A Graduate Student's Conference Survival Guide

If you have been a graduate student for any longer than a semester you probably know the drill when you hear the word 'conference'. Your supervisor has undoubtedly stressed to you the importance of sharing your work outside your immediate peers at your university. However, if you are inclined toward academia, conferencing may or may not be something you look forward to. Hours and days of listening attentively in the age of the smart phone and push emails is struggle enough to begin with. Then there is that terrifying moment where you present your own paper, and the following aftermath of (hopefully encouraging) questions from the audience. Don't forget the 'networking' that comes at coffee break (keyword being coffee). With all this being said, I think we can agree that conferences are, across the board, beneficial. And so working out how to optimise your time at a conference will put you in good stead for your early academic career.

I recently got back from a conference overseas - my ninth conference since starting out as a graduate student in honours research, then masters and now PhD. Since I began doing conferences in 2012, I have had some great experiences, and average times, so I thought I would share my conference survival guide, as it currently stands.

1. Presentation101: practice makes perfect

We all know that the accepted format of a conference presentation is to read your essay out loud to a room full of people. However, if you actually read a paper word-for-word without stopping once or making eye contact with people, you will lose half of your audience. This is why it is integral that you practice reading your paper out loud, at least four times. Highlight points where you may be able to stop and explain something on your presentation slides. Learn sections really well where you would like to connect more fully with your audience. This might sound obvious, but don't be surprised if your last-minute undergraduate self enters your head telling you to that it will be fine. It won't be. I can say this from experience as the last conference I presented at, I only practiced twice and consequently I missed half of my paper, from not being practiced enough to return to the correct point in my writing after some off-the-cuff moments.

Another element of practice you might not have thought about is your voice. Let's face it, academics are not often the most extroverted personalities and the act of presenting can feel especially daunting. At a conference you don't want to be that person who is freaking out because you have found out you are presenting to a small lecture hall without a microphone. Mind you, even with a microphone, the technique for presenting your voice is a niche skill that you need to learn as an academic if you want to thrive in the conference environment. My tip would be to get a few voice lessons from an acting or voice coach to guide you in projecting your voice well and becoming an engaging presenter.

Do whatever it takes to give you motivation to prepare adequately. For me, this involves sitting in a nice spot with my laptop and a good coffee.

Do whatever it takes to give you motivation to prepare adequately. For me, this involves sitting in a nice spot with my laptop and a good coffee.

2. 20 minutes = 2000 words

Related to my first point, don't be that person who goes ten minutes overtime with your conference paper, or you will be sure to lose at least half of your audience and minimise your question time. To avoid this, think of 2000 words as the magic word limit for the standard twenty minute conference presentation time. Especially if you like to explain your examples with short diversions from your written paper, this 2000 rule is essential.

If you don't want to divert at all from your written paper,  you might find that knowing you only have 2000 words will force you to speak slower, so that you don't run under time. This is a good thing as it is such an easy temptation to read quickly through your paper if you are feeling nervous. Speaking slowly is an essential part of good presentation and also good practice for lecturing - I almost always find that I have to fight the urge to read quickly, and the 2000 words rule has often saved me from this.

3. Networking: do your research

If you want to get the most out of your conference experience, prepare to network. Avoid being one of those people that ends up in a cliquey group of fellow graduate students for an entire conference. These events are, at the end of the day, primarily for networking so you really should prepare to engage in this way.

To help manage the stress of meeting so many new people, you can do some quick research on who else is presenting at the conference. First, look up the keynote speakers (you don't want to be that kid who doesn't recognise a keynote and ask them a bunch of useless questions on the first day and be embarrassed when you finally notice their name on the program!). Second, look up other the panels you are interested in and find out more about the people presenting on them. Finally (and especially) look up the people on your panel, if you don't know them already. These are probably people you will enjoy meeting and talking to throughout the conference.

4. Prioritise the conference dinner at all costs

If we can agree that the primary benefit of a conference is the networking and connections you make, then the conference dinner is a big part of thatand you should definitely be there. The conference dinner is often expensive, and I have met a lot of graduate students who unfortunately did not make it to the dinner for this reason and so missed one of the best opportunities at the conference.  The financial sacrifice of the conference dinner is understandably a burden for some graduate students. Just think, you usually apply to a conference at least six months in advance: if you budget $100 for a conference dinner and slowly put that money aside from the moment you apply, you will find it easier to manage. I can't stress enough how many great opportunities come out of these dinners. Conversations over this three course meal can lead to fellowships, teaching jobs, publishing opportunities and more. Make sure you can be there!

I recently had a conference dinner at Hobbiton in New Zealand. Yes, HOBBITON. I am an avid Tolkien fan so this was the best thing that ever happened to me. I think it will be hard to top this one, but do everything you can to be at conference dinners!

I recently had a conference dinner at Hobbiton in New Zealand. Yes, HOBBITON. I am an avid Tolkien fan so this was the best thing that ever happened to me. I think it will be hard to top this one, but do everything you can to be at conference dinners!

5. Prepare for the bounty

If you find yourself financially wounded by the exorbitant cost of the conference, do not despair. Part of this cost is to provide you with an endless bounty of food and coffee throughout the conference. If you plan it right, you can have enough food to last you day and night, and enough coffee to keep yourself awake through every single panel, even on the last day. Bring your keep cups and klean kanteen flasks to make sure you have enough coffee for that last paper in the next panel. And don't forget about the endless opportunities for small talk about the food, one of your best networking strategies as you prepare to sidle up to that academic you have been watching, starry-eyed for the first two days of the conference. Grab a plate and join them in the queue, you will become besties before you know it!

That's it for my musings, let me know in the comments if you have any other top conference tips!