Like a Band-Aid: pulling off your first conference paper

This post comes from Brittnee Leysen, a first-year self-funded international PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow in Celtic and Gaelic. Having completed her undergraduate degree in Anthropology, and MLitt in Celtic Studies, she now explores the Scottish diaspora through place-names in the Otago region of New Zealand. You can connect with her on Twitter @brittneeleysen

If you’re like me, the thought of conferences fills you with both excitement and a bit of apprehension. You’re excited to network, connect with other like-minded individuals, maybe even go someplace new, but on the other hand you’re actually terrified to network, and have no idea with whom you should speak to or what about. You might even be at the stage where you’re starting to look into (or already are) actively presenting at these conferences. As someone who has recently gone through this challenge, I hope to offer some helpful suggestions and advice as you make plans to give your first conference paper.

Despite the tendency to want to delay presenting on your PhD topic, it can actually be quite liberating to get your first conference paper over with early on so you can lay a foundation to build upon as your research expands. In my case, this foundation was called the International Congress of Onomastic Sciences (ICOS).

I was in academic limbo having just finished my MLitt degree and on a 9-month internship before commencing my PhD, and like any completely sane person, I decided to submit an abstract to a conference on my PhD subject…despite the fact that I hadn’t officially started yet.

When choosing which conferences to submit abstracts to, I highly suggest asking yourself a few questions such as how often does this conference happen, what is the likelihood I could get funding to attend this conference, and who will be at the conference? It was in answering these questions that I made my decision to submit to, and attend, the ICOS conference. This particular conference happens once every three years, so if I did not present at the very start of my PhD, my only other option would be to present at the very end. The ICOS conference was very particular to my specific area of study, and the networking opportunities available would be invaluable to me going forward. I knew that I was going to have to self-fund this conference as my PhD had not yet begun. However, the conference committee did set aside a small bursary they gave to every student/early career researcher at the conference, so if funding is a concern be sure to inquire about this. With all of this in mind, it seemed that the ICOS conference was the perfect place to have my first real introduction to a global network of Onomasticians, so I packed my bags for Hungary.

…which Hungary then lost. If traveling for a conference, always try to pack five days, possibly even a weeks’ worth, of clothing in your carry-on. I was making the move from the US to Scotland at the time of this trip, so Hungary was a week-long stop on my longer voyage to my new home. Although this seemed like a major setback, there turned out to be more. I was allergic to the country. No, really. Did you know Hungary has the highest population of ragweed in the world, which 5-years’ worth of allergy shots don’t stand a chance against? Well now you do.

Despite these initial set-backs, as soon as I was registered and attended the first plenary session, I felt more at-ease. I mean how could you not when you get to be in this building every day?

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The University of Debrecen, Hungary was the host University for the 2017 ICOS conference

There were so many amazing sessions to attend each day, and despite my itchy eyes and pockets full of tissue, I took full advantage of connecting with other researchers in my field that might help me on the path of my own research journey. You might be lucky enough to already have colleagues at the conference you are presenting at, which is great, but reach out of your comfort zone, speak to people! If you attended a paper you enjoyed, make sure you go up and speak to the presenter afterwards. One of the plenary speakers at ICOS was very inspiring to me, so I went up to introduce myself and told them about the paper I was giving the next day, which they then came to! Don’t be afraid to advertise yourself and what you do, you never know who may take an interest or where it could lead.

There are numerous articles with advice to help combat some of the typical challenges public speaking presents, such as managing and calming nerves, making eye-contact, and my personal favourite, the ‘what do I do with my hands’ conundrum. For me personally, the part of giving a conference paper that was the most intimidating had nothing to do with giving the paper itself, but the questions that came after. I was terrified of being put on the spot and asked to explain myself or elaborate on anything I said. Imposter syndrome fears in front of a room full of people is the stuff of nightmares.

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Mid-sneeze, but still persevering!

The best advice I could offer you is that it is okay to say you’re unsure, or that their question is not something you have an answer for at this stage in your research. I made sure at the start of my paper to let the audience know where I was in my research, and it really did help me gain some control over the room dynamic and resulting questions. Be transparent with your audience, they will appreciate it and it may even spark some connections to people who are interested in becoming a resource for you.

I cannot recommend enough the experience of giving a paper early in your PhD career. Besides the amazing networking opportunities it provides, it does wonders for your personal growth and ability to articulate your research to a broader audience. People say it is never too late to put yourself out there and show others what you have to offer, but I say that equally, it is never too early.

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And yes…my bags and I were happily reunited at the end of my conference

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at, or connect with the blog on Twitter

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