An Unsolicited Guide to Conferencing

Pic: (Photo by Robyn Lacy) I presented some preliminary research at the Canadian Archaeological Association’s (CAA) annual conference in 2017, to a very full little room!

I logged into Twitter this morning and one of the first tweets I saw was from a digital friend asking about conferences. They were curious about both nerd cons (i.e. ComicCon, FanExpo, etc.) and academic conferences. What really caught my attention was their comment on asking if there were academic conferences that accepted undergrads (this friend is an undergraduate student in archaeology). And from these couple of tweets the inspiration for yet another unsolicited advice post was born!

Why Conference At All?

I’m super interested in presenting at nerd-cons. It’s next on my list of things to do because a) I’m a big pop culture nerd, and b) it’s such a unique and fun way for public outreach. That being said, this blog post is going to focus on academic conferences because that’s where I already have a lot of experience. If you’re interested in nerd-cons, I want to suggest talking to my friend Paulina Przystupa, who has a lot of experience doing panels at nerd-cons.

First things first – yes, conferences do accept undergrads! Secondly – why conference at all? Let me offer some insight into why I think conferences are awesome. 1) They’re a great spot to share your research. Not just to show what you’ve been working on and what you’re contributing to communities and the field, but also for collaborative purposes. 2) Conferences give you a chance to practice your presentation skills and develop confidence. Public speaking doesn’t come easy to many people so any chance to practice is a good opportunity! 3) Conferences also help practice time management, from everything in the planning stages leading up to the conference to making sure you’re where you need to be at the right time during the conference! 4) Networking and socializing are HUGE parts of conferences and are super beneficial to you! They’re also super fun. I love being able to meet people I know from social media in person. And networking can be super beneficial to building your career.

So, if you’re thinking about attending your first conference, here is my unsolicited guide on how to go conferencing:

How to Conference

Find the Conference that Fits You

In 2018 I went to my first international conference, hosted in Washington, D.C.!
There areĀ a lot of conferences in the world. Some local, some national, some international to wherever you are. Find the conference that fits you the best. Look for a conference that your research subject will fit into. Some conferences, (e.g. CAA, SAA) are pretty wide and open to many different subjects. Other conferences are much more subject/region dependent. Also, look into the universities close to you. Many host small conferences that provide a great starting point. I got my conference start by presenting posters at the Frucht Memorial Conference at the University of Alberta, and it was an awesome experience!

Find a conference where you will personally feel comfortable attending. Look into codes of conduct and what action will be taken for violating those codes. Make sure you’re going to feel safe and welcome there. Find out what they’re doing to accommodate disabilities and childcare. Ask others what their experiences have been attending the conferences you’re interested in.

Make Sure you Know the Abstract Submission Dates

Every conference has a different set of date deadlines for your presentation submissions. The SAA conference, for example, is held in April but their submission deadline is the September beforehand. Whereas the CAA is usually held sometime between April/May but their submission deadline is much closer to the conference date. So definitely keep yourself on top of submission deadlines.

Make Sure you Know What Costs are Involved

This is a big one, and a huge annoyance of mine because paywalls (whether for publishing or conferences) make archaeology inaccessible. Inaccessible to those outside of the field who want to learn about it, and inaccessible to those trying to join the field. Even inaccessible to those in the field, like early career researchers and independent researchers. Now that my mini rant is over, let’s talk about costs to think about. I split them into two catgeories: conference costs and accessory costs. Conference costs are things like registration costs and presentation costs (i.e. the cost of printing your poster, cost of joining the society/association). Accessory costs are things like travel and accommodation. Create a budget of approximately what the total cost of presenting and attending a conference will be and that will help you decide if you’re comfortable attending.

Make Sure All Your Permissions Are in Place

If you’ve read my other unsolicited guides on how to do research, how to write a thesis, and how to write a blog post than you’ve definitely heard me talk about getting permission. Same thing goes for conferences. Make sure you have permission from the community you’re working with to present your research. And if you’re working with collaborators make sure they’re comfortable with you presenting on behalf of the team.

