Episode 152: Tips and Tricks to Attend, Present, and Survive an Academic Conference

The 40 day writing challenge was a bit of a bust on my end but during that time I got to send a diss chapter, ran a conference, presented at another one, and revised journal article so busy times. Oh and I wrote that fanfiction thing which hasn’t [YET] been seen by Marvel or DC, you can read it here if you want. However, I need to get back into writing so that more dissertation progress can happen and the dream to defend by Christmas 2015 becomes a reality. But before heading straight into academia maybe some meta academics will be a better starting point. So might as well talk about one of more interesting points about academia: The Conferences. Conferences are a magical place where smart people come to talk about their research while  asking questions to other people that are actually comments on not the original topic. I’ve been going to them over the last six years and have seen some crazy things along the way. I’ve even had the honor of helping to run a few and even got to chair that one which spammed so much of this blog and slightly polymorphed it into the conference website. So here I present a few tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way and will even include some of my own anecdotes and misadventures in the subject. If you prefer reading the abridged version then it’s the perfect time to plug my twitter @Ranzunar and you can look for #ConfLifeHacks As a presenter: Odds are that you are going to a conference because your abstract got chosen as cool enough to be a part of the proceedings. You have scoured through different places that have something to do with your research interests and you found the right one. But with so many conferences at the same time happening all over let me give some free advertising to my good friends over at the CFP list http://www.cfplist.com/ which has deadlines and maps to help you choose. Here are some points of advice of the bullet variety from abstracts to the end of the conference.

  • If you get an email from conference organizers about your abstract and it asks for edits, please edit it. We want your abstract but want to remove reasons as to why it might not fit criteria.
  • If you have not received any emails from the conference and the submission deadline has passed there’s a good chance they didn’t get your submission. Confirmation emails are standard so not getting one is cause for concern.
  • Remember your abstract and write paper accordingly. People are expecting a paper based on the preview. Changes are standard practice but keep it within expectations.
  • Actually write the paper, preferably way before the conference. I have literally written the ending to a paper at the panel as the person before me was presenting. This is bad etiquette and chances are you can’t pull it off. Best not to take that risk.
  • Practice your presentation. Read it out loud, check the timing of things, and make sure that ideas make sense. Don’t just read the whole thing (or read straight from the power point) so please include eye contact moments.
  • Check about funding from your university about the same time your abstract is accepted. Stay on top of all the paperwork.
  • Stick to your time limit. Plan to go under the time limit because jokes and spontaneous comments happen.
  • Be overly paranoid about having your presentation with you. Email it to yourself, get it on a flash drive or two, print it out, set up a cloud thingy, and anything else to avoid being empty handed for presentation time.
  • Coordinate with the other presenters in your panel. You are probably grouped together by topic so avoid overlap. No need for all of you to give a brief historical context intro.
  • Add visuals. Even if your paper is pretty solid, a few images and key statements really help the audience stay engaged.
  • Get to the conference itself early. See where the room is, scout for nearby bathrooms, and know where to get pre/post presenting caffeine and food. Also be at your panel way before it starts, preferably by the one before it is ending.
  • Be prepared to have to do a low tech version of the presentation Laptops shut down and projectors spontaneously combust (kidding! or am I?) have an Amish tech level plan ready.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring energy to your presentation. Lots of people play it safe. I’ve been part of many panels were my thing was not nearly as informative as the others but damn if it wasn’t the most entertaining.
  • People might actually ask for a copy of your paper so try to actually write one out even if you’re going full powerpoint on it. With any luck someone might quote you later on and that is a pretty cool achievement as an academic.
  • Chances are you are going to get a question that is only vaguely related to your presentation. The safe bet for any of these situations is to say: “Thanks for your question. I honestly had not thought about it that way before. I’d have to do some extra research on that area. If you can send me a link or two later on I’d appreciate it. Next question.”
  • Be sure to compliment the other presenters afterwards, even if you were clearly the MVP of the panel. Confident academics are cool but cocky ones are just groan inducing.
  • Save all the receipts and plane ticket stubs. Any money you can get back will need a paper trail.
  • Bonus general tip: Vary your presentation titles and topics. Someone will look at your CV and unless you are selling yourself as THE premiere academic on Batman, you shouldn’t have 70% of your presentations have the Dark Knight present.

