By Danielle King of University of Missouri in St. Louis
The responsibilities of a graduate student feel daunting under the most benign of circumstances. This semester, I have added in the extra burden of attending a few conferences, and this March, I find myself excited but a little tense. The advice and anecdotes of colleagues and friends have gone a long way to dissipating much of my nervousness, but the nature of this experience can definitely lead to over-extension in the weeks before presenting. I’ll discuss some of these anxieties along with some coping mechanisms that I have found helpful. I will then note some of the more notable tips that I have received in preparation to share my work at MPSA.
In my experience, a considerable source of stress is how easily conference prep causes deviations in my daily and weekly routines. The only conditions under which grad school even seems remotely possible is by way of integrating rigorous habits, from daily reading and writing quotas to taking some time for mindfulness or meditation at the end of my workday to soothe a weary brain. I find myself losing the rhythm of those routines with alarming ease whenever a deadline is hanging over my head, so upon the advice of a friend I installed a habit tracking app app on my phone, which has helped center me back within my sense of structure.
I am now a person who wakes up before their alarm clock on a near-daily basis, usually to multiple emails. On a good day, it includes notes and comments on my draft that I have solicited from several friends in other departments. (On less good days, it looks more like reminders about seasonal sales at the Gap.) To combat the stress of starting my workday before my mind is ready, I (re)instituted a “no phone before breakfast” rule put in place to secure my personal sanity.
If it has been a good day, the revisions will probably occupy me for several hours. Fortunately, I have started to schedule that review time into my morning. Any planned reading for the day can follow, to release my brain slightly of the pressure of second-guessing the quality of my presentation theme or whether my transitions need some work.
A terrible casualty of conference preparation is my morning workout. In a most aspirational moment, I decided to start training for a triathlon to stay fit as I work to complete my Ph.D. It quickly became difficult to justify taking time for “nonessential” activity once a presentation began to loom large on the horizon. However, I have found that about ten minutes of yoga a day, snuck in wherever possible, helps to keep my body feeling capable of the workload on the days when I can’t get outside for a bike or run.
Now, as a first-year I’m still amid coursework and fellowship duties, none of which cease when I leave town. There’s naturally seminar work to do, reading and note-taking and writing and discussion boards and more reading. For my colleagues who have teaching responsibilities, there is a delicate balance to be managed, for it seems that one is never in more demand than when one is preparing to showcase work in front of a roomful of strangers. It seems that conference week is a favorite time for undergraduate students to email their professors and/or teaching assistants with questions about an upcoming midterm, or to elaborate on comments on their most recent paper. The only really available option is to get everything done early. If there is a most stressful week, it’s not the travel week of the conference — it is the week prior when all the extra tasks have to be completed.
The piece of advice I received most often concerned the “tech kit,” the panoply of devices necessary for a smooth presentation. Before attendance, I hear it is best to give a practice version of the talk, using the materials that will be required on the day of one’s panel. There are dozens of horror stories about nonfunctional projectors, missing adapters, and disconnected sound systems to make this point noncontroversial. An iPad display, as I will be using, is among the more unusual setups, so bringing your own AppleTV and/or network adapter is essential. But don’t worry: basic presentation equipment of a laptop and connected projector will be available, and there is even an AV green room (Burnham 3 on the 7th floor) set up by MPSA to allow invitees an opportunity to test out their presentation on the standard equipment.
I find that I have the most difficulty with figuring out exactly what in my paper should be pulled out to present. As a young scholar, I am still in the stage of academic development where every finding that I unearth seems fascinating. Culling from my results to find what is most interesting feels a bit like disowning my children, but 12-minute presentation times lend themselves to concision. Colleagues have suggested making points to people outside the discipline, and recommend a ratio of one slide per two minutes of one’s talk. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone else read your presentation materials: I heard a horror story about a slide typo that suggested that the United States had 560% electoral participation.
All in all, getting ready for a conference comes down to organization, flexibility, and thoughtfulness. Establishing good habits can help one to relax and focus more on producing good scholarship. Now, if only I could figure out what on earth to wear…
About the Author: Danielle King (@danielleking) is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the political development of informal institutions (specifically the American Black Protestant Church), & how such institutions and political networks aid/hinder political mobilization. She is also interested in social movements and critical race theory. She is in front of her computer (danielleking.net), behind her camera, on her bike, or in her kitchen at any given time.