9 questions to help you prepare for your academic conference presentation

Academic conferences provide an excellent opportunity to simultaneously network and showcase your ideas, and presenting your work will help you maximize that experience. IHS’s Jeanne Hoffman and Dr. Jacob Levy, Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University, discuss how to best prepare for an upcoming presentation at any academic conference. They discuss the following:
  • How to select a conference, depending on what you want to accomplish by presenting.
  • What the timeline looks like for presenting at academic conferences.
  • Whether to present a paper individually or to sit on a panel.
  • How to handle audience members who seem hostile to your ideas.

Listen to the interview recording below:

Interview transcript

Jeanne Hoffman: Today we’re talking with Dr. Jacob Levy about getting the most out of attending academic conferences. Dr. Levy is the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University. Welcome, thanks for being on our podcast. Jacob Levy: Thank you for having me.

Jeanne Hoffman: When someone’s giving a presentation at an academic conference, what is the end goal of this presentation?

Jacob Levy: Well there are a couple of end goals and the balance between them depends on which kind of conference it is. When you’re presenting at your major disciplinary association’s conference (for my purposes that’s the American Political Science Association. The same would be true for the American Philosophical Association or the American Economics Association, or what have you), one of your primary goals is simply to have done it. It is credibility building. It shows that you’re an active participant in your profession. For all conferences, the other two goals are:
  • to get feedback and critical engagement on your paper,
  • and to have you, your research, your ideas become better known in the profession so that when people hear your name, they think of your topic and vice versa, when people think of your topic, they think of you as someone who has interesting things to say about it.
Now at the big disciplinary conferences, the second is probably the more important. It’s often hard for graduate students to get really sustained feedback or engagement on their paper at a conference that has thousands of people at it. If you’re lucky, you will have a good discussant who will give you a few minutes of serious and thoughtful engagement and you’ll get a couple of interesting questions from the audience.  But it will often turn out that neither of those is the case. Even if neither of them is the case, presenting at the big disciplinary association conference is something that’s worth doing, to establish yourself as someone who does interesting, serious research on your topic. In order to get really sustained and substantial feedback, you’ll often want to go to smaller conferences, whether that means regional conferences or thematically more specific conferences, conferences within your methodology, conferences within your area of substantive emphasis. Anything that’s going to have fewer than the thousands or sometimes even tens of thousands of people, in the case of MLA, who attend one of the really big conferences.
  • In political science, the New England Political Science Association and the Western Political Science Association are very good regional conferences for political theorists.
  • The Midwestern Political Science Association is a very good regional conference for empirical political scientists, especially quantitative political scientists.
  • The Association for Political Theory in political theory and political philosophy is a place that is well known for giving very good, strong feedback to graduate students who are presenting their work.
Now at those smaller conferences, you also accomplish the purpose of establishing yourself as someone who is known to do interesting work within your field. You don’t get quite the same credibility boost on your CV that you get for representing in one of the big disciplinary associations but you’re likely to learn more.

In both cases, you need to present your best work.

You need to, in a way that, say, senior faculty presenting at conferences don’t. Really make sure that you’re putting your strongest work forward. It should still be the case that you can learn something useful from comments, so it shouldn’t be on the verge of publication, but it should be as strong as it can possibly be without yet being quite on the verge of publication. This will be your first exposure to discipline in the profession. The paper that you present, the work that you present there, that will be what people think of when they think of your name. You want to make a good impression.

Jeanne Hoffman: If I’m going to be presenting at a conference, what is the timeline I should be looking at, all the way from submission, preparing for it, actually presenting? What do I need to be doing?

Jacob Levy: That varies tremendously by the conference. In the case of the longest time horizon I know of, which is the American Political Science Association, paper proposals are due in November or December for a conference that doesn’t take place until the following September. That means that you can be promising something that you haven’t written yet, provided that you’re really very confident that you’re going to be able to write it and write it successfully. That differs from one discipline to another. Many disciplines require the submission of a whole paper or of something more like five to ten pages worth of a paper, and in that case, you need to have been writing long before the call for papers comes around. In any case, I think for a graduate student, and especially for an early-stage graduate student, the year before isn’t too early. You should be thinking at any given stage, “This paper that I’m working on this year, my master’s thesis or my second-year paper, something like that is something that I can hope to propose to all of the conferences that I might want to go to the following year.” That way, you can get feedback from your advisor. You can proof it over a summer, and then you can keep submitting it as different calls for papers come around. The least amount of time that you could possibly want to think about it is a few months, but that’s really not advisable from a graduate student perspective because as I said, you want to be presenting good and impressive work. Normally I would say six to nine months is a responsible minimum, and the year before is often advisable.

