How to: Applying to Give Conference Presentations

I’ve been invited to be a panelist at an event in my department tomorrow titled “Tips and Tools for Applying to Present at Professional Meetings.” The event is a great idea. When you are new to academia navigating big conferences can be overwhelming, and there are a lot of steps involved in the application process that are not always clear when you get started.

Here are a few of the things I plan to talk about on the panel:

1. Joining professional associations

Professional associations hold yearly conferences that they often call “Annual Meetings.” These are opportunities for people around the country, and often from around the world, to share their work with their peers, get feedback, meet new people and visit with old friends and colleagues. Attending and presenting at these events is an important way to meet and exchange ideas with other scholars with similar research interests.  In your first year of graduate school it is a good idea to begin asking your advisors and peers what professional associations they belong to so you can find a group that fits your interests.  For example, I belong to the American Sociological Association, the Association of American Geographers, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. I’ve also attended and presented at the Rural Sociological Society and Agriculture, Food and Human Values.

2. Joining sections and listserves

Once you’ve joined one or several professional associations, you’ll also want to join a few of the sub-groups within these large associations, often called sections.  For example, I’m a member of the American Sociological Association’s “Environment and Technology” and “Collective Behavior and Social Movements” sections and the Association of American Geographers’ “Cultural and Political Ecology” section. Again, it helps to ask your advisors and peers with similar research interests what sections they belong to.

One of the benefits of joining a specific section is getting put on their group listserve. These can be wonderful ways to stay current on news and opportunities in your field, and are often rich resources for asking questions specific to your research.  For example, you might post a question to the list asking for suggestions for articles on a specific topic related to your research, or you might ask for examples of syllabi to help you design a new class. These listserves are also where you will find out about opportunities to present at annual meetings.

3. Different ways to participate in conferences

Most conferences offer a number of different ways to participate: presenting your own work in a formal paper session, presenting a poster during a poster-session, or being part of a round-table discussion are several common ways to present work and exchange ideas. Or, sometimes particular sections of a professional association will offer pre-conference workshops that provide a space to focus on the interests of the section.  I attended a 2 day pre-conference workshop hosted by the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section of the ASA once and found that the small size of the group facilitated getting to know people over the course of our two days together.

4. Navigating conference deadlines

Here are some of the dates and deadlines you’ll need to track:

  • Date of annual meeting: Each professional association usually hosts their annual meeting at roughly the same time each year. The location and dates of annual meetings are often set more than a year ahead of time.
  • “Calls for papers” begin to be released: After a set date, conference session organizers will release “call for papers” that describe the theme of their particular session and invite others to submit papers for inclusion. The session organizers read through the all the submissions and then pick 3-4 to include in their panel. If you are not accepted, your work may be sent to a general pool for other session organizers to choose from, or your work might be sent to your second choice session, or you may need to re-apply to a different session. Each professional organization organizes this process slightly differently.
  • Abstract due date: Many conferences require only an abstract to be submitted for the session planner to read as they decide whose work to include in their session. Some, however, require an entire paper be submitted.
  • End of “early bird” registration: Many conferences offer discounted rates to people who register to attend their conference early.
  • Full paper due date, if applicable
  • Discounted hotel room registration end date: Many conferences offer discounted rates to guests who stay in the conference hotel if those reservations are made early.

Download a worksheet to help you track these dates for multiple conferences here.

5. Making the most of conferences

Attending large conferences with thousands of other scholars can be exhausting. I usually try to find a few sessions a day that I want to attend, but do not try to attend sessions during each of the time slots available. I find that I need regular time away from the presentations for down time and meeting up with friends and colleagues. Conferences offer many opportunities for socializing, which is often where the best personal and intellectual connections are formed. Some schools host a dinner or night out one night of the conference, and attending these events organized by your own school, a school you used to attend, or the school of a friend are a great way to meet people.

6. Paying for conferences

There are a few ways to help defray the costs of attending conferences:

  • The two big conferences that I often attend (ASA and AAG) are often held on opposite coasts, so for the last several years I have been alternating which conference I attend by choosing the one held closest to where I live on the West Coast.
  • Don’t stay in the conference hotel! I have always been able to find hotel rooms within walking distance of the conference that are cheaper than the rooms within the conference hotel itself.
  • Share hotel rooms with other students.  This is cheaper, and often, more fun and a good way to get to know other students.
  • Some grants and fellowships include funds for attending conferences.
  • At my school, my department and our Graduate Student Union both offer annual opportunities to apply to get reimbursed for at least some of the money spent on conferences during the year.
  • Apply for paper awards!  If you receive an award for a paper you present at the conference, you also often receive some money to offset the cost of your participation.

7. Conference participation over time

Conferences get more fun the further along you get in your program when you know more people in your field.  As you get more comfortable in the academic setting and further along in your own research, you may also want to start organizing your own paper sessions, attending the business meetings of the sections to which you belong, or running for office as a student-representative in your section.

