Road Warriors: What Every Grad Student Needs to Know About Presenting at Conferences or Meetings

Being successful at conferences or meetings, like in speed dating, requires planning…Lots of planning. Photo courtesy of Corbis.

Speed dating—the craze that began in a coffee shop in California during the late 1990s—has a lot in common with academic conferences and meetings. In both cases, groups of people with disparate interests are thrown into a room, all hoping to connect with an individual—or if you’re an optimist, individuals. With speed dating, these connections can lead to long walks in the park, romantic dinners, and fervent proclamations of love. The relationships sparked at conferences or meetings, on the other hand, can spawn collaborations, inspire new research, and lead to (be still our hearts!) a future teaching position.

Then again, you can also go down in flames.

Because conferences and meetings—like matters of the heart—can be rough if you’re not prepared.

But hope is out there, and in this post, students and alumni from Tufts’ Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who have survived and lived to tell the tale of their conference or meeting experience share practical tips for how you can too.

Bring Band-Aids and Breath Mints…Seriously

Take a page out of Nelly's playbook and bring some band-aids to your next conference or meeting.

Band-aids aren’t just for ebullient rappers from St. Louis and kids with skinned knees. They can also be an essential part of your conference toolkit.

“I made the mistake of not bringing band-aids to my first conferences,” said Lara Hwa, a GSAS psychology student who has presented her research at meetings of the European Behavioural Pharmacology Society and the Society for Neuroscience. “Nice shoes are just not part of a graduate student’s everyday life, and I found this out the hard way.”

Adds GSAS drama student Danielle Rosvally, who has shared her research at the Rutgers Newark M.A. Consortium and the Université de Montreal Annual Graduate Student Conference,

“Make sure you wear something professional and don’t wear sneakers. Nothing says ‘I’m a graduate student!’ like a suit with sneakers. Also, pack breath mints. You really don’t want to be introducing yourself to professionals in your field and have them repulsed by the tuna you had for lunch.”

Don’t Be Like Sheldon

Sheldon Cooper may know it all, but he could use some help with his conference planning. Image courtesy of CBS. All rights reserved.

Anyone who watches the television program The Big Bang Theory knows that Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is, to put it kindly, a challenging person. A typical episode features Sheldon sparring with roommate Leonard (Johnny Galecki), and friends Howard (Simon Helberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) over everything from Sheldon’s favorite chair being used by someone other than Sheldon to the identity of a cricket named “Toby.” In one episode in particular, the foursome are heading to a conference when Sheldon realizes that he forgot to pack a flash drive which contained a paper he planned to share with a prominent scientist.

The best way to avoid Sheldon’s plight? Make sure you have multiple versions of your conference or meeting materials.

“Have both physical and digital copies of everything you need for your presentation,” said Rosvally. “Also, every time I have brought technology with me to a conference, something has gone wrong or has not gone according to plan. This is especially true if you’re an AppleMac user. Most campuses are personal computer-based, which means that the systems in place are not designed to handle Macs. So, make sure to have adaptors or anything else you need before you travel.”

Keeping Time

Texting while crossing the street, wagering on the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl, and forgetting to bring glitter to a Ke$ha concert are all very bad ideas—so is neglecting to give your presentation multiple run throughs.

When it comes to presenting at conferences or meetings, it's critical to know how much time you have at your disposal. Photo by Salvatore Vuono.

“Practice your presentation with your adviser, lab mates, office mates, and friends as much as possible,” said Donghui Chen, a GSAS mathematics student who has presented at the Copper Mountain Conference on Iterative Methods and the Conference on Numerical Linear Algebra: Perturbation, Performance, and Portability. “It will make a huge difference when it’s your turn to present.”

It’s also crucial, according to GSAS drama student Matthew McMahan, to manage your time.

“Time limits are very important,” said McMahan, who recently presented his research at the Philadelphia Theatre Research Symposium. “If you have twenty minutes to speak, I would plan your talk for eighteen minutes. This would give you enough elbow-room to speak at a comfortable pace and make ‘on-the-spot’ asides.”

Danielle Rosvally agrees with her fellow drama graduate student.

“The timing and rehearsal thing is huge,” said Rosvally. “Know what you’re going to say, and make sure you say it in a succinct, articulate, and entertaining way. If you’re entertaining, you will stand out. Try to eliminate words like ‘uhm,’ ‘uh,’ and ‘like’ from your speech. This is a general good life tip, but especially important at a conference or meeting.”

