I’m on my way to a conference. Again. Half of my research career has been in transit and I wouldn’t have it any other way – despite the drain on my wallet and the fact that it’s become a running joke among my mates. “Where’s Jess?” “Conferencing.” Conferencing is one of my favourite verbs.
I spent a lot of my time as a PhD student traveling to conferences around the world. I presented papers at eleven conferences during the three years I was a candidate. Now, a lot of ink has been spilled about how to conference effectively. The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research is probably the single most important work on being a PhD candidate that I have ever come across, and it has a whole section on how to conference! This post is a (very brief) exploration of some of the things I’ve learned while conferencing and also some tips that I think might help someone who is just starting out.
There is a popular mythology around PhD students and their journey to academic success. The general public imagine us as starved souls, living off Ramen noodles and cheap beer, frantically chiselling away at the manuscript which will define our academic careers. We’ve created this image of the PhD student as one being snowed under by increasingly cut-throat deadlines, suffering through department meetings, and ignoring family, friends, and personal hygiene as we battle to complete our thesis on time. The consequences for not completing on time, while never properly explained, are understood to be dire.
I was very lucky, because I could turn my stressful PhD journey into a stressful physical journey as well. I come from a lower middle-class background and my parents, while never as financially stable as they would have liked, made some smart decisions. As long as I was studying near the family home, I would always have a roof over my head (not a free roof, mind you, but affordable).
I was also lucky to attract an Australian Postgraduate Award – which was funded by the Australian Govt and entitled me to just over $25,000 a year to cover living expenses. Not a particularly high wage, but it was enough for my needs as long as I was careful.
I also attended a university that made a point of offering financial support to HDR students who presented papers at overseas conferences.
Super lucky. Nothing I did at conferences, nothing I learned or gained, could have been possible without being super duper lucky.
That being said, here’s some stuff I learned:
I saw conferences as an opportunity to develop my ideas, but I knew that I couldn’t do that if I stuck to the same group of academics in the same geographic area for years. Being able to explore ideas effectively means having a lot of different angles, drawing in new perspectives, etc. Travelling to new places made me more aware of myself and my place in the world. It taught me how much I could confidently handle, how much stress I could take (physical and mental), and how to function on a very, very small budget. Travelling for conferences also gave me a lot of stories to tell – which, for a writer, is invaluable. In the end, I started targeting conferences in countries that I wanted to see. I allowed my love of exploring ideas and my love of exploring places to merge.
New ideas and new people
Conferences are one of the better parts of being an academic; they are described in The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research as gatherings where you get to “find out about research which is no more than a year old, and is probably considerably more recent, as well as a chance to meet colleagues from around the world” (184). It’s a chance to talk shop with people who actually care (unlike your loving spouse, who will have a working knowledge of whatever your PhD is about by the time you’ve finished your thesis whether they like it or not), learn about new ideas, and see the hot new research that is being generated by the best and brightest in your discipline.
This is the newest, freshest research available to us – it’s the equivalent of fishmongers selling catches straight off the back of the boat. I’ve known academics who use conferences as testing grounds. They like to present preliminary research findings and gather potential sources to help bulk up their literature reviews. If you attend conferences, then you’ll hear about things that won’t be published for the wider audience for many years, so you’re getting in on the ground level!
My supervisor stressed the importance of conference attendance to me before I even began my PhD. I was in Honours at the time, and she was on the conference committee for the Australasian Association for Writing Programs. She put me to work on the committee as a minute taker and general dog’s body, I was encouraged to write a paper for presentation, and she also explained to me all the different people she planned to introduce me to. It wasn’t just a gathering of like-minded people, it was an opportunity to show off my skills (what few I had). At that conference, I made contact with the person who would eventually become a co-supervisor on my PhD committee. So, yeah, the networking opportunities aren’t bad either.
The evolution of my research was a happy side effect of geographically targeted conferencing. I wanted to go to specific places, but this often meant that the conferences I attended were only tangentially related to what I was doing in my PhD. This meant getting creative about applying the theories I knew to new texts or getting into genres and academic disciplines I’d never considered, but turned out to be kind of awesome and definitely made me more aware of what others were doing.
My research took on a more eclectic, multi-disciplinary style as I stretched my ideas to accommodate conference themes; many conferences were useful palette cleansers when I had an idea that wouldn’t leave me alone, but also wouldn’t fit into my PhD thesis or any adjacent articles. By targeting conferences outside of my area, I got to explore these ideas and put serious, justified effort into them. That’s how I ended up researching fairies in science fiction, genderbending in TV, and the discipline that would eventually become pretty much a second home: fan studies.
