By Fraser Raeburn |

Like many others in their second year of a PhD, I have spent the last year or so trying to work out exactly how to go about the whole conference thing. It’s one of the least well-defined aspects of the PhD. Which to go to, what to present, what to expect – those are all things we are assumed to more or less work out for ourselves. I don’t claim to have it all figured out, either then or now (the ‘beginner’ in the title refers more to the author than the audience). A year ago, however, I decided that the best way forward was to be as experimental as possible – approach each conference paper differently, and see what happens.

Paper 1: Dipping a toe in


Actually, I lied. This one wasn’t really a conference paper. This was a paper I gave to a PhD seminar series at the University of Edinburgh, which was explicitly designed to mimic conference conditions in a ‘safe’ environment. If your university doesn’t have one of these, start one. It’s not only a useful forum for trying out new material, it’s a great way to both build confidence and to work out what style of presentation suits you. I learned, for example, that complex slides annoy me, especially when they don’t work and everyone misses the hilarious visual joke you made about a map. The downside is that as the audience is made up of your immediate peers, you can’t necessarily expect much criticism, especially if no one else is working on a related topic. In my case, it led to paranoia that all the outlandish praise (‘eh’ and ‘I was sometimes not bored’) was a collective ruse to avoid hurting my feelings.

Paper 2: Conservatism personified 

margaret thatcher

My first actual conference was at the University of Strathclyde, a broad, two-day affair on Modern British History. I played it extremely safe. My paper was based on research conducted for my Masters, which I knew well, and more importantly, no one else knew anything whatsoever about. Nor, it must be said, was it the most intimidating gathering: there were a large number of local postgraduates, and a bare handful of even early-career academics. Overall, it was a pleasant experience and I met plenty of interesting and nice people, and more or less managed not to mangle the paper unduly. The downside was that given the audience and broad nature of the conference, I didn’t face any tough questions, or receive much constructive feedback, although everyone was very supportive in a vague sort of way.

Paper 3: Living dangerously

Having tried caution, it was time to be reckless. My next conference was on (Un)making the Nation, held at the University of Cambridge. I promised to deliver a paper on a very topical comparison between my own area of study, the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and the British ISIS recruits currently in Syria. I had done next to no research on Syria prior to this, and my proposal had been fuelled only by some vague similarities I had noted in the media. Fortunately, some more substantive research after being accepted proved my hunch, although my lack of knowledge regarding Syria and international relations theory in general was painfully apparent. The paper itself was flawed, but the experience was exhilarating: during the panel Q&A for the session I was part of, each (rather pointed) audience question was directed at me rather than my fellow panellists. Being so closely and critically questioned did a great deal to improve not only my approach to the paper I had given, but also to facets of my core research. It was not, however, an entirely stress-free experience.

Paper 4: The last-minute rush

My last conference of the year followed quickly afterwards. Possibly still high from the endorphins, I agreed to replace a speaker who had dropped out of another Cambridge conference on Networks of Violence two weeks later. I like to think of it as the moment I became relaxed about conferences. Having already put myself out there as much as possible, the idea of conceiving and writing a paper within two weeks seemed perfectly plausible, especially as I planned to retreat to much safer ground with my choice of topic. The overlap in attendance (particularly amongst Cambridge postgraduates) also helped, with a few familiar faces easing some of the social pressure, and also giving me the chance to prove that my research wasn’t usually quite as outlandish as it had appeared a fortnight earlier.

networking‘So wait, you mean you aren’t actually an idiot?’  ‘…no’

A year later, I don’t claim to have answered all the questions conferences raise for new PhDs. I’ve also not come close to facing all the possible challenges – my next paper will be the first I’ll give to an audience of specialists in my field, for instance. However, challenging myself to try new things has certainly paid off in terms of connections made and confidence gained, not to mention added insight and impetus for my own research. For those just starting their conference adventures, I can’t give better advice than to treat conferences as you would Tinder: experiment, keep an open mind and never be afraid to say yes to a new opportunity.

Fraser has been waiting for nearly a year now for someone to write a Pubs and Pubs post explaining conferences to him, and has now apparently decided that in the absence of any real advice, this will have to do. You can read more about the research vaguely alluded to above on or follow him on Twitter for more equally vague allusions.

(Cover Image, (c); Images 1 and 2, (c); Image 3, (c)