Jeanne Hoffman: Would you even suggest using a conference, and presenting at a conference as sort of an impotence to writing a paper?

Jacob Levy: Absolutely, but only if the timeline is long enough. I really do believe that is often true for graduate students, that the existence of a deadline, the existence of an externally imposed deadline, something you can’t negotiate with your advisor about can help work get done, but it can’t help work get done in a two week time period. You need to have submitted something long enough in advance that you have a couple of good solid months so you can really do the work.

Jeanne Hoffman: All right, and then when you’re presenting at a conference, I see that some people present on panels and some people just give their papers individually. What’s the difference between the two? How do you even get on a panel and which is better, if one is better than the other?

Jacob Levy: Well it would not normally be the case that anyone gives a paper individually unless you were at a really small, thematic conference where every paper is being given individually. The real difference is between proposing a paper separately and proposing a whole panel. Normally what happens is a conference is made up all of the panels, some of which were proposed as panels, and some of which the conference organizers assembled as individual paper proposals. It is usually easier to get accepted with a good, well-assembled panel, and I think for graduate students it is almost certain to be easier to get accepted if you get yourself included as part of a panel proposal that is not all itself graduate students. In order to do that, you need to know people. You need to know people who are interested in taking part in a panel with you, and it’s important they not be all or even mostly people from your home institution. Conferences don’t like to accept a panel that is made up of an advisor and their three advisees. Jeanne Hoffman: Right, I could see why. Jacob Levy: They like to see a thematically coherent, intellectually coherent panel. If a graduate student is sufficiently plugged in with the researchers in their field outside their university, then it can be a very good idea for the graduate student to take the lead on organizing a panel. You get in touch with two or three professors elsewhere and say, “I’ll do the legwork and I’ll write the submission. I will be the one who takes on the administrative difficulty of getting everything submitted, and in exchange, I get to be on the panel with all of you,” and therefore I am much more likely to have my paper accepted than if I have an individual submission. Again, only if it makes sense, only if the panel is coherent, only if you already have some way to be in touch with those people. Don’t just start Googling professors’ names, finding their email addresses and emailing them out of the blue.

Jeanne Hoffman: Right, and when I’m actually giving the presentation, what’s the difference between a good presentation and a bad one because I know a lot of people have varying opinions on the use of PowerPoint, and certain disciplines read their paper line for line, and other people walk in just with an outline and wing most of it. What is the best way to handle a presentation?

Jacob Levy: There the disciplinary norms vary much too much for there to be good, reliable advice across all of them. In philosophy what you do is you read your paper line for line and if I told you, “Well go in and just give a really good talk,” that would be bad advice. In the empirical parts of political science and the empirical parts of sociology and economics, PowerPoint is universal and there are real differences between good and bad PowerPoint presentations, and because I’ve never done one I can’t really say anything about that. My view for political theory, with the area that I do know something about, is that a ten to fifteen-minute talk is a separate thing from the paper. A bad presentation tends to be one where someone stands up with the forty page paper, starts crossing out big sections, starts reading from it, says out loud, “Oh, I’m going to skip these five pages in the interest of time.” No, in the interest of time you can’t be reading us a forty page paper anyway. Prepare something. How much you prepare depends on your speaking style. It depends on what you’re comfortable with but prepare something and certainly if it’s one of your first few conference presentations, practice it. Practice it, aiming for it to be a coherent thing that fits the allotted time, ten minutes, twelve minutes, fifteen minutes. It should be an advertisement for your paper. It’s not going to do all of the work of your paper. It should say here’s what’s interesting. Here’s what’s important. Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish. Here’s how I think I accomplished it. All of that, by the way, is also good practice for eventual job talks because a job talk is also not a paper. A job talk is a separate thing. It’s longer but you should be in the habit of developing the ability to give talks and to understand what a freestanding talk looks like. If it’s based on a paper and is derived from a paper, without itself being the same words as the paper.

Jeanne Hoffman: When I’m giving this talk, what do I do if I end up having a hostile audience, or at least a single hostile audience member who’s decided to single me out and pick apart my work?

