Much of academic life role revolves around attending, presenting, and commenting on conferences and seminars. They can be inspiring, nerve-wracking, informative, and intimidating, all in fast succession. I’d guess all PhD students are familiar with the pre-conference jitters, the mid-conference quizzical look at the purported ‘sandwich’ in front of you, and that post-conference caffeine crash at the nearest available coach station.
Yet nothing can beat that feeling of community; that sideways glance to see a senior academic wandering over to ask about your research; that relieving discovery that in a career idolizing individual achievement many face the same problems, pursue the same interests, and crave in-person conversations as a break from all those books.
So why go to a conference or seminar? How many times should you present? Where? When? What should you present? How should you present?
We asked USSO’s expert editorial team for their advice on mastering conferences in American Studies and beyond. Thank you to Sarah Collier (Former USSO Co-Editor), Molly Becker (Communications and Outreach Editor) and Aija Oksman (Book Reviews Editor) for all their advice!
Where did you first present your research? What should others look for in a first conference, when should it be timed during the MPhil/PhD process, and what advice would you give based on that initial experience?
SC: I did my first academic conference at a weird time as it was during lockdown, so I had a lot more choice over where I presented since everything was conducted over Zoom. Rather than a specialist conference, I chose a generalist one with subject-specific clusters like ‘war and culture’ etc. This was helpful for a first conference because presenting my research to a more generalist audience dispelled any anxieties about presenting my work for the first time. I presented this in my second year, but this was down to delays due to lockdown. I’d recommend presenting towards the mid-end of your first year so that you can get a feel for conferences and then go into them confident and prepared in your second year.
MB: I gave my first conference presentation as part of a small graduate symposium hosted by my Faculty. It was a very friendly, constructive way to learn how to give a paper without too much pressure, and I’d encourage any researcher who is nervous about presenting to seek out those smaller, student-oriented opportunities as a way to build confidence and experience (the BAAS postgraduate symposium is a great place to start).
AO: I first presented at the British Association for Modernist Studies at Glasgow University in 2018. I went to it on a whim—it had nothing much to do with my overall research or its goals. I figured it was a good way to get rid of the jitters of presenting, and it worked—I ended up writing a couple of articles for them. Sometimes you need to take a chance on something without expecting benefits and enjoy the moment.
Everything starts with answering the CFP. Do you have any tips on how to best get across your research in 200, or even 100 words?
SC: This might be cheating, but this is the resource I have always used, which was recommended to me by my supervisor—it is really helpful and clear.
MB: I’ve always thought about conference proposals as variations on the types of introduction paragraphs I was taught to write in school. I try to start with a first sentence that will grab my reader, and then I use my final sentence (or two) to lay out exactly what my conference paper will argue. I always start with something that’s too long, so when I get down to a proposal that’s the correct length I find it helpful to send it to a friend or two before submitting it. That ensures I haven’t lost any important information while whittling my proposal down to the word count.
AO: Practice it out loud. Seriously. I get asked what my topic is and why I’ve chosen that topic so many times that if I were to go on a tangent every time no one would talk to me. Find a nutshell version of your topic and keep it to one sentence. Like: “I research the counterliterary relationship between Black female writers and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and thereafter.” The first thing people say is, “the FBI, wow!” This means I have a gimmick. The second thing they ask is, “What’s thereafter?” This gives me an opening to elaborate on my research. But it’s trial and error. One thing you want to be sure of, especially in a conference setting, is when someone asks what your research is on, don’t stumble and stammer. Practice, test out, and refine your nutshell.
We talk a lot about how to give a good conference presentation, but what actions outside the presentation room (including coffee breaks, lunch, and dinners) allowed you to engage with others, settle into the day, and make the most of your experiences?
SC: Coffee breaks and drinks receptions are often the best part of conferences for the networking opportunities they present and the way they help orient your day. Following conversations during coffee breaks, for example, I have chosen to attend a presentation that I wouldn’t normally choose and learnt so much from it! They are also a great chance to meet people (Aija and I first met during a coffee break at a BAAS conference). To make the most of it, try to push yourself out of your comfort zone and sit next to somebody you aren’t familiar with.
