‘Mysterious, surprising, and numerous’: the PhD guide to conferences
An insight into the world of academic conferences from final year PhD student Daniel Simpson
Now in the third year of my research, I still find conferences quite mysterious, and I suspect that I will continue to do so for some time. From the surprisingly irrelevant to the unexpectedly essential, conferences offer a diverse range of experiences for the PhD student. The networking opportunities are plentiful, and I have made countless useful contacts through conferences. However, it is also not too surprising to come away without learning too much about your own research. But there are always exceptions, and it is useful to expand your perspective.
‘Conferences are numerous, and need to be chosen carefully.’
To identify relevant conferences and workshops, sign up to as many subject-specific mailing lists as you can find. Conferences are numerous, and need to be chosen carefully. Event titles can often prove misleading. I have sometimes located an event with a promising title, only to encounter something completely unexpected. This can be avoided by looking into the backgrounds of the speakers, and the content of their papers.
Aside from key speakers, it is worth considering any additional benefits on offer. Some conferences promise subsequent publication, which could be the means to your first article or book chapter. Also consider recurring seminar programs, which are a great way of entering an engaging community of like-minded scholars.
‘Try not to ambush people while they are making coffee.’
Don’t rely on people you already know, as they will likely abandon you for ‘new’ people. Your target audience should be somewhere between high-profile academics, who are often swamped with admirers, and other lost or confused students. The best thing to do is to turn up early and find a like-minded individual, or to wait until circles form and edge your way in – smiling in a friendly (but not unusual) way.
Try not to ambush people while they are making coffee. Try also to avoid unwittingly striking up conversation with a keynote speaker or ‘celebrity’ academic whose face you do not know – particularly if they were expecting to be recognized by all. I have had some success by researching influential people beforehand and finding a reason to start a conversation. A good way to attract attention is by joining the audience in asking questions immediately after talks. Beware though: irrelevant, misjudged, or long-winded accounts of your own knowledge will not go down well. Instead, offer a (well-rehearsed) summary of your research. You will be asked for this at the beginning of almost every conversation, to judge if you are worth talking to. If silences result, find a new circle (or talk about the refreshments).
The conference dinner is always worth attending, offering extra opportunities to talk informally with fellow researchers. Don’t underestimate the value of splinter groups though. Not all students can afford the official dinner, especially those in the early stages of their thesis, so time spent with them in local pubs can be invaluable.
‘…a matter of practice.’
I’ve found effective presenting to be a matter of practice. Rehearse beforehand, and you shouldn’t need to rely too much on pre-written notes. Watch others, and you will soon see how much this can blunt your delivery. If you know the subject, it should flow naturally in most cases. Likewise, the best talks keep PowerPoint slides to a minimum. Don’t rely on anything more technologically advanced than text, and in particular don’t try to link to the internet. The best thing to do is keep things light-hearted. Include the odd joke or witticism, which creates a nice atmosphere.
Then it’s just a case of coping with last-minute nerves. Turn up early to meet the session chair and get used to your surroundings. Have water to hand to cure a dry mouth, or to use as a prop when a pause is needed. Take your time, but do be aware of the card-waving person in the front row (‘five minutes’, ‘please, please stop talking’, etc.). Ignore these only if the conclusion of your paper depends on it. And whatever you do, resist the temptation to applaud yourself afterwards.
Daniel Simpson is a Final Year PhD researcher. His thesis, an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Award project between Royal Holloway and The British Museum, investigates the Royal Navy’s role in acquiring objects from Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the first half of the nineteenth century. Prior to this, Daniel was awarded an MPhil in the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science, Technology and Medicine from the University of Cambridge, and a BA in History from the University of Exeter.