A decision to send your paper through and present it at your first ever conference can be overwhelming! You have the right to feel like that, and do not ever think that you are the only one here- the truth is that we are all on the same boat and have felt or will feel challenged by the thought of presenting in front of strangers at some point in our academic life.
I started very early and presented at my first conference three days after submitting my MA thesis. It may sound impressive, but truth be told it was an absolute nightmare. You can imagine how well one can prepare within three days of celebrating/moving/travelling to another country for a conference. Not very well… at all. Unfortunately, the following conferences did not go much better. In my early 20s I got into a very unhealthy habit of ‘collecting’ conferences- applying to all and going to all. For some reason I thought it would look good on my CV, and perhaps it did, but I would never want to go through the hell of presenting ill-defined ideas in front of professional academics nor would I want to recommend that approach to any of you.
Instead, I have a list of tips I wish I could have been given before my first conference, which remain things I tell myself every time I go to a conference:
- Choose wisely #1- know your needs: Just for the record- there are plenty of different kinds of conferences: small, quality-driven ones, hands-on ‘let’s discuss’ workshops, invite-only symposia, and take-all, huge conferences etc. It is worth deciding what kind would serve your needs best at different stages of your work- are you looking to improve your project and need some comments and criticism? Do you need colleagues to apply for a grant/networking? Want to share your project with as many people as possible?
- Choose wisely #2- know your limitations: There is only as much material and original ideas you can produce within a specific time. You don’t have to present in order to attend a conference. It is absolutely fine to go just to learn, observe, take part in Q&As if you don’t feel that you are ready or your paper is at a presentable stage.
- Don’t produce fake abstracts that sound legit just to get in. See point #2.
- Prepare well, so you feel as confident as possible. Start working on the presentation as early as possible, even if you are to spend 15 mins daily, and give yourself at least one day to learn your paper. I also recommend making a list of things that you will need to take with you: pen drive, notes, charger…
- You might want to schedule a mock presentation and read/present it to another human being 🙂
- Once at the conference, enter with openness and positive energy. Instead of worrying that you don’t know anyone or might not be included by the crowd, try to approach other people and include them the way you would like to be included. Remember that most people in the room feel exactly the way you do- stressed and self-conscious. Same goes for the panels- look at people and be attentive when they present the way you appreciate being listened to.
- Try to make the most of your time at the conference- approach people you want to talk to and try to come up with a question for each presentation.
- It’s ok to leave if you feel tired and overwhelmed. Don’t be too hard on yourself- conferences tend to be exhausting. Sometimes it’s worth taking a morning/evening/couple of hours off to be able to come back reinvigorated.
- It’s also ok to be criticized. It is not personal and don’t take it as such. Think of critique as a natural and much needed part of your conference experience- it is one of the reasons you are there for. Remember that no academic and non-academic project is perfect and people who offer their suggestions and critique want to help you, not attack you.