On Wednesday 4 May 2022, the Postgraduate Network (PGN) welcomed BISA 2022 Conference Co-Chairs Kurt Mills and Georgina Holmes for an interactive session on how to navigate conferences. As many of us will be attending our first in-person conference/event/seminar in the coming months, this session was very useful in providing some tips and tricks on maximising this experience and getting the best out of it. The facilitators covered a wide range of issues such as networking, presentations, abstract writing and so on. These are detailed below.
It is important for participants to familiarise themselves with the purpose and agenda of the panels and roundtable discussions in the conference before applying.
Mostly, panels invite submissions on a specific theme or issue area. A panel can comprise around four to five panellists who each have ten to twelve minutes to present their thoughts and/or research on the given theme. Panellists can also circulate their research paper/essay in advance to get constructive comments and important feedback that can help improve the paper.
Conference sometimes have roundtable discussions on a particular topic, with up to 5 or 6 discussants and a chair to moderate the session. Scholars can also participate in poster presentations wherein they are required to summarise their research in a paper poster format and answer queries, or questions posed by the audience.
While presenting, it is advisable to keep your own time so that other panellists get sufficient time to make their presentations. Using PowerPoint presentations with at most eight to ten slides can be a useful tool to convey the most important points in a concise and clear fashion.
It is also important to remember that there is a code of conduct and if you see anything untoward happen to you or anyone you know, make sure to reach out to the organisers or any higher authority and report the incident.
Abstract and feedback
The abstract for the conference should be short and to-the-point, clearly laying out the main argument, the relevance of the topic, and your contribution to the body of literature. It is better to be realistic about what you can achieve in terms of the aim of the paper and draft the abstract accordingly - don’t overpromise and under-deliver. Try to assess your progress as the conference nears and revise your paper accordingly. You can always present a different version of the paper which may not be exactly what you envisioned in the beginning.
Conferences can be a great way to learn and enhance your existing knowledge and skill set, so it is important to be open to constructive feedback from fellow colleagues. Generally, all panellists are helpful and encouraging as part of a community. If possible, try to approach the panellists after the session is over to understand the feedback in detail and build a network that you can tap into in future. There is a tacit code of conduct, so situations where you may face hostile comments will be very rare.
It is very common, especially for a young scholar or early career researcher, to feel like they don’t belong. In those moments, it is important to know that even the most experienced of scholars can often doubt themselves. There are some tricks that can help increase your confidence and overcome this ‘imposter syndrome’.
First, as mentioned above, preparing a short and crisp PowerPoint can be a great way to present your research and for the audience to grasp the content in an easy and comprehensible manner. The presentation should emphasise the main research question or argument, avoiding any confusion about what the presentation’s central topic is. Having slides with images can act as a good memory aid and make your presentation more effective and memorable.
Second, while presenting, try to speak slowly and clearly. Switching between your notes and maintaining eye contact with the audience is a good way to engage. And third, it helps to see how your fellow panellists present their work. Feel free to take down notes of any habits or gestures that you may want to inculcate in your presentation.
Fourth, there are times when you might present research that is in the pipeline or an idea that interests you but needs some more work. In such a situation, you can always give a caveat and begin your presentation with a phrase such as “these are some of my initial thoughts on the topic and I would love your feedback on this”. Doing so can instantly relieve any pressure that you might feel of giving the perfect presentation (and there is no such thing!).
Lastly, take active part in as many panels as you can, but also allow yourself to miss a few and take necessary breaks in-between.
Networking is probably one of the most important aspects of a conference. It can be a great way to meet scholars in your field and invite collaborations. You should pick panels that are similar to your research interests and try to strike a conversation with the panellists either before or after the panel. You can go through the programme/agenda, identify scholars that are working on similar topic, establish contact over email, and ask if you can fix a time to meet during the conference. This can be a good conversation starter when approaching people in these settings.
Additionally, you can attend working group meetings and volunteer to contribute in any way you can. Remember to give your business cards (if you have them) or your social media contacts to people who you meet at the conference. These are your colleagues, many of whom you may work with in future. It always helps to stay in touch.
Finally, think about why you are going to the conference, and what you hope to gain from it. Don’t forget to enjoy it, and immerse yourself in the experience.