Academic Horror Story: The Conference
Or, What Not to Do at Conferences
by Krystina Osborne
Now that I am into my final (gasp) year as a PhD student, I have attended and presented papers at my fair share of conferences and symposia. To say that these events have been a mixed bag is somewhat of an understatement. As my life is one long awkward moment, some of the moments I would rather forget came about as a direct result of my general ineptness. For example, on numerous instances during refreshment breaks, I have confidently pressed the button for boiling water, only to watch helplessly as coffee poured onto my tea bag. On another isolated occasion – one that I hope will never be repeated – someone fainted whilst I was delivering my paper, minutes after I had joked that the erotic nature of my primary texts might cause people to feel faint. This incident has now become the basis of an anecdote with which I have begun all subsequent conference papers (and don’t worry, the audience member made a swift recovery!). Whenever I’m worrying about speaking at a certain event, that memory also serves as a reminder that, no matter how badly it goes, it’s unlikely to go that badly. Whilst that incident was beyond my control, and others – like my inability to fathom how to work hot drink machines – are doomed to be repeated, there are some conference pitfalls that I wish I’d known how to avoid when I commenced my postgraduate studies a few years ago. Here is my brief guide to what not to do, and how to avoid your conference experience turning into an academic horror story…
- Don’t avoid conferences until you feel confident enough to present at one.
The first time I gave a paper (around the halfway point of my Masters year) was also the first time I had ever attended a conference. I had no idea what to expect, what to wear or how the day would work in general. I was the second speaker of the first panel of the day, and went and sat in the middle of the audience, eagerly awaiting the first paper. I wondered what was causing the delay, until finally realising that the panel chair was waiting for the missing speaker (i.e. me) to join the others at the front. This seems so ridiculous now, but having never attended a conference before, I had absolutely no idea of the format and I felt incredibly out of place. At the time, the department I am based in at my institution had very few postgraduate students and favoured arranging research seminars rather than organising larger conferences. Until I felt confident enough to submit an abstract, I would not have considered spending money on travelling to attend an event at another institution. Now, I cannot emphasise enough how much I regret this stance. I encourage undergraduate and Masters students to start attending (free!) academic events as early as possible, in order to familiarise yourself with conference formats and to build valuable networks of other researchers in your field.
- Don’t ignore the event’s social media presence.
Most conference organisers now use an ‘official’ Twitter hashtag, in order to publicise the event ahead of time. Contributing to this hashtag also allows delegates to summarise and comment upon papers, in addition to enabling researchers who were unable to attend the event to join the conversation. My commitment to live-tweeting academic events is so strong that I often sit in panels glued to my phone and I sometimes worry that speakers think I am being rude by staring at my phone instead of at them. Live-tweeting is often a thankless task and on more than one occasion, I have been the only delegate – aside from the organisers – to utilise the conference hashtag, which is not ideal when the aim is to encourage dialogue and to extend the discussion beyond the event itself. Using the hashtag prior to the event also allows you to connect with other delegates and speakers, providing you with friendly faces to look out for on the day. Unless you don’t ‘do’ social media, there’s no excuse (particularly if the institution uses Eduroam): just don’t forget your phone charger!
- Don’t underestimate the role of panel chair.
Don’t assume that chairing a panel is simply a matter of reading out the speakers’ biographical notes and paper titles (and making a valiant attempt at pronouncing their names correctly). However draconian it may seem, you must brandish the dreaded ‘3 MINUTE WARNING’/ ‘1 MINUTE WARNING’/ ‘PLEASE STOP TALKING’ signs in order to ensure that the panel does not overrun and disrupt the remainder of the schedule. You should try to write down at least one question of your own for each speaker, to stimulate debate (even if it is one of the dreaded ‘this is to all three of you’/ one size fits all-type questions), in case the audience needs time to ‘warm up’. If a speaker does not receive any questions, you should ask them at least another one of your own, to ensure that they do not feel completely redundant. Personally, I find chairing panels more stressful than giving a paper and I admire those who make it look easy!
- Don’t dread the Q&A session.
Before I started attending and presenting at conferences regularly, the aspect that put me off the most was the prospect of the question and answer session following the papers. The idea of someone challenging me on my research? In public? Absurd! We have all seen the humorous ‘Should you ask this question?’ flowcharts mocking those who begin with ‘This is more of a comment than a question…’ and those who desperately try to link the speakers’ topics to their own research. Of course, you may be the unlucky recipient of these selfish questions, but it is more likely that the questions your paper provokes will be ones that genuinely enhance your research and encourage you to address an aspect that you had not considered before. Sometimes, one speaker in a panel receives the majority of questions because their subject matter or argument is contentious and the audience disagrees with them; hopefully, though, it was because their paper was memorable and engaging enough to spark further discussion. Likewise, sometimes a speaker will not receive any questions because their paper was forgettable; however, it could also be because their argument was articulated well and did not require any further clarification. Overall, the Q&A session is nothing to fear. Even if the worst eventuality happens and you find yourself on the receiving end of direct criticism, remember that defending your research is good practise for your Viva…
Of course, this is by no means an extensive guide; there are many other pitfalls to avoid (don’t assume that the conference organisers will be able to print out your paper for you upon your arrival, don’t be afraid to miss a panel if you are feeling mentally exhausted, don’t feel obliged to attend a panel that has nothing to do with your research, simply because the people you spoke to during registration and have therefore sat with all day are going etc.). There are also many other articles on this subject, including those focusing on how to write abstracts and how to deliver conference papers (see ‘How not to apply to give a conference paper’ by Martin Paul Eve and ‘Giving Conference Presentations’ by Nadine Muller). Have fun!