Academic conferences: Tips for success

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	Prepare for difficult questions from your audience.
    Prepare for difficult questions from your audience.

    Academic conferences: Tips for success

    In many ways studying for an advanced degree, no matter the discipline, is about cultivating your skills as a researcher or academic, even if you don't necessarily wish to enter that field of work upon graduation. This is especially true for students at the PhD level, many of whom view the course as a training program for a role as a tenure-track professor. Indeed, for such a position, in most specialties, a PhD is mandatory.

    Given the preparatory nature of advanced degree programs, there is a high chance that you will participate in an academic conference at least once throughout the duration of your studies. And if you are a PhD student you will no doubt attend multiple conferences as either a presenter, spectator or both. Academic conferences can range in size from local to national, and typically attract academics keen to share their research and present their ideas.

    Conferences will usually take place over a several day period and will be composed of multiple panel discussions, in which participants will present a paper or research project to an audience. There is then usually a chance for questions and discussion at the end of each presentation. Some conferences will be organized under a specific theme or issue, while others may be more general in scope, made up of multiple panels covering an array of topics. Academic conferences are useful because they offer an opportunity for researchers and academics to gain valuable insight on their work from other like minded individuals in their field. For example, you may wish to attend an academic conference to discuss an idea for an important research paper, your thesis or even a book project.

    Whether it's your first time or you're a seasoned conference goer, if you are planning to present at one of these exciting events in the near future, now is the time to prepare. For academic conference success, take heed of the following tips :

    1. Travel in a group if possible
    Forbes advised that going to an academic conference in a group is less daunting, as you can navigate anything unfamiliar together. Furthermore, if you have peers in the audience during the presentation they can offer support, make notes or even film the event so you can look back and assess how well you did. The source elaborated that there is a good chance that other students in your program or even faculty members will be attending the same conference, so ask around and see if you can assemble a group. This is also a pragmatic move in terms of lowering cost — splitting hotel rooms and gas can save you money.  

    "Deliver an abridged version of your paper."

    2. Spend enough time on preparation
    This sounds like obvious advice, but it's important not to underestimate how much time you will need to prepare for your presentation. After all, presenting at a conference typically doesn't involve just reading out your paper or research. As the Guardian explained, you should build a separate presentation that functions as an abridged version of your paper. It should incorporate the most crucial points of your argument while leaving room for debate and elaboration during the question and answer session. Writing this separate presentation paper in which you concisely convey your crucial assertions can be difficult and time consuming, so it's important to start as early as possible. 

    3. Practice your delivery
    For many, public speaking can be unnerving. And if you appear nervous or unprepared it can distract from the message and insights of your presentation. That's why the old adage "practice makes perfect" is especially pertinent when it comes to presentation delivery at an academic conference. Inside Higher Ed argued that exhaustive practice will allow you to become as comfortable with the material as possible, and you will be less likely to stumble over difficult words or get lost with a train of thought and so on. The source elaborated that practice can also help you keep within your designated time frame — a moderator will likely cut you off if you exceed your set time during the conference, which is why it is so important to ensure, beforehand, that you can fit all of your material in your assigned slot. 

    4. Anticipate questions
    There is an extremely high chance that you will receive questions and comments about your presentation. In fact, that's likely one of the primary reasons why you are heading to the event in the first place — to gain valuable insights into your research. It's a good idea, therefore, to anticipate and prepare for questions that are likely to arise: Identify areas of weakness in your argument or places that might engender curiosity and then loosely plan responses to questions that could come up. While it's important not to rehearse everything to the extent that you come across as robotic, having some idea in mind of what you might say can certainly help.

    5. Arrive early
    Give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination, especially if you are traveling to the conference on the day that you are presenting. Even if you arrive the day before and are staying at the hotel where the conference is being held, make sure you know the exact room where your panel will take place and how to get there. The last thing you want to do is arrive late for your own panel — it looks incredibly unprofessional and may even lose you the opportunity to present.

    6. Speak clearly
    As outlined earlier, public speaking can be difficult for many people, and consequently many of us tend to speak quickly and rush through our points in an attempt to deliver our presentation as quickly as possible. This is a bad idea. The best way to deliver a clear and effective presentation is to speak at a measured pace, placing emphasis on important points. Slowing down your speech indicates that you are confident and interested in what you are saying, which in turn will likely inspire greater interest from the audience. As Higher Ed noted, few people enjoy watching someone who is unable to speak clearly and appears visibly nervous — it undermines your authority on the topic you are presenting.

    7. Network
    If you are aiming to leave the conference as soon as your own panel is over, then you are not approaching the conference with the right frame of mind. Academic conferences, in addition to providing a forum for your research, are also designed to help you network with other academics and students. After all, you may meet a professor from a school where you are hoping to enroll in a PhD program or secure a job, or you may meet a peer who can put you in touch with his publisher for your first book project. In essence, stick around and start talking. Stay for question and answer sessions, attend as many panels as you can, and don't be afraid to strike up conversations whenever possible. As the Guardian pointed out, many conferences will have multiple opportunities for socializing, such as breakfasts, dinners and cocktail hours, and although they can sometimes come at an additional cost, it can be worth it if you make solid connections. 

    8. Keep it professional
    Heading to a conference can be exciting. After all, it is a break from your normal routine and chances are that you will be heading out of town to a different city, possibly with friends. Don't let the excitement of the situation cause you to lower your guard, however. It is important to remain as professional as possible at a conference, as you will likely be making important connections and representing your institution of study. Keeping it professional means dressing appropriately, being polite at all times and not engaging in any potentially embarrassing behavior, such as drinking too much or being late. That's not to say you shouldn't enjoy yourself — just always keep in mind that you are there to develop your academic career first and foremost.

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