After presenting comes the magical time when you become an attendee at the conference. You’ve got a day or two before it’s time to get back home so make the best of your time abroad. Here are some tips to enjoy the trip.

  • Make sure you know how to get to the conference. I once mixed up the directions and severely undervalued the transportation needed to get from the Vancouver Airport to the University of Victoria. Thought it was one 20 minute  bus ride away. Turns out it was bus, ferry, and then two buses to get there like six hours later. Google map your way to and from your destination.
  • Walking distance is very relative. Safest bet is to stay at the hotel of the conference or the nearest place to the conference as possible. If you have friends nearby cool but be prepared to search through AIRBNB if you want to save money/the good places are already filled up because you took too long to get a reservation.
  • Reservations are free so get one for the whole time of the conference once you think you are certainly going. You can adjust as need be once you get more specifics but do it at a time limit of about a week before your stay.
  • Try and make a group friends/colleagues to come to the conference as well. Split some bills and avoid crippling solitude. Plus that way you have guaranteed attendance to your panel.
  • If you are going it alone, lots of conferences have forums and such to find a roommate to share a hotel room with. It’s a gamble but you can make some nice friends and/or enemies. Oh and bring ear plugs. 0 space + not offending snorers= good night sleep for all.
  • You can theoretically survive off tap water, pop tarts, and protein bars to gain nutrients through your stay and avoid hefty restaurant prices. I have done this and do not recommend it at all.
  • However, breakfast things can be done in your hotel room no problem. Coffee makers give you boiled water, great for instant oatmeal. Irons can make boring cheap bread into delicious toast.
  • Fancy hotel gyms sometimes have free gatorade and fruit. Get a bit of a workout and some nutrients. Don’t go overboard, nothing worse than a sprain in a far away land.
  • Be prepared to walk, a lot! If you have ankle wraps bring them. They take as much space as a tie and you can help you or a friend avoid a lot of pain.
  • Mark the pages of the program of panels you want to see. Simple way to keep track of things and induce flashbacks later on.
  • Iron your clothes the day you get there. Morning prep time is limited and early panels mean you should be out the door quickly. Also, iron for clothes before you use it to make toast/grilled cheeses. The less crumbs the better.
  • Go to at least one panel outside of your academic niche. Always nice to get a broader experience.
  • If the audience is a little shy/quiet try to make the effort to ask a question at the panel. And make it an actual question, not some weird comment where you make yourself look smart. Especially inquire something from the boring presenter, it will really make their day.
  • Take a moment to enjoy the sites and see the town. Avoid chain restaurants and get some of the local cuisine. If you’re anything like me then you measure awesomeness of travels by the uniqueness of the food.
  • Don’t be afraid to socialize and make friends. Bonus points if you have business cards at the ready.
  • Don’t overpack! Whatever you bring comes back with you so how are you going to bring that and souvenirs? And books! Trust me, you always end up buying books so save some space.
  • If you have the time, go see the keynote speech. A lot of the conference budget is allocated for this person so go see him/her in action.
  • Always bring cash. 90% of places accept credit/debit and/or have nearby ATMs but things happen so avoid the trouble and carry some extra actual money with you.
  • Make sure to thank the conference chair and other organizers. It’s a tough job with little payout so knowing the conference went well is a fresh of breath air and is greatly appreciated.
  • For long layovers, I recommend having a game with you, preferably something you can play offline because no one has the money to spend money for premium WiFi. I brought Cards Against Humanity for a recent conference and befriended some teenagers near my terminal to play a few rounds with me. Okay, maybe not the best example.

Beyond anything else, conferences should never feel like a shore or homework. Enjoy yourself and treat it as a mini-vacation. Have fun while learning because as an academic that’s what we are all supposed to do.


One thought on “Episode 152: Tips and Tricks to Attend, Present, and Survive an Academic Conference

  1. […] I am super psyched about the upcoming pop culture conference (info here) that I am running alongside my amazing colleagues from UPRM and all the undergrad and graduate students from the PCSA. I’m really impressed with the abstracts that are currently in the system but I’ve been hearing some elements of confusion as to the theme of the conference. For those of you new to the conference game, a specific theme in a conference can seem intimidating and may deter you from trying your luck at submitting an abstract. So let me give you some extra tips and tricks as to for dealing with conferences, specifically with current Person to Persona developments. (FYI: I made a post on overall conference protocols from beginning to end worth checking out too here) […]

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