It is tempting to open this post with a snarky comment about the PR dumpster fire that was the 84th Society for American Archaeology meetings, but discussion of that particular conference has been handled adequately elsewhere. It is perhaps worthwhile to specify, however, that this post is aimed at graduate students or early career researchers rather than institutional boards.
Recently a reader requested that I post the slides for a talk on “Effective Conference Presentations and Networking” that I gave in March 2018 as part of the Department of Archaeology Professional Development series at Cambridge. At this point in my career I have attended 14 conferences in 6 years, including the Society for American Archaeology, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the European Association of Archaeologists, and the American Anthropological Association meetings. This includes presenting a total of eight posters and nine talks; in total I have 25 authored or co-authored presentations on record at this point. The tl;dr version of all of that is that I’ve been to A LOT OF CONFERENCES.
There are certainly valid reasons for arguing against conferences as an academic forum. Unfortunately, as with the Open Access publishing movement, it’s difficult to take a hardline approach as an early career researcher without the potential for negative professional repercussions. Given the environmental ramifications and the undeniable fact that conferences are extremely expensive, it helps to maximize the professional and networking opportunities at every conference you attend.
I spent a fair amount of time in early grad school figuring out how to give a clear and concise presentation, though it’s something that I work on to this day. At this point my aesthetic is fairly predictable—light color slide theme, removed-background images, Franklin Gothic Book font (thanks Chelsea Fisher!). After learning this the hard way, I’m also a big fan of redundancy and takeaways, and tend to follow the “open by telling people what you’re going to tell them, tell it to them, then close by telling people what you told them” mantra.
The most valuable advice I have is to limit the amount of text on your slides, be engaging and make eye contact with the audience (this is still possible if you’re reading your paper), and practice the first 3-5 minutes of your presentation until you know it cold, as that’s when you will feel the most nervous. After several disastrous experiences early on, I always back up my presentation slides (in! BOTH! powerpoint! and! pdf! format!) via email, on a USB key, and on DropBox.
Things I plan to work on in the future include continuing to learn about and use territorial acknowledgements, paying more attention to the visual accessibility of my presentations, (e.g. through using the colorblind palettes in R), and adding content warnings if I use photos of human skeletal remains. I’d also like to get back to presenting without reading my papers, though the amount of advance prep that takes me means that particular goal will likely be schedule-dependent.
Your poster has too much text. My poster has too much text. Everyone’s poster has too much text.
Writing a poster is like packing for a trip. It’s best to try to limit the contents from the beginning, but you’re often stuck with making a first attempt, removing 1/3 of what you have, and reorganizing. The best resource I have found for structuring my own conference posters is Colin Purrington’s website, which provides a number of tips for poster design, along with extremely helpful templates. My long term goal is to one day give a conference poster that is composed solely of figures and captions, with no excess verbiage (unlike my very first conference poster, on p.16). One can dream.
Another word of advice for both posters and papers: many grad programs organize “practice sessions” for students, in which faculty and grads sit through and critique presentation drafts in advance of the actual conference. These can be very useful for trouble-shooting aspects of your presentation, but I have always found it easy to get bogged down in aesthetic details. Pay attention to what your colleagues tell you (especially if multiple people tell you the same thing), but don’t get overwhelmed; there are multiple ways to give successful and effective presentations, and whether you use Arial or the (far superior) Franklin Gothic Book, you’ll probably survive your conference experience.
In terms of on the ground advice, I memorize the time/location of my poster before the conference so that I can immediately let colleagues know those logistical details if necessary. When presenting a poster, make sure to have business cards or printouts that include your contact information, and sketch out some of your main talking points in advance of your session. I like to have a notebook on hand to jot down people’s questions or email addresses if there is something that needs following up. Finally, you will find typos when standing in front of your poster. This is a normal part of the academic experience, and if N<10, you’re doing great!
My very first conference I went to many, many sessions, but didn’t arrange to meet anyone in advance. Over time, my conferencing strategy has flipped, and I now attend fewer sessions, but spend a lot of time planning out scheduling in advance so as to meet with colleagues, which I organize into the overly obsessive kinds of itineraries you can find on p. 26. The asterisk in the list below is a reminder that conferences aren’t only for meeting Important Senior Academics™, but also for meeting colleagues at a shared professional level. Other ECRs will more typically be the people who ask you to participate in sessions, review your papers, and solicit collaborations, and I think that’s an underappreciated aspect of conference networking.
It can be intimidating to send someone a cold email to ask them to meet with you at a conference, and I would initially send out pages of excessively apologetic verbiage. Over time I have streamlined this process, and recommend sending out a concise, polite email that either utilizes an existing social connection or demonstrates you’re familiar with their research.
Remember that networking does not end at the conference. If you have a productive conversation or meet someone with overlapping research interests, make sure to keep in touch, whether that’s via twitter, email, or some other form of communication.
1) Water bottle, because you are going to spend all of your day talking, and hydration is important;
2) Cough drops, because you are going to spend all of your day talking, and will probably lose your voice;
3) A protein bar or other fast snack, since there will at least one meal you accidentally miss due to scheduling and socializing. It is a ill-advised to start planning for this eventuality only AFTER your stomach begins emitting high-pitched whale noises in the middle of a session;
4) Floss, because there’s nothing worse than meeting an Important Senior Academic™ while realizing that part of your morning bagel is stuck between your front teeth.
Here’s a pdf of the entire presentation:
Thanks are due to Michael Rivera (@riveramichael) and Marissa Ledger (@marissa_ledger) for inviting me to give the initial presentation, and to Sam Legget (@samleggs22) for advice on colorblind resources for R. If you’re looking for other academic tips, there’s a post I wrote a couple of years back that illustrates my Top Ten Dissertation Writing Tips (as illustrated by cats) that may be useful to those of you muscling yourselves rung by rung up the graduate school ladder.
If anyone has any other post requests please let me know! I’m currently looking for incentive to get back into blogging, though lord knows I #shouldbewriting.