Presenting at seminars and conferences

Presentations are great opportunities to network and gain valuable feedback

To benefit fully from presenting at conferences and seminars, you must plan your trip if the event is out of town, prepare and rehearse your presentation, and track feedback from your audience. Networking with colleagues provides opportunities for new perspective on your project and your field of research.

There are many benefits of attending conferences, including:

  1. The opportunity to communicate your research to a larger audience;
  2. The expansion of your academic network, such as interacting with researchers that you have cited;
  3. the improvement of your CV through listing the presentation, publications in conference proceedings, and journal articles resulting from the presentation; and
  4. Receiving feedback from local and international students and faculty that can help improve your work.

Finding presentation opportunities

Students can discuss where to find presentation opportunities with their supervisor and peers. Try the suggestions below.

  • Listservs and websites relevant to your field
  • Student-led conferences in your institution, department or faculty
  • Seminar or lecture series in your institution, department or faculty
  • Annual local and international conferences
  • Open houses and events for prospective students at McGill

Planning for conference attendance

Once you have found a presentation opportunity that interests you, be sure to consider:

  • abstract requirements and submission deadline;
  • registration deadline;
  • funding, if necessary; and
  • Format: online, hybrid, or in-person? For in-person conference presentations, consider transportation, accommodation and any other relevant logistics.

Preparing the presentation

Conference or seminar presentations are compact speeches that require the presenters to deliver ideas within a fixed time period. Try the suggestions below to optimize this time.

  • Think of your talk as an advertisement for your paper. Your goal is to cultivate interests, and to spark curiosity.
  • Choose your data selectively, and consider your time limit in this choice.
  • Consider who your audiences are.
  • If you have to read from scripts or notes, use simpler words and shorter sentences.
  • Be aware of the advantages and limitations of slideware such as PowerPoint (see the research tab for more information).
  • Respect the time limit and thereby show respect for your peers.
  • Conclude your talk with memorable last words.

Adapted from Wineburg (2004)

Rehearsing the presentation

Doing a rehearsal, even with just one or two peers or a supervisor, can be helpful for students, especially those with less presentation experience or who may feel anxious about presenting. During the rehearsal:

  • respect the time limit that will be enforced during the real presentation, but adjust your rehearsal if necessary to account for the possibility that you might read more quickly when you are nervous;
  • ask for audience feedback on the presentation itself as well as any slides or posters; and
  • ask for questions from the audience. This can help anticipate and prepare answers for questions that may arise during the real presentation.

Keeping track of audience questions and feedback

When presenting at conferences, students are often so busy thinking about how to respond to questions that audience comments become a blur. Arranging someone to keep detailed notes of comments and suggestions made during the discussion can be very helpful for reflecting on afterwards.

Trafford and Leshem (2002) created a list of predictable questions presenters may be asked at conferences. Here are a few that can apply across disciplines:

  • What are the implications of this research for future studies?
  • Could you elaborate a bit further about how this intersects with…?
  • How generalizable are your findings – and why?

Consider the possibility that questions which arise from a doctoral student’s conference presentation are likely to relate to the questions that will be asked by examiners at the dissertation defence. This point raises the idea that conference presentation may be a very effective aspect of preparation for the oral defence, especially in the way that it exposes the student to the reality of external criticism of their work.

Using the presentation as a step towards publication

In many fields, journal publications are the norm of academic communication and time from acceptance to publication is lengthy; hence, a useful strategy is to consider a presentation as a preliminary step towards a publication. Presenting orally has an additional advantage that it provides the opportunity to obtain scholarly feedback that can then be used in re-working the final version.

See also Publishing during graduate studies.

Being a panellist

A panel presentation is not the same as a conference paper. It is not a solo performance but more of a conversation that is part of a community of knowledge production. This means that an invitation to join a panel requires different preparation. Here are some tips for preparing for a panel presentation.

Think about why you have been asked to join a panel:

  • Have you been selected for a particular point of view?
  • If so, do you accept this or challenge this?
  • What is unique about your contribution?

Being a panelist means thinking through what your key messages actually are (e.g., no more than 3-5 points). Add in personal experience and perspectives. Try to encourage critical thinking among the audience; aim to generate discussion which will include the audience and not just be confined to the panel. If you are speaking later in the panel, listen to other’s comments; if they make the same points as you are going to, don’t repeat them but either reiterate swiftly or build on them.

Good panels are about good criticism – they are about unsettling knowledge production and moving it on in productive ways.

Adapted by Lynn McAlpine from Bærenholdt, J., Gregson, N., Everts, J., Granås, B., & Healey, R. (2010).

Can one present at too many conferences?

There are many rewards to conference-going, such as the opportunity for networking and feedback. However, travelling to conferences can be expensive and most students cannot get funding for more than one or two trips per year. It is also worth considering whether a CV with many more conferences than publications indicates a problem.

 

Funding for conferences

Supervisors may have funds for their students for their attendance of conferences or students may apply for other funding. McGill offers travel awards to student presenters, known as the GREAT Awards (Graduate Research Enhancement and Travel Awards). Note that these awards are distributed through individual faculties, so if students want to apply for them, they should contact their faculty. Departments, some student societies, and academic societies that host the conferences may also offer funds for student travelling.

Questions to consider regarding conference funding:

  • How much will the conference cost, including registration, transportation, accommodation and any other necessities not provided by the conference?
  • Are you or your student eligible for any grants, scholarships or bursaries that can cover the costs?
  • What are the benefits of this particular conference (e.g., who will be there, what are the main topics of discussion)? Are there other conferences that will provide the same benefits with a lower cost?

Conferences and publications on the CV

A related concern, suggested by anecdotal experience at least, is that some students might present at too many conferences and focus on networking without establishing credentials in the journals. If a student is aiming to pursue a career in academia, a lack of publications could become a barrier to securing grant funding and/or a permanent position.

Lacking evidence of scholarly publications, a long list of conference presentations on your CV might indicate to some readers that you have been unable to conclude the process of writing acceptable papers.

In your experience (or your peers/colleagues experience), has this been encountered?

What do you think the best conference-publication balance is?

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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