Sarah Thomson |

Conferences are an inevitable part of PhD life, but choosing where to submit your first abstract(s) can be a tricky decision. For most people it is their first experience of sharing their research outside the sanctuary of their department. It can be daunting!

During the last twelve months I’ve embarked upon my first lap of the so-called ‘conference circuit’, as an attendee, speaker and (most recently) panel chair. It’s now that time of year when Calls for Papers (CfPs) will start landing in your inbox. So, I thought I’d share some of what I have gleaned about different types of conferences, and how I chose where to present my first papers.


Consider starting off with a postgraduate conference

I was hoping to find a small, friendly conference that would give me a chance to hone my presenting skills without getting grilled during the dreaded Q&A…  jumping in at the deep end and applying for a four-day conference like EBAAS was definitely out of the question! Luckily, lots of large academic organisations run designated postgraduate and early career conferences. These are usually shorter and have fewer attendees, so are a bit more relaxed. And, while the audience may well include senior academics, they will likely be sympathetic to the fact that the speakers are all relatively new to the world of conferences.

Another bonus of attending conferences geared at PGs/ECRs is they often include workshops on things like networking and navigating the job market. These can be really helpful, but only go to the ones that will help you! I definitely did not need to go to the ‘Preparing your CV for the Academic Job Market’ workshop before I had even found out if I would be starting a PhD.  In retrospect, I regret not spending that time enjoying some fresh air and sunshine.


Ask around for advice

Once I’d seen the CfPs for a couple of potential conferences, I sent them to my course convenor and asked if she thought either of them would be a suitable place to present a paper. I was reliably informed that both conferences had a reputation for being friendly (and welcoming of Masters students), so submitted an abstract to both. Luckily both abstracts were accepted, but before agreeing to attend I spoke to students I knew who had been to these conferences recently and asked how they found the experience. When they reassured me that I would have fun, I accepted both invites.


Who else will be attending the conference?

 Not, ‘which big name academics can you mingle with’, but how likely is it that the audience will be familiar with the content of your paper? I work on post-1945 US political history, and my first paper was at the Historians of the Twentieth Century US (HOTCUS) Postgraduate and ECR Conference. In hindsight, presenting to a small group of people with a background in my research area was definitely more nerve-wracking than presenting at a larger but less specialised conference. Luckily, there seems to be a growing number of postgraduate-friendly conferences that accept abstracts from a diverse range of speakers.  Conferences like Glasgow’s College of Arts Postgraduate Conference invite papers from all arts subjects, resulting in much broader panel discussions. Getting a couple of conferences like this one under your belt may well help the experience of presenting at a more specialised conference feel less nerve-wracking.


Think about the Q and A

My supervisor suggested thinking about what sort of feedback I hoped to receive from the audience. Depending on the nature of the audience, a conference can provide a golden opportunity to work through the finer details of a piece of work with a room full of experts. Alternatively, attendees at a broader, perhaps interdisciplinary conference could offer suggestions for how your work fits into larger trends, or how it might dovetail with similar research from a different discipline or time period. Targeting your paper to specific conferences and symposiums with this in mind could really help you to make the most of presenting your research.

Honestly, I put myself forward to speak at conferences simply to get the experience of attending a ‘proper’ academic conference, as presenting a paper meant I got my travelling expenses covered! But from now on, I’ll definitely target my papers to particular conferences more carefully.

You probably shouldn’t choose a conference based on the venue, but they offer a good excuse for ‘playing tourist’ for the weekend

Location, location, location 

I travelled from Glasgow to Cambridge to attend HOTCUS, and while a travel grant helped make it more affordable, the travelling (combined with my nerves) meant the experience was draining. This week, I attended a symposium that was within walking distance of my flat, which was blissful in comparison! Travelling long distances for conferences, especially during a Masters, is not essential, so do not feel like it is something you have to do.


Have you considered a seminar instead of a conference?

I want to give a special mention to societies like Historical Perspectives, based in Glasgow. They run a monthly seminar series designed to give Masters/PhD students the experience of taking part in a conference panel. I found this also had the bonus of being much less draining than a full weekend of conference panels, while still giving me the chance to meet new people and hear about their research.

Conference Presentations

Fun times at Historical Perspectives


With all of that in mind, go forth and submit an abstract to that CfP you’ve had your eye on! Conferences can be one of the most enjoyable parts of postgraduate life, so make the most of them.


Sarah is ignoring all the CfPs in her inbox in a bid to finish her MLitt dissertation. You can find her on twitter or contact her via Pubs and Pubs.


All Images: Sarah Thomson