Presenting At Conferences – A Grad Student’s Guide

Presenting at a conference is a daunting task for any academic. Be it a big name academic who has spent a career presenting at MPSA_Rasool_GradStudentPrepconferences around the world or a graduate student who is just starting out; conference anxiety still kicks in. To help presenters, especially grad students, I came up with a list of things to keep in mind while you prepare for your conference presentations. The list is compiled based on my personal experiences as well as those of professors and other graduate students within the field of Political Science.

  1. Practice
    As they say, practice makes perfect. For a conference presentation, especially for a graduate student, practicing what you are presenting is key. While it seems like a cliché, “practice makes perfect” is a popular saying for a reason. The trick here is to try different scenarios for practicing. Most departments offer colloquiums internally that allow students to test out their research ideas among their peers first before going to a conference. This gives the grad student a chance to try their presentation in its entirety in front of a room full of people. Additionally this allows for significant and honest feedback from your peers that does not break your confidence at this early stage. Every grad student’s conference presentation is a representation of the department, i.e., the quality of the department is heavily represented by the kind of graduate students and research they are putting out. So, it is better to have in-house practice before you head out.

    Pro Tip – Ask your peers to play out roles, i.e., ask some of them to be supportive while others to be extremely harsh about your research presentation. This way you will not be rattled if you run in to a harsh critique at the conference.

  2. Your Research Is NOT Perfect
    You are a graduate student, there is no way your research is the picture of perfection or even close. Understand that and you will have a much easier time dealing with criticism and ideas about your research from not just your peers but by conference audiences. Most of the time, we as graduate students worry too much about the perfection of our research before presenting it. This is also why a number of people hold off from presenting their research work because they feel it is not “perfect” enough. The thing is, it will never be perfect enough. It will be good and one of the best ways to make it better is to put it out for discussion and feedback within your field by presenting at a conference. Once it is out there, you can get feedback on it and then realize the potential it has.
  3. Be Crystal Clear
    One of the key issues all graduate students face while presenting at conferences is the assumption that the audience completely understands what they are talking about. That is not the case. In most instances, people listening to research presentation would have an understanding of the field but might not know the specifics of the topic you are focusing on. As a good presenter, you can address this by simplifying your research using an easy to follow sequence.

    Start with your THEORY. Be clear about exactly what you are saying, i.e., your research question and what the theory you are working with is. Secondly, present your HYPOTHESES clearly. Everyone in the room should know what you are testing through your work. Be clear on the independent variables and your dependent variable. Make separate slides if you need to do that. This helps people follow what you are saying and keep in mind the causal mechanism as you explain what you’re testing and the analytical data. Thirdly, explain in sequence your METHODOLOGY and the reason your methodology works well for your project. Your methodology is where a lot of feedback will be directed, so make sure it is clear and easy to understand. Lastly, present your CONCLUSION by summing up everything you have said. Before you jump to your conclusion, have a summary slide that sums up everything you have said, i.e., research question, theory, methodology, analytics. Present a conclusion in simplest of terms. Most graduate students have a tendency to use big words and complicated jargon to prove they know what they are talking about. Be different and use simple language to explain your conclusion. This way it will actually stick with people instead of being just another presentation by a graduate student trying to show off his or her vocabulary.

  4. Be Gracious, Do not Get Defensive
    As discussed earlier, your research is not perfect. The worst thing a graduate student, or for that matter any presenter, can do is to get defensive about their research work. Be gracious instead. Take the critique in stride and listen to what is being said. Ask people to be exact about their critique in a gracious manner so you can actually improve your research. The whole point of presenting at a conference is to fine tune your research work so that it may eventually go out for publishing. Plus if you are gracious about your acceptance of critique, your audience is more likely to get invested in the work you are doing and be happy to share their insights with you about it.

    Forums like MPSA are great for getting feedback on your research from your peers who are either involved in something similar or have been working on something that might be of help to you. Your attitude while taking criticism might also help you find likeminded researchers who could potentially work with you on a co-authored project. In short, be gracious, smile and acknowledge the feedback.

  5. A Certain Amount of Stress is Good
    A lot of articles will tell you not to stress. They will talk about tricks to manage your stress by imagining the room full of people as something else, etc. Reality is far from it. As a graduate student presenting at a forum like MPSA, there is a certain amount of pressure and stress. It is okay to have that stress. The key is to realize that everyone else who is there presenting alongside you for the next four days also is going through the same thing. We are all in this together. Acknowledge that and things become easier. Stress about getting your research in within the allotted time is good but freaking out about the critique is not. Worrying about the technology working out is good, but preparing a backup plan for that is even better. At the end of the day you need to know that you are not alone. All of us are academics and have been in the same situation at one time or another. So be stressed about the quality of your work but do not worry to the point it hurts the presentation of your work.

As the 2016 MPSA conference draws closer, I hope this list is helpful to all of you. See you all at MPSA 2016!

About the author:  Adnan Rasool is a PhD student, a Graduate Research Assistant at Georgia State University, and a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on the Role of Bureaucracies in Democratization and Authoritarian Rule, Money in US Politics as well as how social issue cases impact trust of social interest groups in Federal Judiciary.  In his previous life he has been a Political Campaign Strategist, an award winning blogger on current affairs and a development sector expert.  You can also find Rasool on Twitter and blogging at The Gradventures.