Your First Conference Part 1:What to Expect
Conferences are a great way for graduate students to learn about academia and expand their network. The conference environment is uniquely suited to providing a forum in which one can present original research and offer feedback, or debate among members of the same field. This is a great opportunity for graduate students to present their own research and gain some valuable feedback.
Below are some tips to help you prepare for your first conference presentation. Keep in mind, the best way to prepare is to check with the chair or respondents of the panel well in advance of the conference so that you can organize according to their suggestions.
PRIOR TO THE CONFERENCE
How do I get accepted into the conference?
The conference website has all the information about the submission process for that specific event (as requirements may vary). Be sure to examine the registration form and the submission instructions so that you know what is expected of your proposal when you sit down to submit. Most importantly, you need a basic idea articulated clearly in an abstract with an appropriate title. Keep in mind the timeline between your submission and the conference date(s) to ensure that you can cover the points made in the abstract.
How should I decide which sections to submit my proposal?
Again, consult the conference website, there will usually be an invitation to submit that describes the year’s conference theme. Your abstract should reflect the conference theme. Although you likely have a general sense of which panel would best suit your paper based on your abstract topic, the sections listed will be more specific.
Should I volunteer to serve as a discussant or chair of a panel?
No. Neither of these roles are suitable for graduate students. Chairs must assert their authority to keep presentations to their allotted time, and discussants critique others’ work (neither of which a graduate student has nearly enough experience for). However, in rare cases, you may be contacted by a panel organizer to serve in one of these roles if you have particular expertise or to be a part of a discussion among other graduate students.
Can I get funding to attend the conference?
Consult your department about institutional funds available and relevant deadlines/eligibility requirements as early as possible each semester. You can also look into academic societies (such as Phi Kappa Phi) or related groups at your school who will also help with transportation or lodging assistance. However, some do require you becoming a member first.
Where should I stay during the conference?
An association can sometimes get the meeting space for free if enough attendees stay at the host hotel, so conferences usually encourage attendees to stay at the hotel where the conference is being held. However, if the conference has to pay for the meeting rooms, then the registration costs go up. For a graduate student on a limited budget, it makes financial sense to stay elsewhere. Keep in mind though, that planning ahead and finding some conference roommates can be a great way to bring costs down no matter where you stay.
PREPARING FOR THE CONFERENCE
How should I get ready for the conference?
Prep your presentation. We cannot stress enough the importance of preparing for conference presentations. Practice your presentation several times to ensure that you stick to your allocated time and this will help you to be confident and at ease while presenting. In most cases, visuals never hurt either, so some graphics and images (such as charts or statistics) put together in a slideshow can supplement your presentation. However, keep it short. The number of slides should be minimized to 1 slide for every two minutes of presentation. Panel presentations typically have a limited amount of time and you want to be respectful to the other panelists by ensuring you give them enough time to present as well.
Read the online program. To make the most of your time at the conference, explore the program in advance to plan out your time as there can be dozens of panels to choose from. Choose panels based upon researchers you would like to meet and topics that align with your interests. If you wait to choose what presentations to attend the day of, or aimlessly follow friends and colleagues around, you won’t have a worthwhile experience.
Pack your business cards. A business card is one of the greatest networking tools available. Make sure to include your name, credentials, department/topics of interest, and institution, as well as ways to contact you (phone, email, Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc.).
How much time will I have to present my paper?
Contact the chair of your panel to find out the exact time allotted to your presentation; as their role is to distribute time across the presenters, discussant(s), and audience. Some chairs will shorten the time for presenters and panelists to get the audience involved quicker, or vice versa. This means you will also need to anticipate in-depth audience questions. However, the average time for presentations is usually between 10-20 minutes.
What if I need to withdraw from the conference?
Inform. Inform. Inform. If a family emergency occurs or if you cannot secure funding, you may suddenly be unable to attend the conference. As soon as you know, inform your panel chair and members that you will not be able to present/attend. Although most people understand that life happens and emergencies come up, professional courtesy is important.