This post was written by Esther Brot, PhD student at King’s College London and History Day 2018’s postgraduate volunteer. It is part of a series of posts on researchers’ experiences.
This past year I have begun to venture out into the conference circuit beyond those held at my university. Giving your paper to an unknown body may seem like a daunting task at early stages in your PhD because very few people outside of your advisors have actually read anything from your dissertation. This is the first real test of interest in your topic to a larger audience. I have learned two essential things: 1. Other academics are predisposed to be kind to postgraduate students: both because they advocate for young researchers and postgraduates are often the conference attendees that present the freshest perspectives. 2. Even if you struggled through parts of your paper presentation the audience will be supportive and it will be an important step for learning what to change for your next presentation. My paper seems to have been well received, at the same time by attending other papers I was able to identify through introspection what went well in my presentation and what I need to improve for next time.
- One of important facet of a conference paper should be signposting, both for your argument and for the general plan of your paper. After a brief introduction and perhaps your argument, you should take the time to say what sub categories your paper will broadly address. When you reach your conclusion, make sure to say in conclusion. Without these signifiers, an audience may not be prepared for the end of your paper. I signposted some aspects of my paper- it was easy to follow the trail of my argument, but I should have included an ‘in conclusion’ statement. It took my listeners a second to realize that my paper had finished.
- Often the most intimidating portion of the paper presentation is the questioning. The nature of the questions will depend on the environment of your field and the conference. In my field, I have found most questions even when challenging to be constructive. A good portion of the questions will be clarifications on material that did not fit within the confined space of the conference paper or be for you to expand/offer further information on some aspect of your argument or evidence base. There have only been a few times when I had an audience that challenged my argument, which was not in order to undermine my paper but to test my knowledge. It is always useful before presenting your paper to review the essential secondary literature that your paper references. It is also fine to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge; often at conferences or any aspect of academic life, others have read material that you would never have thought to cover or simply have not heard of. By being open about what you know, you will benefit far more as you will be able to take home new secondary literature and primary source recommendations that a more combative mindset would not have permitted.
- Make sure to take time to enjoy yourself. This should be a fun experience, no matter the day that you are presenting on. Do not fret too much over your paper; take the time to review your material in advance to make sure that you are not missing any vital contextual information. Take the rest of the time before and after your paper to meet new people and talk about your project and theirs. This is your chance to organically meet other academics both within and outside your field. You do not have to exchange contact information with each person; simply introducing yourself is the first important step. Likely, you will cross paths with a number of the people at other conferences and academic venues. I often exchange emails with people that cover similar material. I also usually email people who I talked to but did not exchange emails with directly to establish further contact. We live in an eminently searchable age– and so I think that is completely reasonable to email those that you met however briefly but that you would like to have further contact with.