14th Nov

Conferences: Attending, Speaking, Organising

In this seminar, we shared our experiences (good and bad!) of conferences.  Conferences are a fantastic place to meet other researchers doing similar work, rub shoulders with the academic stars of you particular field, and present your own work to an audience with an academic interest in your work.  In this session, Sharif Mowlabocus spoke to us about presenting at academic conferences.

MFM PhD students are also famed for organising conferences with recent successes such as Staging Illusion and TRASH.  Current students Ben Litherland and Jane Traies spoke about the challenges and rewards of setting up a conference of your own.

Update 19th Nov:

Sharif gave us some advice about giving a paper at a conference:

  • Be efficient – make sure it’s part of your PhD and not a complete side-track
  • The golden rule. Ask:
    • What will I get out of it?
    • What is this taking away from me?
  • Apply as a panel
    • To avoid being put in that random panel of people who don’t quite fit together
    • Because organisers are more likely to accept panels – it saves them work!
  • Consider postgrad conferences
    • They are usually smaller and more focused
    • They are often actually more intense and useful
    • Plus – quite simply – you won’t be able to speak at these once you’ve got your PhD
  • The abstract
    • Make it accessible – the organiser is an academic, but not an expert in your field.
    • A bibliography is usually appropriate – increasingly it’s expected particularly in USA
  • The paper
    • Make one point.  Make it well.
    • Don’t present your thesis.
    • Get to your point early.  Don’t spend too long on context. Only give the context that’s necessary for the audience to understand your point.
  • Perform your paper, don’t read it
    • It’s fine to have a script as long as you don’t simply read it. 
    • Write ‘pause for breath’ etc into the script
    • Write it in short paragraphs, as you would speak
    • Time yourself – stand in front of the mirror and perform it
  • Beware of Powerpoint
    • Keep it simple
    • Prezi looks nice, but can make people seasick!
  • Expect your tech to fail – prepare for the worst
    • Bring 2 USB sticks
    • Have your work on a cloud server too
    • Have paper notes with you, so you can give the presentation without any tech (and practice this version!)
  • Questions
    • Most academics are long-winded.  Write the question down as they’re talking around it.
    • If you haven’t understood, ask them to rephrase it.
    • If you are really stumped, ask the chair for a couple of minutes – they can take a question for someone else and then come back to you
    • Always acknowledge and thank the questioner
    • Don’t argue.  If you’re disagreeing, cut it short by offering to buy them a coffee and discuss it afterwards – you take control of the situation
  • Walk away having gained something
    • You’re there to establish a reputation
    • Make the most of the opportunity to see other academic work in your research area
    • You’re there to improve your own work
    • Sit down 30 mins after your paper, and write some notes on the questions you received, the answers you gave, and the discussion that took place.
      • Feed this back into your research (after all, that’s why you’re giving a paper in the first place!)
  • Have fun
    • It’s a rare opportunity to chat about your research with people who really want to hear about it.

Ben and Jane chatted to us about organising conferences during your PhD, after their successes with Staging Illusion and TRASH

  • Reasons to organise a conference
    • You get all the benefits of attending conferences (as Sharif outlined) with the extra bonus that you’ve organised it, so you know it’s all going to be relevant to your work
    • Useful insight ‘behind the curtain’ – your experiences as an organiser will be of benefit when you apply to speak at conferences
    • It is really rewarding.  Seeing a room full of people applauding a fantastic keynote and asking insightful questions – and it’s all happening because of you.
    • Developing really good relationships with your peers.  The organising team will become a close-knit group by the end of it
    • And the classic – it looks good on your CV
  • Coming up with a theme
    • Go for a drink together.
    • Chat about your research until you identify an idea that you are all interested in
    • That idea is the core of your theme – work it into something a bit more general so that it can attract a good range of speakers
  • Funding
    • The University is likely to have funding available
    • Your department or school may have funding
    • Publishers often fund or part-fund conferences in return for integrating a book launch into proceedings. The author could also be your keynote.  Of course only go down this route if you wanted the author to be your keynote anyway.
  • Keynote speakers
    • How much funding do you have?
    • The more ‘glamorous’ speakers, will require payment to come and speak.
    • At the very least, you will be paying for the speaker’s travel, accommodation, food and drink for the entirety of the conference.
    • Tip: If you want a particular keynote but they’re based in the USA or Australia (for example) – find out if they’re working or speaking in Europe at all.  The money you save between a flight from mainland Europe and a long-haul flight may mean you can afford the speaker after all.
  • Venues
    • The more you pay, the less you’ll have to do
    • A University conference centre will make everything easy for the organisers, but will charge accordingly.
    • Remember that higher costs will have to be passed onto delegates in registration fees – don’t make a fantastic conference that nobody can afford to attend!
  • Advertising
    • Get the word out every way possible
    • Do a blog, get a twitter feed, make a Facebook page, use LinkedIn, Google+, everything you can think of.
    • Use every possibly-relevant academic mailing list you can think of – ‘apologies for cross-posting’ gives you freedom to send as many messages as you like
  • The Call For Papers
    • Treat this as an advert for your conference.
    • Make it short and snappy
    • Be very clear about what you want people to submit – the more specific you are with these instructions, the better.  Otherwise you’ll end up sending loads of emails asking for more info.
    • Tip: Ask for people to submit around 5 keywords. This will be really helpful when it comes to organising panels
  • Registration and payments
    • Taking personal details and payment from a large group of people can be a logistical nightmare.
    • Be clear from the start about what info you need from people.  Remember this will include things like name and address, but also things like dietary and mobility requirements
    • The university’s payment system is likely to have its own rules and regulations – speak to the finance office before you start
    • Have a proper system to store people’s information – if you fall ill, can somebody else start using your system?  Use Excel or another established system.
      • Don’t be frightened by it, but be aware of regulations regarding privacy and personal data.  Just be sensible – don’t leave lists of people’s names and addresses in a shared office
  • Food and Drink
    • Is really important.  If your delegates are hungry or thirsty, they won’t remember the fantastic speakers
    • This is the cost that you have the most control over.  If you hire a conference venue, they will provide the food (and charge you appropriately)
    • If you save money and organise the catering yourselves, remember it’s more than just making the food.  You need to provide crockery and cutlery, boiling water for tea and coffee, a place to sit and eat etc.  You need to transport the food to the venue, and clear up afterwards.  It will save you lots of money, but it is a significant undertaking on top of organising the conference itself.
      • That said, we did the catering for TRASH and it worked really well!

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