Figure Out What Kind of Presentation You Want to Give

It’s a bit dark, but here I am in Ottawa presenting some preliminary bead research at the CAA conference (photo by Robyn Lacy)
The first decision should be between whether you want to give a podium presentation or poster presentation. If this is your first conference I’m going to make a big assumption and guess you’re probably not looking to host a session or panel discussion. But those are also other options. If you’re interested in a podium presentation, take a look at the different styles offered by the conference. The most common is your typical 15-20 minute presentation standing before an audience. A poster will typically require you to stand beside your poster for a given length of time (usually 1-2 hours) and be prepared to answer questions from anyone who stops to take a look. You’re also welcome to give a mini presentation, but most of the time the audience wants to read the poster on their own and ask whatever questions come into their mind.

Write and Submit your Abstract

SAA Abstract Example
Here’s an example of the abstract I wrote for SAA 2018. I highlighted all the important points I wanted to get across without going into too much detail. Detail was saved for the poster itself!

Conference websites will have all the author guidelines you need to know, but abstracts tend to be 200-250 words. They’re a very brief summary of what you’ll be talking about. Leave it as general as possible, but you want to include your research question somewhere in there. The region of work and/or collection you worked with is also good to include because this can help research organizers find a good session to fit your work into. And on that note, some conferences will post ahead of time what sessions are being proposed. Spend some time looking at them because your registration might ask you what session you want to be included in. If they don’t ask you, they’ll find an appropriate place for your work. For submitting your abstract, find the submission info on the conference website. They’ll tell you where/how to submit (if it’s directly through their site or elsewhere). Many conferences require payment with submission, some allow you to put off payment until a later date. Almost every conference will require you to be a member of that society/association, so you may (if you haven’t already) also be required to join the society/association in order to submit an abstract.

Create your Presentation/Poster

All I can say is start early! I get excited and always start early. But it really helps prevent a lot of stress as deadlines loom. Also, if you’re looking to try something new and different (i.e. I included some AR features on my SAA 2018 poster), you want to make sure it works, or that you have enough time to get it working.

My new motto: less is more. On a poster, try to aim for a more infographic style that’s light on the text. Add descriptive, important text where it’s needed, but honestly the big text paragraphs are typically exactly what your images/charts/graphs, etc. are describing. So don’t be afraid to go light on the text. Same goes for a podium presentation. You don’t need 30 slides for a 15 minute presentation. Light slides, descriptive verbal presentation, and a a written accompaniment you can make accessible to everyone is all you need.

This is the poster I made for SAA 2018. I gave a very quick summary of my research in the text on the left, and then used the maps, graphs, and images to fill in the rest of the story.

Make your Travel/Accommodation Arrangements Early

Conferences typically have some sort of deal worked out with either the hotel they’re being hosted or a nearby hotel. The websites will list the details for the hotel, including the special rates. And there are usually student rates available. That being said, some conferences insist on being held at ridiculous hotels that are still too expensive after all the discounts, so you’ll want to look into alternatives. And count on not being the only one to do that. So start looking for accommodations early. Also, figure out your mode of transportation too because sometimes if you book early you also find good discounts!

Plan your Conference Time

Conferences often host formal social events, such as this pub night at the CAA 2017 conference, but keep your eyes and ears open for informal social events (such as Tweet-ups) too!
As soon as the conference program is released with all the session/presentation scheduling times, work on making your own personal schedule! Start first with making sure you know exactly when and where your presentation will be. After that, spend some time skimming the program to see what sessions/presentations pop out at you to go see. Either write out your schedule or highlight the program (if you have a physical program). Also, some conferences have apps you can use on your phone to help you keep track of everything you want to go see. Make sure to include in your schedule any social/networking events you’d like to go see! I highly recommend finding a social event on the very first night of the conference so that you can see some familiar faces through the rest of the conference.

Rock your Presentation

Let’s be honest – you’ll be nervous. And that’s totally ok. Everyone gets nervous! Heck, even I get nervous! But you’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine, you’re totally going to rock your presentation. And if you get audience questions, that’s awesome! It shows the audience was listening and wants to learn more. And of course, most importantly, have fun!!