Top tips for attending an academic conference

Krisztina Csortea, Andrew Dorman, Isabel Muttreja and Ben Horton

Chairs set out for a conference.
Photo by Collegi de Farmacèutics de Barcelona on Unsplash

Academic conferences can be daunting events. With a plethora of panels roundtables, receptions and exhibitors it can be difficult to know where to start in getting the most out of your experience. In this blogpost, members of the International Affairs team provide advice on everything from presenting and chairing to making the most of social media and meeting with exhibitors.

How to get the most from presenting (Krisztina Csortea)

You know you are travelling to a conference when you notice that half the plane is furiously typing away on their laptops, trying to finish their papers. So my first advice would be, try to finish your paper before the conference begins. On a more serious note, you do get the most out of feedback from the discussant on your panel if you leave them enough time to read your work.

My second piece of advice is that your paper is not the same as your presentation. You could be making the most brilliant and novel argument, but you will lose everyone in the room within five minutes if you just read out your paper. Check with your panel chair how many minutes you have to speak and time your presentation to make sure you don’t go over. And practice it a few times, ideally on someone who is not an expert in your field. If they can follow, you know you are on the right track.

Finally, it can be very difficult to accept negative feedback in the moment, especially in front of an audience, even when it is constructive. You have to be prepared that your discussant or members of the audience may not agree with your arguments, but if you can, you should see this as an opportunity to discuss a topic you like with some very smart people, as opposed to personal criticism. I can count on one hand the number of panels I’ve been to where the discussion turned antagonistic as opposed to friendly, and none of them involved junior scholars. If someone does try to start an argument during the Q&A, offer to continue the discussion over a free mini quiche at one of the receptions that evening.

Krisztina Csortea is the managing editor at International Affairs.

How to get the most from chairing (Andrew Dorman)

In one sense chairing is live project management. It helps develop your people management skills, and listening and observing effectively are key. The chair has an important role to play yet one measure of the success of a chair can be that no one remembers who they were. Generally speaking, the chair needs to ensure four things:

First, that the contributors all get to have their moment and are able to present their arguments. No person or group of individuals should hog the conversation.

Second, that the audience equally gets to engage with the panel. There is nothing worse than the presenters (and discussant) leaving little or no time for the audience to engage. Here the chair’s time management skills come to the fore along with the occasional need to politely, but firmly, bring an individual’s contribution to a close.

Third, while debate and disagreement form part of academic discourse and should be encouraged, there is also the need to recognize the difference between robust debate and bullying. It is important to facilitate a positive experience for all those participating.

Finally, remember that IT glitches etc will happen and that even chairs are human! The real joy of chairing is seeing a group of people all learning together.

Andrew Dorman is the commissioning editor for International Affairs.

How to get the most from social media (Isabel Muttreja)

Social media can be your friend at a conference, whether you’re attending virtually or in person. You can use it to help you find events you’d like to attend and to share what you’re up to.

Follow the conference organizers on their platforms and look at the relevant # to find out about panels, organizations and people you want to see at the conference.

If you’re posting on social media to share your panels, add images, Emoji’s and most importantly the information about where you’ll be. Don’t forget to use the # when sharing any content and tag any relevant caucuses to help others find you.

Not every post needs to be promotional though — if you want to share something, share it!

Isabel Muttreja is the Marketing Manger for International Affairs.

How to get the most from exhibitors (Ben Horton)

The exhibit hall at any academic conference can be a pretty strange place. Often tucked away in a dimly-lit basement ballroom on the fringes of the event, it can feel like a bit of an awkward add-on to proceedings.

Don’t let that first impression fool you. Yes, the inhabitants of this space may look a bit tired — deprived of sleep, sunlight and sufficient expenses — but there is a lot to be gained from engaging with them. If you are wondering how to turn your conference paper into an article, or your PhD thesis into a first book, then the people here can help!

Through the exhibit hall you have access to some serious expertise in the business of publishing. Come prepared with a few notes on your research area and the audiences you want to engage with through writing, and you could leave with some extremely useful leads and contacts. Make sure to also pop back on the final day of the conference to take advantage of the closing day book sales. Always remember, the publishers are more scared of you than you are of them…

Ben Horton works on strategic planning in the Director’s Office at Chatham House. Previously he was the communications manager for International Affairs.

This blogpost was commissioned by Joseph Hills, the Digital Content Editor for International Affairs.

For more advice on international relations academia and journal publishing see the Editor’s Desk blog series.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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The official blog of International Affairs, the no.1 ranked journal of international relations. Leading the field for 100 years. Produced at Chatham House since 1922, published by Oxford University Press.

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