Presenting Your Research at an Academic Conference: A Guide for New PhD Students

Presenting research papers at academic conferences allows PhD students to promote their work to scholars in their field, receive feedback from trusted experts, and (hopefully) see exotic locations. While conference participation is therefore important, it can prove daunting to students who are just beginning their journeys in academia. I have had the opportunity to participate in conferences both the UK and the US since beginning my PhD. Several of these conference experiences have proven positive, but I have made a few mistakes along the way. Here I share a few tips on how to have a successful conference presentation based on what I learned so far.

Keep Within the Allotted Time

This point might sound simple, but you will be surprised how many people

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It is important that one work very hard on one’s presentation.

fail to follow this simple rule. Some conference organizers will boot you from the lectern once your time expires. Others will be too polite to remove you, but by going over your time you will likely bore your audience, show disrespect to the people who will present behind you, and probably make yourself “that guy” at the conference. So, always be sure to end exactly when you are supposed to end.

Focus on Your Presentation Style

It goes without saying that your audience will arrive because they primarily have an interest in the content of your paper. But, this fact does not mean that the manner in which you present your content does not matter. Practice your delivery several times before the conference so that you are not a slave to your notes. By having such familiarity with your work, you will have the confidence you need to add rhetorical flourishes and captivate your audience.

I recognize that this is purely anecdotal, but I have received the most praise for my presentations when I have worked on both the content and the style of my presentation. When I have been in a rush and have not focused on style, I have noticed eyes in my audience glaze over during my presentation. People are busy during academic conferences, and they will hear many, many papers during their time at the event. Having the courtesy to present your paper in a pleasing manner will make your work more memorable.

Be Confident

It is likely that no one else in the room will know the topic you are discussing better than you do. I know that this statement might sound crazy to you if you are just starting your research, but there is a high probability that it will prove true. Even experts in your field will likely not know the particular angle that you are taking or the nuance that you are bringing to your discipline.

So, walk up to the lectern with the belief that you have something important to say that people want to hear; what you are doing at the conference matters! Do not act like your research does not matter or is of low quality. Believe in what you are doing and know that there are several people in attendance who have enough interest in your topic to show up and hear you.

Prepare for Potential Questions and Objections

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Practice makes perfect. 

People will always ask you questions after your present paper. Even if the members of the audience have nothing to say, a gracious moderator will step in and invent a question or two 

just to be courteous. Prepare as best as you can for this time. Outline potential queries and construct answers for them in advance. I usually write out potential questions and then my responses to them on a sheet of paper that I then take with me to the lectern when I present my paper. 

Be sure also to include footnotes in your paper. Even if only your eyes will see your presentation documents, if someone asks you about a source that you used you will want to be able to provide a good answer for them.

Network Well

Networking with other people remains an important part of the conference experience; it is likely just as significant as the paper you will present. If you struggle with networking, consider some of the many online courses that are available on this topic. You can start with simple steps, though. Always have your contact information ready to pass out to everyone. Keep your conference name tag in a place that is easy to see. Go to social events—do not stay in your hotel room alone!—when they are available. You never know what opportunities will come your way by mixing with other people.

I personally struggle networking because I hate self-promotion and feel like a phony when I “put myself out there.” Still, when I have forced myself to network at events, I have made valuable research contacts who have helped me with my thesis. I have also received opportunities to write book reviews or even make friends. You never know unless you try!

About David Rathel

Husband to April; Baptist Minister; Student at St. Mary's Divinity School at the University of St. Andrews
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