Jacob Levy: That’s not very likely in most conference settings. If your commentator really dislikes your paper, then you need to be able to hear what they’re saying and maybe what they’re saying is off base, maybe what they’re saying derives from just a hostility to the kind of work that you’re doing, in which case you can try to graciously deflect it, but you need to be open to the thought that what they’re saying isn’t just that. In either case, whether it’s from a commentator or from an audience member, it is more important to be a good listener than it is to win the fight. From your perspective as a graduate student attending a conference, certainly a graduate student attending a conference for one of the first times, winning the fight isn’t winning. If you come off as cantankerous or defensive or angry, then you’re going to leave a bad impression behind, and you’re going to discourage other people from giving you feedback in the future. The people in the audience don’t know whether the question is fair. They haven’t read your paper. All they know is you came off looking like a jerk because you responded to a question as if it were unfair. I have seen some really very strange commentators. I’ve seen some really very strange questions, and almost without a fail the presenters come off looking better the more gracious they are and the more friendly they are and almost without fail they come off worse the more they try to win a fight and say they’re being treated unfairly.

Jeanne Hoffman: Will they even ask you questions that are off topic from your paper?

Jacob Levy: Yeah, certainly and especially because, especially the audience members because they haven’t read your paper. They are trying to extrapolate from your ten-minute, fifteen-minute talk and they are associating what they’ve heard with other things that they think, other things that they think are interesting. That is easier to deal with. It is a really, really valuable skill in conferences and in your job talk to be able to say, “That’s beyond the scope of this paper. That’s beyond the scope of my research. I don’t have anything well informed to say about that.” It’s better to say that then to go out on a limb because if you go out on a limb and you’re wrong, then you can discredit the actual accomplishment of your paper too. People tend to be very receptive when you say that. Sometimes they won’t be and sometimes they say, “Oh I understand that’s not what the paper’s about but there seems to be some connection between this and what the paper’s about, tell me what you think.” Then, it’s up to you. If it’s something that you think you do have something informed to say about, something where your paper can cast light on the question, then go ahead and speculate and just be very clear that that’s what you’re doing. Your job isn’t to put up walls around the conversation. Your job is just to make sure that you don’t get put in a position where you say something irresponsible.

Jeanne Hoffman: Right. While you’re at the conference, of course you give your paper and participate in a panel but that’s just a fraction of the time that you’re at a conference. What else should you be doing at a conference to maximize your time there?

Jacob Levy: You should be attending other panels and papers. I really do believe that there’s a tremendous amount of insightful value in going and hearing other work, both work in your field, in your specific area of research, and work outside of your field can help stimulate your thought in other areas. I find it to be one of the most efficient ways of learning about what’s going on in other parts of the discipline, listening to a few fifteen minute talks takes much less time than reading books or journals, where I’m not yet sure whether I’m sufficiently interested or engaged in what’s going on. Besides going to panels and papers, going to conferences is about meeting people, maintaining contact with people, establishing contact with people. Your advisor should be of help here and you should be willing and able to take some initiative. If you’re a graduate student and you don’t yet know other people in your area, outside your home university, then email people in advance. It’s better I think to email people in advance and say, “I’m someone who works on what you work on. Here’s generally what I do. Do you have some time at the conference at some point to meet with coffee, me deliver coffee. I’d love to talk.” I think that’s better than the attempt that is often made to grab people’s attention in the hallway. There are lots of notorious jokes about all of the conversations at conferences where people look over the shoulders of the person they’re talking to to see who the next highest status person is that they could find. You don’t want to come off as the graduate student who’s running around looking for the really high-status peoples who’s hand to shake. You want to make an impression on a few people, a few of the right people in your area as someone who’s interesting to talk to, and putting some thought into that in advance, either asking your advisor to introduce you to people or sending an email in advance, or at most, attending someone else’s panel and asking the panel if their paper’s on topic, if you have something to say about it, and if they have time, talking with them about their paper in that context.

Jeanne Hoffman: You said some things that you should do before attending the conference. After I’m done attending this conference, what sort of follow up should I do?

Jacob Levy: There’s not a lot that’s mandatory. It depends on the kinds of conversations that you had. If you had conversations with people in which someone said, “Well send me some of your work,” then you send them some of your work. But you don’t just start sending dissertation chapters to people whose hand you shook at a reception. What you might want to do, and this is I think the only follow up that is really clearly in your interest that people might forget to do, is if you’ve met someone without a prior email introduction and you had a conversation with them that was substantial enough that they might remember it, then you send them an email afterwards to say, “Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Please send me some of your work if you have a chance. I look forward to meeting you again next time.” They’re not going to remember your name from just the cold conversation that you had at the conference, but they might remember your name if you send a follow-up email. Jeanne Hoffman: All right, well thank you very much for joining us Dr. Levy, and giving us this great advice in academic conferences. Jacob Levy: My pleasure. Photo Credit: By Greg Edwards (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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