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

It's impossible to see everything at conferences or meetings, and if you try you'll tire yourself out…and we doubt there will be anyone there to carry you back to your room.

Anyone who’s been to Disney World or has taken children there knows it’s impossible to see every attraction. Still, kids try. And by the end of the day these young visitors typically fall into two categories: those who, overcome with exhaustion, are being carried away by their equally fatigued parents, or those who, with tears in their eyes, try to claw their way back to the park as their parents attempt to usher them away.

Like Disney World, it’s impossible to see everything at a conference or meeting, so it’s a good idea to have a well-conceived plan for each day.

“When I was started out, I tried to attend everything,” said GSAS drama alumnus Meron Langsner, who presented his work over twenty times while he was a student. “It’s better to see fewer things with your full attention than try to see everything and burn out.”

Adds Danielle Rosvally, “Conferences will tire you out. You constantly need to be ‘on,’ and if you combine this with the long days and after-hours socializing, you’re setting yourself up to crash pretty hard.”

Keep an Eye on Your Wallet

While attending conferences or meetings is important, it certainly isn’t cheap, and in most cases, it’s necessary to pay for both airfare and lodging. So, it helps to be creative.

“Try to minimize travel expenses as much as you can since you may end up going to several conferences or meetings a year,” said Lara Hwa. “Resources I look to for support are travel awards from the conferences or meetings I’m going to; the travel fund of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering; and funding offered by my department. Another good way to reduce expenses is to split a room with graduate students going to the same conference.”

There are many easy ways to save money when attending conferences or meetings. Photo by Stuart Miles.

Meron Langsner concurs with Hwa when it comes to keeping an eye on expenses.

“When it comes to hotels, definitely look around; there may be a hotel with a far better deal than the conference rate,” said Langsner.

Reid Offringa, a GSAS psychology student who recently presented his work at the annual International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Meeting, avoided the hotel route altogether for a much cheaper option.

“I found that one night in a hotel was more expensive than a week in a hostel,” said Offringa. “So, I saved money by staying in a hostel.”

It’s Not All About Presenting

Most of this post has covered how graduate students can successfully navigate the conference and meeting world when it comes to presenting.  But it’s important to recognize that there’s much more to conferences and meetings.

“Conferences are places for exchanging ideas. It’s not all about presenting your work.” said Doug Urban, a GSAS physics student who has presented at the General Relativity and Gravitation Conference and the Eastern Gravity Meeting.

Adds Meron Langsner, “At conferences, you learn lots of new stuff in a really short time. You also get to talk to other scholars who are interested in similar topics; this type of experience is invaluable.”

Presenting at conferences or meetings can also provide valuable feedback when it comes to submitting papers.

“It helps to get feedback from people in your field—since many could be potential reviewers—before you submit your research for publication.” said Lara Hwa. “You will then have a better idea of what strengths your research has as well as the gaps you need to fill.”

And don’t forget about the networking opportunities provided by these events.

“Network, network, network! You can be doing amazing work, but nobody will ever see it if you don’t make an effort to get out there,” said Danielle Rosvally. “Sitting around and waiting to be discovered is a sure-fire way to ensure yourself a long future of unemployment.”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

We want to hear from you! Do you know other best practices for presenting at conferences or meetings? Was this post helpful? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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6 Responses to Road Warriors: What Every Grad Student Needs to Know About Presenting at Conferences or Meetings

  1. On hotels: it’s nearly always possible to find a cheaper hotel in the neighborhood of any given conference hotel. Kayak.com is my favorite site for checking on that.

    On food: Even if you’re trying to save money, make sure to eat. I try to have at least one real (i.e., not buffet/sandwich) meal per day.

    For introverts: Spend a little time each day recharging your batteries in whatever way works for you–for me it’s finding a quiet (or quiet-ish) spot and reading something unrelated to whatever the conference is about. Conferences can be traumatic for introverts–take extra care of yourself.

  2. Eric Miller says:

    Don’t underestimate the value of having a poster presentation at a conference. Talks are generally regarded as more prestigious but posters provide for a much better opportunity to meet people (especially those who may want to hire you soon) and get good feedback.

    For those in STEM fields, if the talk is short, keep the number of equations to a bare minimum. Figures and pictures are much more informative. Concentrate on getting the big picture across quickly (what’s the problem, why is it interesting, what’s been done, what’s wrong with what’s been done) along with your results (why should the listener care). You can always email the paper after.

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