Getting Ready for Your First Academic Conference
I attended my first academic conference last summer. It was a big deal as I was presenting a paper. But I was extremely nervous during my presentation and ultimately left feeling dejected. I underestimated how it would feel to present in front of my peers. Beforehand I thought, “I talk in front of a class full of students every week, it shouldn’t be harder than that.” But being in front of 20-something people, many of whom were experts in the field, left me quite scared.
After returning home, I read an article about the do’s and don’t’s of academic conferences and I, unfortunately, had done all of the don’t’s on the list! This was mortifying. Later, after I had chosen an academic advisor and relayed the story to him, he said, “You jumped into the deep end,” and suggested I try a smaller, regional conference next time.
I don’t want anyone to be as nervous as I was. So I compiled a list of helpful tips that, in hindsight, would’ve been beneficial to me.
Tips for Your First Academic Conference
Select the Right Conference to Attend
The first step in navigating an academic conference is choosing one that fits your topic of interest, level of expertise, and budget. Know what the main associations are for your discipline and subject areas. Going to a large annual convention might be overwhelming (and expensive). For a first conference, it might be better to stick to a smaller, lower-stakes regional conference. Conferences based around a specific subfield are sometimes also friendlier places to be. In addition, there are many graduate-student run conferences that are good to cut your teeth on. It may feel more comfortable to first present to a room of your peers than a room of experts in the field. These conferences can also often be attended for free and without having to leave your geographical area.
If the conference does not take place in your hometown or city, you will have to find a place to stay. While there tends to be an official conference hotel where many of the events take place, this is often not the most cost-effective option. Check out local AirBnBs or consider sharing a room with a friend. Just because you don’t stay at the hotel doesn’t mean you can’t spend the majority of the conference hanging around its halls. And sometimes it’s nice to be able to sneak away to a more private space at the end of the night and take a small break from networking.
Write a Presentation Not a Paper
Remember that your presentation should be written to be spoken out loud whereas traditional seminar papers or journal articles are not. Think about the moments when you’d like to add emphasis to certain words or phrases while speaking to help give your presentation a rhythm. Intentional pauses can also help emphasize an idea and give your audience a moment to absorb it. If possible, try not to read directly off the page the entire time. As you gain more conference experience, try to move towards using cue cards or slides to jog your memory. This will allow you to make better eye contact with your audience and your speech to sound more natural.
Know Your Audience
When preparing your presentation, know your audience. This affects how you present your work, how much detail with which you describe certain theories or ideas, and what kind of jargon you do or don’t use.
Don’t Try to Cover Too Much
You can’t fit your entire dissertation or MA thesis into a conference presentation. Try to pick out one big idea that clearly addresses a problem in the field and don’t get too bogged down in the technical details.
Make Effective Slides
If you’re using a PowerPoint presentation, make sure your slides add rather than detract from your presentation. Slides should have as few words as possible and be written in large, accessible fonts. Whenever possible, use images instead. Do not read directly from your slides or include too many (more than one per minute).
At the Start of Your Presentation, Introduce Yourself
Unless your panel’s host has given you a lengthy introduction, it doesn’t hurt to introduce yourself briefly again so that people can associate your work with your name.
Keep to the Time Limit
If you have 15 minutes to speak, do not go over those 15 minutes. Keeping to time is a sign of respect for your fellow panelists (whose time you’d be cutting into), conference organizers (who need the room to open up for the following panel), and your audience (who might be on tight schedules themselves, needing to get to their own panels or relieve someone from childcare duties).
Thank Your Audience
Thanking your audience is not only a nice gesture, but also signals a clear conclusion to your presentation to avoid any awkward silence after you’ve said your last words.
Anticipate Questions You Might Be Asked During a Q&A
Most panels or presentations are followed by a Q&A with the audience. Anticipate some of the questions you might be asked. Friends might be able to help you with this by having you give them your presentation beforehand and having a practice Q&A. Another strategy is to pick out parts of your presentation you know you didn’t have time to speak fully about and, during the presentation, say you’d be happy to talk about those things in the Q&A or after the panel. Audiences will generally pick up on these hints.
Know What You’ll Do If You Can’t Answer a Question
If you don’t know the answer to a question, there’s really no need to panic. Thank the audience member for their question and say that’s something you’ll have to research further, or that you’d love to hear them tell you more about the subject when the panel is over.
Be Wary of Alcohol
Many times organizations or interest groups will host happy hours, conference dinners, or other networking events—many of which will be serving alcohol. While it’s fine to have a drink or two, be mindful of your limits. The last thing you want is to do something silly/embarrassing/offensive in front of the people that may go on to hire you in a couple of years!
Practice, Practice, Practice
Before arriving at the conference, make sure you’ve practiced your presentation. This will both boost your confidence and increase your performance. Consider practicing in front of friends who might be able to provide feedback, or, at the very least, read your presentation out loud a couple times. Don’t forget to time it to make sure you’re staying within your window. While it may make you self-conscious at first, some scholars record themselves and play it back in order to gauge their performance, including body language.
While one goal of attending a conference might be to promote and get feedback on your work, another goal should be networking. By socializing with other people at the conference, you can develop relationships that may lead to future collaborations, job opportunities, and simply more fun conference experiences. Network with the other people on your panel. When you attend a panel, talk to the people you’re sitting next to. They must be there because they, too, are interested in the material or have a connection to the speaker. Consider researching the panelists you’ve come to see beforehand and coming up with a question to ask them afterwards (I recommend doing so after the formal Q&A when you can talk to them one-on-one). Try to follow up with them after the conference is over to build the connection further.
Attending your first academic conference can be stressful, but there are many steps you can take to make the most of it anyway. Select a conference with a sympathetic audience if it’s your first time presenting. Prepare for both the presentation and the Q&A by practicing and talking to colleagues. And remember that conferences are about both sharing knowledge and making real human connections.
More great conference tips–for both in-person and virtual settings–can be found in Thomas J. Tobin’s How to Make the Most of an Academic Conference.