8. Other resources

Happy conferencing!

The buddy system: The best thing I learned in preschool

Another old post rescued from my “drafts” folder that stands the test of time.

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My sister and her family used to live in Amish country in Western Pennsylvania.  When I visited I was impressed by the prosperous looking farms and the teams of horses out plowing the fields.  On one visit, my brother-in-law pointed out a nice home as we drove by it.  He told me the original house had recently burned down, tragically killing several of the family’s children in the fire.  My brother-in-law drove that road regularly and watched as the Amish community came together to rebuild the house – finishing it within a matter of weeks.

I’ve often thought it would be nice to feel the strong sense of community support that seems to be a part of some religions. But I turned down my own opportunity to join a church when I was a teenager, and am not likely to change my mind now. In my own small, secular ways I try to create other kinds of support systems.  They’re not romantic, and often involve making dates to do things with others that I might not do alone.  I definitely wouldn’t have spent last Friday afternoon working on the paper for my upcoming qualifying exam, or going to the gym after that, without having a standing date with my writing buddy and another with my gym buddy!

Every now and then I also miss the sense of shared purpose that can come from having a job that actually involves people all working on the same project.  Academics are mostly doing their own thing, and PhD students are certainly not allowed to co-author their dissertations.

Here’s some of what I’ve already tried and found helpful:

  • Weekly writing dates – in groups or pairs (just to write, not to workshop our writing)
  • Grading get-togethers – for moral support!
  • Exercise buddies – mostly gym time and walks
  • Soup exchanges – everyone makes a soup at home, divvies it up into containers, and gets together to trade soups so we can stock our freezers with a variety of yummy homemade soups! I try to do this each winter.
  • Friday lunch dates at the college cafeteria – thanks Bernie!
  • Project buddies – I finished my master’s thesis with the help of weekly phone meetings with two other friends working on their own theses, and did the early stages of work for my qualifying exam supported by regular coffee meetings with another fellow student (thanks Brandi!). I both cases we didn’t read each other’s work or talk about the content of our projects, but used the time to set goals, troubleshoot, and get moral support.
  • Brainstorming buddies – I have found that most of my academic advisors tend not to be productive people to brainstorm with. They’re much more useful at providing constructive criticism on ideas that are already fairly concrete. But concrete ideas are necessarily preceded by the messier work of making sense of fuzzy thoughts, general interests, and gut feelings, which for me needs to be done in a criticism-free environment, constructive or otherwise. Hence, one fellow student and I have periodically gotten together for brainstorming sessions related to our work. This usually involves big sheets of butcher paper, markers,  lots of post-its, and lots of encouragement. : )
  • Future projects partner – all of the ideas above can be done with people who have a wide variety of research interests. In addition, I have one friend whose research interests are very closely aligned with my own, and we have a shared google doc with a ever-expanding wish-list of future research and writing projects to do together. Now, it may be a long time before we get to any of them. I’m diving into my own intensive dissertation research, and my friend is wrapping up research for a post-doc at the same time that she begins a new teaching job. Still, having this running list gives me a place to cultivate the pleasure of dreaming up new projects; provides a sense of myself as a career academic who will get to work on a wide variety of projects over time, even though my dissertation currently seems interminable; and helps me trust that the future that will allow more collaborative work than my current status as a Ph.D. candidate.
I’ve heard of others who get together to do their house-cleaning in groups, taking turns with whose house they focus on, but I’ve never tried it. I also keep thinking it would be fun to do a monthly “cook for the freezer” day with a friend. You know what they say, many hands make light work! Or, at least, work that is more fun.

New presentation software

I know there’s a lot of Powerpoint haters out there but I’m not one of them.  I remember using it for the first time towards the end of college and being thrilled with how easy it was to show photos, and I still enjoy it as a visually rich medium today.  Yes, some powerpoint presentations are terrible, but many other kinds of presentations are terrible too.  I’ll risk following the lead of the gun lobby to say that ‘Powerpoints don’t bore, people do.’

Nonetheless, I was excited to see a different kind of software in action for the first time at a recent conference, and used it in a presentation of my own on Friday.  Prezi let’s you create one big canvas and zoom around on it to focus on different aspects of what you want to say.  Your presentation lives online so you can access it from any computer with an internet connection, and you can e-mail people a link to your presentation for them to view on their own.

That said, it seems just as easy to go wrong with Prezi as it is with Powerpoint.  The zoom effect is fast enough that you could easily get overzealous and end up with a roomful of disoriented audience-members.  The canvas-like starting point gives you more leeway to present your ideas in a non-linear fashion, but it still won’t organize them into something meaningful for you. If your presentation doesn’t have a clear organizing thread there’s nothing the software can do to help.

Check it out yourself! Clicking here will take you to the online version of what I showed on Friday.  If you have any suggestions for improvement, let me know!