I. Picking the right conference for you
A. Conferences and professional organizations: You can start with a Graduate Conference as these events tend to present a less stressful environment. However, if you feel comfortable, you can take your chances and send a couple of abstracts to official conferences in your field of study. Identify the main organizations of your field (e.g., LASA, RSA, ACLA, NEMLA, etc.) and join their mailing lists or pay the student membership to know about any upcoming events. The dates for call for papers might vary, but in my case, the deadlines are usually from May to September.
B. Writing your abstracts: Sit down with the posted descriptions of the panels. Remember that there is never going to be a panel designed for the topic of your paper. Twist your abstract so that it fits into the provided panel descriptions. Write a couple of abstracts for different conferences to increase your chances.
II. Your paper got accepted! Now what?
A. Time: Take at least two to three weeks to work slowly but consistently on your seminar paper. You can dedicate one to two hours every day. It depends on your own writing techniques.
B. Length: Depending on how you read or speak in public, I would say that the safe page amount should be 7 double-spaced pages (for a 15-minute presentation) or approximately 2 minutes per page. You don’t want to be that person who gets interrupted by the chair of the panel in the middle of the argument.
C. Time versus content: In a seminar paper, you usually have the main argument, a couple of secondary arguments and tons of evidence from the primary and secondary sources. However, in the context of a conference, you have to keep in mind that you only want to present one clear idea or argument (you only have 15 minutes).
D. Cutting primary and secondary sources: You have to make some major cuts. Save your seminar paper under a different name and start cutting paragraphs or arguments that might be redundant or sound repetitive. For instance, you don’t need to quote all the secondary theory that has been written about your topic (your audience might be familiar with it already) and also, you should limit your analysis to one or two primary sources (or even three) as you might not have enough time to explain all the ones you included in your seminar paper. As they say, less is more.
E. Considering your new audience: When you are in the process of cutting your seminar paper, remember that now you have a different and larger audience. When we write seminar papers we are usually operating under a specific framework which sometimes leads to the articulation of arguments based on methodological assumptions. For instance, don’t assume that everyone is very familiar with interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approaches. In your re-write, establish clearly the logic of your arguments. Why are you close-reading this source and how is your approach different or similar to other kinds of close-reading?
F. Quotations: Since the close-reading is one of the main methodological approaches in our field, we tend to include a lot of quotations in our seminar papers to prove both our point and that we have successfully done our research. However, when we present at a conference, the paper should only have between three and four quotations, depending on their length. You can paraphrase some of them and project the other ones in a PowerPoint. If so, remember to include an English translation. Having too many quotations can do more harm than good to your presentation. For instance, they can affect the pace of your speech and they can take away valuable time to discuss your argument.
G. Images: To illustrate your argument, consider adding images instead of long quotes and using them as an excuse to paraphrase excluded quotations or to discuss important ideas. Again, as with quotations, you should be very selective with your images.
III. Presenting at the conference
A. Before the conference:
1. Practice: You should practice and time everything: from reading your paper out loud a couple of times to changing the slides of your PowerPoint. Sometimes people don’t take into consideration that PowerPoints can slow your presentation. And they do. If you decide to read your paper and stop to explain ideas more naturally using your PowerPoint, you have to time that as well. Even potential jokes. In my case, as English is not my native language, to avoid any unnecessary interruptions or moments of extreme stress, I usually write down in my paper the Spanish phonetic pronunciation of some difficult words…sovereignty (“sovrenti”), focus (“foucus” instead of “fuck yous”) … I also write down in the paper the moments when I have to change the slide (“CLICK”).
2. Read everyone’s abstracts: Before attending your panel, read the abstracts of your fellow presenters. You will come across more professional and, more importantly, it’s a good strategy that will allow you to engage in fruitful conversations or networking dynamics that could be useful in the future.
B. At the conference:
1. Time: Arrive early so you can meet the organizers of your panel and other presenters. It’s very common to get nervous and feel inferior. Don’t! You have been selected to present your paper, so you have to create a persona or alter-ego of the most confident graduate student in the history of your field.
2. Q & A: Don’t get nervous during the Q & A period. There will be all kinds of questions. From people that might feel jealous because they did not present, individuals that will pose long questions just to engage in a monologue discussing their book about a totally different topic, to people genuinely interested in your topic. Listen carefully to what they say and write down the main points while they are talking, in order to guide your answer. If you don’t know the answer, you can say it and then add what you do know about your topic. Phrases like, this is a very interesting point or thank you for bringing up this angle, or even, I will take note of this and incorporate it into my research, are useful in this context to approach a challenging question in a manner that is both professional and respectful.
3. Stay: If you are participating in a series of panels, attend the other panels to present. That’s common courtesy.
4. Look for future allies: Pair up with another graduate student that is also presenting or a professor who might have expressed a certain interest in your presentation. One of the main advantages of attending conferences is the opportunity of meeting other colleagues in your field. From these encounters, you can plan future panels or cultivate collaborations outside your institution or department. Meeting different people at these events has been crucial for my own development as a graduate student. I have come to know people with whom I later co-organized several panels for other conferences. I have also become acquainted with professors from other institutions who have given me a hand in other aspects of my career as a graduate student. For instance, they have pointed me in the right path toward additional bibliography about my project. Not all of this is going to happen in your first conference, but it is a process that will reap rewards.
IV. After the conference:
A. Stay in touch: Write a “thank you” e-mail to all the people you have met (co-presenters, panel chairs, graduate students, etc.) and stress that you would like to stay in touch for future collaboration. If you discussed with another colleague the possibility of putting a panel together for the following year, stay in touch with that person. You don’t have to become a stalker, but you can send her/him an e-mail mentioning the deadlines for a future conference and wait to see what happens…
B. Start all over again: You should keep track of calls for papers every year. They say that you should have at least one to two conferences a year for the sake of your C.V. If you feel that you don’t have more than one paper, that’s fine, don’t push it.
*Final note: Even though conferences may seem stressful, try to enjoy them. Sometimes it’s the only way to get out of your comfort zone, meet new people, and even get to know new countries or cities. I believe that attending conferences is part of our training as graduate students because, in the end, you will be meeting and engaging in conversations with those who will become your colleagues in the near future.
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