MB: When I’ve been nervous about walking into a room of people I don’t know at conferences, I’ve found it really helpful to focus on the coffee breaks. They’re often not very long, so I can start a conversation without worrying about sustaining it for an entire lunch or conference dinner, which helps me take the sometimes intimidating step of introducing myself to a new person. Usually, I find that once I start talking to someone the coffee break feels too short!
AO: I would always have a wee notebook/notes on my phone open when I listened to talks. If there’s a talk I’m interested in, I will note down the name, the basics of their presentation and afterwards spend 5-10 minutes summarising what I heard. That would make me confident enough to approach the speaker after to say what I liked and get a conversation going. Before conferences, I always plan what I want to hear. You can’t do it all. But I always note the topics and names of those I would like to know more about and hope to see during a networking moment. I’ve learned in conferences that no one can see it all, no one will expect it, but everyone will appreciate that you made a point of jotting down their name and topic and seeking them out for a chat when it’s convenient.
Conference attendees often sit through more than 20 presentations per day, often for two or three days in a row. Can you remember any especially memorable conference presentations? What made them so memorable?
SC: Honestly, most papers I have seen have followed a similar structure: cold open/anecdote, 3-4 sections, engaging visual aids and maybe a video clip. One memorable paper played a silent video essay behind the speaker the entire time—it was a paper on drone warfare, and the video brought together scenes from movies and real drone footage to create an unsettling effect. I take the most away from presentations where the speaker engages with the audience and rolls with their mistakes—it is much easier to engage with a person than a robot.
MB: I’m a nervous presenter, so I’ve always been inclined towards relying on a script. I like to have full sentences written out in front of me, even if I have the entire paper pretty much memorized. I always enjoyed watching presenters who were less reliant on scripts the most, though, so I finally forced myself to give a presentation (at a friendly, small conference held by my College) with only bullet points instead of a full script. I surprised myself at how well my presentation went, even when I was out of my comfort zone. Now I try to present with as little written down as possible, even though I find it fairly terrifying every time. But I know my research inside and out, so I have to trust myself to be able to talk about it!
AO: Recently, it hasn’t been particular scholars rather than topics and panels, including workshops. Seeing some of the up-and-coming people at the top of their fields taking the time to participate in panels such as sexual harassment in higher education institutions or teaching American Studies in the UK— it is very inspiring and confirms that there’s so much more beyond singular research we can/should do. Visually, these types don’t do much, but what they do—printed or virtual—they make available, which is also appreciated. Many presenters have supporting slides with random quotes or facts, but without the full context, after 20ish presentations a day, they no longer make much sense. Always ensure your listeners know how to contact you if they have further questions. Do not leave a gate closed. You never know what fruitful connections you can find. Talk to the listeners, make a quick note of their names and questions so you can engage. You can take a moment to think about the question as you jot down a few things; it also gives you time to think. And there’s no shame in saying I’m not sure, I haven’t thought about that, or that you appreciate the questioner bringing it to your attention—embrace the challenge and acknowledge it.
Finally: For unpaid work, conferences take a lot of preparation and involve expenses on accommodation, food, and transport which universities and funders do not always cover. As conferences return to in-person during a cost of living crisis, why do they matter?
SC: Conferences are excellent ways to meet people, both in and out of your field. This is great for making contacts with whom you might ultimately work on a project, but it is also essential for community-building, which is vital when writing your PhD. By bringing together academics at various stages in their careers, conferences also help you to believe in yourself and the value of your work: they are supportive environments, and you will receive constructive feedback from people who take a genuine interest in your work.
MB: Going back to in-person conferences after almost two years of virtual conferences, I honestly wasn’t sure the effort and cost it took to arrange travel to an in-person conference was worth it. When I got to the conference, however, I was amazed at the difference being in-person made. Being able to speak informally after presentations with panellists whose papers I admired allowed me to make professional and personal connections I wouldn’t have made online, and I left with a much stronger sense of being part of a wider American Studies community.
AO: The simple answer is networking. You can meet all sorts of people who share your principles and research but haven’t thought of it the way you have, or those who oppose it. It is interesting and exciting. Conferences also provide a feeling of camaraderie as research and writing can be a very isolating and lonely experience. However, I wholeheartedly believe that COVID-19 taught us that conferences do not need to be solely in-person or solely virtual. A hybrid is and should be possible, especially for international fields such as American Studies where participants have many social, personal, financial, cultural or geographical needs.