Tips on preparing for an academic conference (English Literature)

I’ve been to a few conferences, and I wanted to share some of my tips to help things go smoothly. As a PhD student, it can be an intimidating and nerve-wracking experience. Here’s my step-by-step guide, from writing an abstract to actually delivering your paper!

  1. Abstracts
  2. Writing your paper
  3. The week/day before
  4. On the day

1. Abstracts

Finding call for papers is easy using the upenn site. I often take an hour or so every month to scan through it to see if there are any relevant to me.

When I find one, I make note of the deadline date and the place the conference is being held in. These are important to know in terms of how long I have to prepare and to apply for funding if necessary.

When writing the abstract:

  • Read the spec very carefully and try to incorporate some of its terminology into your abstract.
  • Make sure you make it concise and specific. What is your argument? Why is it relevant? What evidence are you using?
  • Stick to the word count and make sure you include any extra info such as a bio, either in the same document or separate.
  • Don’t attempt to do too much: you can’t deliver an entire essay in a normal presentation of 20 minutes.

2. Writing your paper

When you are planning what information to include in your paper, consider these points:

  • make it as easy to follow as possible
  • signpost your structure and what you’re going to talk about at the very beginning
  • map our your argument at the start, then again all the way through

There are many ways to prepare a paper for a conference, depending on your style, your public speaking skills and your confidence. For my first conference, I choose to write my paper so I could have it with me. Then I planned the powerpoint presentation around my paper.

a 20 minute presentation is approximately a 2,500 word paper

After I had done a couple of conferences, I began altering my approach. I chose to design my powerpoint and then print it off, and plan what I am going to say around that. I think this approach is better – based more on the visuals rather than having them in the background. People respond better to visuals.

Remember – always put your contact details on the first and last slide – in case people want to contact you and network!

3.The week/day before

Important things to consider:

  • Find out where the conference is and take into account travel
  • If the conference is more than one day – do you have suitable accommodation? Check if the university can offer accommodation.
  • Can you get funding for attending? You may have to fill the forms in before, not after – so take that into consideration so you aren’t caught out.
  • Time your presentation and rehearse it (on your own is fine but might be helpful to rehearse in front of others too if it’s your first)
  • Make sure you have sent your presentation, have it on a memory stick, or have it emailed to yourself etc. I’ve known people who have been caught out with this.
  • Plan the journey and plan what is appropriate to wear – is it a graduate conference (casual) or a large, international conference that you might want to go more formal? If in doubt, I would always go somewhere in the middle instead of extremes – you want to feel comfortable.
  • Print your notes in a large font and mark where you are going to change slide (if that’s the technique you’re using).

4.On the day

Delivering your paper can be nerve-wracking! Make sure you’ve seen the agenda and you know where and when you will be speaking. If you have time – get your presentation downloaded before your talk, so it is there on the desktop.

S P E A K  S L O W L Y . . .

Look at your audience.

And good luck!

by  Layla Hendow, PhD researcher at University of Hull


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