.) Hardly anyone knows what was supposed to be said, people who care will read the paper anyway, and, like on stage, better to push through than get bogged down on a triviality.

But do practice aloud, and if possible do it before an audience.

From personal experience, the questions mid-presentation are what I was thinking of. And I suppose that rather than “imprecise”, I should’ve said “tangential”. As a novice, it’s entirely too easy to, as my advisor put it, “open a can of worms”. It opens you up to criticisms out of your area when one gets a relatively unimportant point wrong that is (merely) tangential to the talk. And heaven forbid the detail conflicts with the questioner’s own line of research. This being most common when extemporizing on an ill-thought-out idea. With a bunch of talks under your belt, it’s easy to see where the slip-up was, and correct it quickly. As a first time speaker, inexperience and nervousness can be a bad combination that gets one off message.

The ultimate point being, again, practice. Know what you’ll say and how you’ll say it. For the most part, the audience will be polite, understanding, and make allowances. However, there’s always a chance of encountering an intellectually hostile audience member, and it sucks when it happens.

Don’t let us scare you, though–conferences in your discipline are likely to be interesting and welcoming. Remember, you’re one of the country’s experts on your areas of focus.

Certainly! I feel like I’m casting a pall over this, which I don’t mean to do. So, an attempt at levity:

Yes, a relevant Simpsons clip would likely go over well… :smiley:

Hey, my Harry Potter presentation was a huge success. It’s the only time I’ve run out of copies!

This seems like a good time to post Geoff Pullum’s Five Golden Rules. Words to live by!!

Hey, Thrash, are you presenting at the one in Albequerque this week? I’m going to be there (not presenting). It’s my first academic conference (I’m working on a BA in History) and I wanted to get an idea of what kind of papers are presented.

Here’s a question for you: what kind of questions would you like to get from the audience?