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My First Conference (and What I've Learned Since!)

Reflecting on lessons learned.

By

June 20, 2017
 
 

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

 

 

I admit it: for my first conference presentation, I did a lot "wrong." I was a junior submitting an abstract for work I hadn't actually done yet to a conference in a field I wasn't officially studying. I had an undergraduate advisor in engineering who didn't even know I was submitting to this conference. And I didn't know who my advisors were for mathematics or Chinese - needless to say, they didn't know I was submitting anything. Until the night I sent my abstract in, I didn't know I was submitting anything! This sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Or at least a rejection?

 

Imagine, for a moment, my surprise when they told me they liked my abstract. Then consider my panic at the realization that I actually had to be ready to present. I was a junior in engineering, with two other majors. I was taking more credits than was strictly allowed, and now I was preparing to give a talk about the erasure of queer autistic people at a Queer Studies symposium. There's plenty of good advice about presenting at conferences. I took none of it. Instead, I
 

  • Wrote (half of) my paper on the train to Washington, DC the night before.
    • Wrote a little bit more of the paper in my friends’ dorm room, where they were doing the same with their paper instead of sleeping.
  • Did not practice my presentation once.
  • Made no visual aids.
  • Gave no thought to what questions I might be asked.
     

These aren’t the best of ideas. I learned from experience, both at that conference and at future conferences. Now I know which of these "mistakes" aren’t even really mistakes, which ones I can get away with if I'm pressed for time, and which ones I need to prioritize avoiding. Not all “mistakes” are created equal, and there are some shortcuts you can take if you’re pressed for time.

 

So:

 

If you know your topic well enough that actually writing the paper down is all that's left, and you're in a field where a standard conference presentation is anything other than "read the paper out loud," you can get away with leaving the writing incomplete. You'll (hopefully) get questions and feedback at the conference, which may make it into your final paper. Said feedback may even be more likely to get into the final product if it wasn't "final" yet at the conference. If you're going to leave the writing incomplete, however, do it knowingly, and don't try to rush through your paper the night before the conference instead of sleeping.

 

You may similarly be able to get away with minimal practice, if you know your topic and are a comfortable public speaker. Know yourself before trying this. If you get nervous during your talks, practice. If you forget where you're going during your talks, practice. If you need to say the same thing n+1 times in order to remember it, practice. If you know your topic well enough to talk about it with minimal repetition for longer than you're scheduled to talk and you're not sure what to cut, make an outline... but if you have a sense of how long it takes you to get through each bullet point, you may not need to practice it out loud! Given my particular issues with speech, it's not actually possible for me to "practice" giving my presentation to an audience in the absence of said audience. I just accept the reality that I have an outline and that there will only be one spoken version of my presentation - the one I give at the conference.

 

Skipping the visual aids is generally a bad idea. It may be better than making visuals that have nothing to do with your topic, or which serve to distract your audience, but I really do suggest taking the time to make good visuals. I've made slides for all my presentations... except that first one. Sometimes they were made the night before the conference. That's more common than I think most academics would admit. As long as the visuals are relevant and support your talk rather than distracting from it, who cares when you make them?

 

Failing to consider possible questions is a "mistake" I continue to make, even though it led to an awkward situation at that first conference. One pattern in disability spaces is the use of physical disability specific terms as umbrella terms. The use of able-bodied as the supposed opposite of disabled is one example. Since I was talking about issues related to queer, disabled people who aren't primarily physically disabled, this was relevant. I pointed out another example from one of the "big" authors in the intersection of disability and queerness. He was in the audience (and moderating the plenary session). My friend asked about it during the Q&A, and the big name actually got in on the answer. Just to be clear, that was and remains the only time I have been scared while standing and presenting in front of an audience. The moral of that story: have some idea about the politics of your field.

 

Advice is never one size fits all. What conference advice have you found doesn't always apply?

 

 

[Image provided by Kate Ter Haar and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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