Even if you’re not going to take the risk of applying to a conference outside of your discipline, you can still use conferences as a development opportunity. A smart student will use their conference paper as a stepping stone to publication. The initial 2,000 word presentation (a good 20 minutes of talking) is where you lay out the bare bones of your ideas – you can then come away from the conference with ideas for how to develop it to a full publication and, hopefully, a few ideas about where to pitch it thanks to your networking.
I’ve met academics who present papers in their final forms at conferences, but to me that feels like a wasted opportunity. Presenting to a room full of curious academics is the closest you’re going to get to an expert panel who will munch on your ideas and help you improve them.
Make notes during your presentation question time – see which parts people didn’t understand, which concepts they think should be tightened, and which ideas need to be brought to the forefront. Then go away and develop the draft into an article-length paper. Depending on your discipline, this can be anywhere between 5000-7000 words. Have your supervisor give you feedback (or, if you managed to make a good contact at the conference, send them an email politely asking them for feedback), then when you think it’s ready, send that bad boy out to your first choice journal!
How do you conference?
Some useful resources for finding conferences in your discipline are here and here. You can either aim for specific research areas or specific places that you would like to visit. It helps to narrow it down with something so that you’re not just blasting a shotgun at the water and hoping that a fish happened to be swimming near you.
Don’t blow your entire research budget on a big conference unless a) one of the rockstars of your discipline will be there and you’ve already taken steps to introduce yourself and establish a connection beforehand (I can do a blog post about this if anyone is interested?), or b) it’s in a location that you’ve always dreamed of seeing and the topic is super up your alley. In the beginning, it helps to start out with the cheaper conferences closer to home and learn your chops before throwing yourself in the deep end at a really expensive, super prestigious event.
Your abstract will be the thing that gets your paper chosen. It will need to be brief, informative, and sexy. The best rundown for how to write an abstract that I’ve ever read was in Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, but the basic gist of how to write a humanities abstract is: write the purpose/context of your research, the argument, the methodology, the findings, and the conclusion. As long as you have these elements, your paper has a much better chance of being accepted because the committee will be able to understand where you’re coming from and how you’ll fit into their conference agenda. Vague abstracts never did anyone any good.
Some other things to consider:
Costs – things like accommodation, registration (which can run into the hundreds of dollars), travel to and from the venue, paying for dinner and drinks if you happen to go out, etc, can all add up and will need to be factored into any budget.
Conference Dinner – a chance to network if you can muster the strength to go at the end of a long day. This will probably also cost extra. There should be details on your conference site or you can reach out to the conveners to find out what extracurriculars they are planning.
Timing of the presentation – it’s important to know when you’ll be presenting so that you can know how to structure your presentation. Your audience will not remember you if they’re bored, distracted or disengaged for whatever reason. If you’re scheduled to speak after lunch or before afternoon tea, you’ll be dealing with lagging energy levels, so you’ll need to throw in a few jokes or visuals or even some audience participation to keep them awake. Similarly, if the presentation is on the first day, then your chances of good attendance are significantly higher than they would be on the last day, when people are heading home. Check the preliminary schedule as soon as you get it. It will probably be subject to change, but it’s usually better than nothing. A good presenter takes their audience and other external factors into account when planning their presentation.
The slide show – if you use slides, keep it simple. My first slide shows were riddled with animated gifs and unnecessarily complicated slides, and I still cringe whenever I think of them. Your deck shouldn’t draw attention away from your ideas. Also, don’t read directly off the slides. Just don’t do it. Have the slides printed off and have them in front of you if you must, but don’t ever turn your back to the audience and read out loud what they can read just as easily in silence. Here are some good tips.
Cards – at the beginning of your career, you probably won’t need them. Just have a small, reasonably nice-looking pad and a pen to write your email address on if someone asks you for it. If you need a set of business cards and your institution won’t give you any (which may be the case if you’re a postgrad), Moo does some really good ones.
Spoken language – Every conference I have ever attended was in English, even when the host country wasn’t. This was a practical decision – I have passable French, substandard Japanese, and enough Dutch to order a coffee, but I’m not nearly fluent enough to give a presentation about hermeneutics or transmedia, much less answer questions about my research when the presentation is over. I’ve met some brave souls at Australian conferences who spoke English as a second language. My hat goes off to them. I’m way too much of a coward to put myself in that position unless I’m 100% convinced that my language skills are up to par.
Whether you will be able to attend conferences (either as a presenter or just an observer) depends entirely on your circumstances. Some universities encourage conference presentations among postgrads, while others want you to focus on completing your thesis. Some supervisors will insist that you keep away from the whole rat race until you’re ‘ready’, while others will throw you into the deep end and expect you to swim. If you do find yourself at a conference, don’t panic! Just relax, breathe, and aim to take away three good things – an idea, a new mate, or a lesson learned.
If you’d like me to go in more depth about one of these ideas, leave a comment on this post or hit me up on my socials. In the meantime, take it easy explorers!