Your First Conference Presentation

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Some academics come to their first post having already had extensive experience of academic conferences as postgraduate students. But not all postgrads get the chance, and colleagues joining academic life from industry may find their first conference an intimidating proposition. This article offers tips on submitting proposals, presenting, and getting the most value out of these important events on your academic calendar.

Why attend academic conferences?

Academic conferences are crucial for sharing research results. You’ll have a chance to not just read what colleagues have written, but to ask them questions and get the benefit of other attendees’ perspectives.

Conferences are critical networking opportunities. They’re the perfect venue to scope out potential new hires or external co-researchers.

They are also venues for inquiry. You can find out what the “competition” are up to, consider ways that perspectives from a different discipline might enrich your work, and learn about funding sources, datasets and techniques that could radically improve your research.

Submitting a conference paper.

You can use a conference to get responses and suggestions about research in progress. So if you are a new academic, don't wait until your first project is complete to submit a conference paper or poster proposal. Suitable subjects include why you chose a particular methodology, what obstacles you have encountered in practice so far, initial thoughts about theoretical directions, work that has taken a surprising new direction, and aspects of your data or research subject group that are interesting or unexpected.

Conferences can also help you turn your research into journal articles. The conference paper, presentation or poster is one step closer to submission for publication, and the conference deadline is a great inducement to start writing.

Read conference submission guidelines carefully: you may need to reformat references, and there will be deadlines and format restrictions as well as key topic areas. Topics are often quite general, and with a little creativity you may be able to make research that seems only tangentially related fit the remit.

Avoid common poster and presentation problems.

Once accepted, think carefully about making your work easy to understand. Posters and slides that are dense with text send audiences to sleep; so will reading right off your paper or slides. Boil the work down to key points of fact and crucial issues: you’ll only have one posterboard or a short speaking slot to get your ideas across. Save extensive details for your paper or a future article.

Colour, photos, video clips and graphs help maintain interest. Conferences draw from a wide group of attendees, so do not assume common understanding of new or complex theories.

Rehearse your presentation with a colleague as your audience, and take on board their critique. Think in advance about what questions people are likely to ask, and be ready with answers.

And if you get that dreaded question that you have no answer for, don’t panic. Say: “that’s something that I’m hoping further research will tell me. Does anyone else here have an insight into that issue that they can share?” Then stand back as helpful responses (hopefully) roll in.

Finally, collect contact details from interesting participants, and set aside time when you return to call or send an email. Conference contacts will form the core of your network within your field.

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