Conferences – ups and downs

8405575922_1ee1efc518_zConference attendances and presentations are one of the obligations of the PhD student.  I went to a conference last week and I’m off to another next week.

It is definitely a fabulous perk. I am going to Vienna to the Short Story Conference, and presenting a paper on cognition and one of Nabokov’s short stories. Very excited about the trip, and the conference, and the trip. I will be posting over the coming weeks, both here and on twitter, to keep give you a bit of a taste of this conference experience.

But here’s what I have discovered about conferences so far, both good and bad:


Conferences are a great way to meet like minded people, and even better, un-like minded people who challenge your way of seeing things. It is a plethora of information, some relevant to your work, and some not, but generally it is at least interesting.


Some fields of study have more interesting presentation styles than others. EG: English/Literature tends to present in a stand and read format, which I find a difficult to keep interested in, unless the reader is particularly dynamic. Whereas science like slides and image-rich, case study type presentations, which I find much easier to concentrate on.

My main criticism, and it is a criticism of academia in general, and that so many presenters place an overwhelming emphasis on presenting in academese (that impenetrable jargon-laden speech that makes a speaker seem super intelligent, but ultimately elitist and dull. It is probably the main reason that the non-academic world thinks we are a bunch of wankers.) After a few days of trying to decipher all this, my head usually hurts and I switch off completely. But I do understand the power of the right word, and there are many who seem to love it.


Academically heavy conferences can still be useful and will always bring up aspects in my own work that I had not considered. But conference with a creative aspect (like the AAWP one) are usually more stimulating.


I hate asking questions. It does seem that many people ask a very long-winded question mainly to let everyone else know they are smart. I am not smart enough to ask these questions, and I often come out of a conference session feeling a bit dumber than I did when I went in.


People will be genuinely interested in your work, and you will meet some fascinating people doing great things. I am socially awkward, I hate going up and trying to join in conversations, but plenty of people that go to conferences are in the same boat as me. I keep reminding myself of that, and once I get started it is not too hard.

You don’t have to talk about work all the time, but it is a good ice-breaker.


I went to my first conference as a guest. It was great, no pressure to present or engage, just harvest information, eat nice lunches and chat. Now I am getting to the pointy end of my PhD, I am expected to write papers and present.

I am not a natural public speaker (that is why I write). I prepare detailed notes, and then ignore them. I over-use powerpoint – I am a visual learner. And I sweat and lose my voice and generally act like a lunatic up there, or at least that’s how it feels from the inside.

But that aspect is over quickly and the papers have been generally well received, even when I presented to an audience of only two. So it is probably not as bad as it feels.


If I am well prepared, then not sticking strictly to a script can be a nice way to keep the audience engaged. And my overuse of powerpoint is a good way to keep myself on track.


In Vienna, I might even find the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

SO: My big advice thus far is: 1) time yourself; 2) don’t go over time (less is more); and 3) don’t try and include too much. If you leave them wanting more, then you will get lots of questions.

I’m sure there is much more to say about conferences, and I hope I can address some of this in my next few posts, while in the thick of it.



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4 Responses to Conferences – ups and downs

  1. RhodaGreaves says:

    Really looking forward to Vienna too! I’m just reading a short story but still very nervous.

  2. Carol says:

    So well put! good luck in Vienna

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