Rat Race: Writing your first conference paper

Later this week, my department at the University of Warwick is holding its annual postgraduate conference. Preparing for this event has inspired me to think back over my own experiences of giving conference papers as a young academic.

The event at Warwick is primarily intended to give students at MA and first year PhD level an opportunity to present their research as a conference paper to an audience of friendly faces. Personally, I think this is an excellent idea. Not only does it encourage wider departmental knowledge of one another’s research, it also gives students the encouragement and confidence to begin to submit abstracts in response to calls for papers.


Myself presenting at Desiring Fashion, a conference I organised last year at the University of York, UK.

However, making that first leap can seem daunting. Conferences can seem intimidating to those at the very start of their careers, especially when you find the names of established academics and renowned figures in your field on the programme. Talking with fellow PhD students, other concerns that have arisen include wondering whether your work is good enough, how to present it, and where to submit papers. In this post, I aim to address some of these concerns.

Attending: My first tip is to attend as many conferences as you can, from as early as you can. When I was studying for my MA, I was lucky that my department held regular conferences that were free to students. Though these were relatively small, they gave me a taste of what was expected. See if there are any societies in your specialist area that hold an annual conference, or whether nearby institutions are holding any events. My MA department also held weekly research seminars and postgraduate forums. These were free, and allowed me to see a variety of different presentation styles.

Where should you present?: Having attended a few different conferences, you should begin to get an idea of where you could present. I would recommend starting with postgraduate conference or forum. This is a fab way to learn from your peers, and a great way yo ease your way into giving conference presentations.

Will my work be good enough?: Of course! Conference papers aren’t supposed to be finished and publishable articles. They are works in progress or simply some musings. You will only have time to make one or two main points (a 15-20 minute paper should be 2,500 – 3,500 words). If the organisers have accepted your abstract, then they clearly think you have a good idea!

What about panels?: Another great way to ease yourself into giving conference papers is to respond to a CFP with a panel made up of two or three of your colleagues who are working in a similar area. If you can draw together a nice narrative through your papers, and you are working with people you know, it relieves the pressure a little.

Large conferences: Although I would recommend starting with a postgrad conference, large society conferences are nothing to be afraid of. Firstly, the conference is normally split into parallel sessions, meaning your audience will probably be quite small. Secondly, established academics, although they may challenge you, do not want to see you fail.

Powerpoint presentations: Making a good visual presentation is essential. Most people still use powerpoint, but Prezi is becoming increasingly popular. Make it look smart (no fussy colours or graphics!) and note down a few key words too. Try to present from and engage with the slides, instead of simply using them as illustrations.

Taking questions: Taking questions can seem like the most daunting part. Your presentation you can practice, but you could be asked anything. However, these questions can be constructive. No one is trying to trip you up. Instead, they are usually simply suggestions for sources you may have overlooked, or new angles to approach your work from.

Network: My final point is that you must use conferences as an opportunity to network. This may not come naturally to many academics. However, once you have given your paper, you will normally find people approach you to discuss your work. Make the most of this opportunity to find out who other people are in your field, and make your wider interests and abilities known.

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