“Can you hear me at the back?”: giving your first paper

There are certain things your encouraged to do during doctoral study to help your professional development and prepare for life after your research – as alien and far-off as that may sound to those in the midst of wrestling with their theses presently. These things can include publishing a review of a book or article in your chosen discipline, teaching practice or, as in this case, delivering a paper at a seminar or conference.

I was always a little nervous about this one – the idea that I could write something that would appeal to a room full of my peers, with enough to talk about for 20 minutes (the average conference-sized slot). Nevertheless, I kept it in mind until one day I was sent the blurb for the Science in Public conference with a panel that matched my doctoral subject almost perfectly. I rolled up my writing sleeves and put together an abstract that I thought would complement the topic and, to my surprise, my paper was chosen. Just over a month later, in June earlier this year, I gave my first academic paper at the Science in Public conference in Sheffield, rather conveniently.

It was a fantastic first experience of delivering a paper and, though as nerve-racking as public speaking can be, I thoroughly enjoyed it overall. So – here are a few tips for finding a seminar series or conference, submitting an abstract and preparing to deliver your paper.

When you become a doctoral student at the University of Sheffield – and most Universities I imagine – you can expect to receive around 10-20 Call for Papers (CfPs) a week. These are usually circulated by your department, or sent over by other institutions, to advertise for any academics or postgraduates who would like to submit an abstract for consideration to deliver a paper at that conference. The CfPs will usually appeal to the researcher’s chosen subject or research topic enough for them to submit an abstract. Abstracts are usually 200-500 word outlines of your intended paper (whether it be written or not at the time) and outline its subject matter. After a number of abstracts are submitted, the successful papers are selected by a panel of conference organisers.

These CfPs can come from anywhere – institutions in the UK, U.S. or even further afield. They offer a fantastic chance to travel and meet other academics from across the world. If you find your abstract selected, most likely the organising body will have funding in place to arrange your travel and accommodation. Also, the University and your department can perhaps help in terms of offering financial subsidies for such trips.

Conferences, usually taking place over a day or a few days, are more often than not split into different time slots pertaining to topics – called “panels”. Different from keynote speakers, the standard panel member will usually be one of 2-3 other speakers allotted a 20-25 minute window in which to deliver their paper with the help of slides and other visual aids.

So, once your abstract is accepted – you are usually notified well before the conference – you can begin to put together your paper. This may be an adaptation of previous work or your current work, but either way will need to be collated to fit into the time allocated. This is where the practice comes in.

I went over my paper a fair few times, not so much to check the content, but to ensure the timing remained accurate. I have a tendency to speed up as I get into reading something out loud and so annotated my copy with reminders to keep rhythm, change slides or simply take a moment to collect my thoughts. I think when you stand at a podium with a microphone and a room full of expectant listeners there is an urge to fill silence or not waste a moment. It’s important to remember that those listening need time to process as much as you need time to deliver.

After practicing this a few times (and testing the patience of friends, family and anyone who’d listen) – I turned my attention to my accompanying slides. Naturally, it depends on your subject as to how “full” your slides are, whether it be with graphs, pictures, illustrations or extracts of texts. But you want to put yourself in the position of your audience, sometimes less is more and you don’t want to take away from the paper you are reading out. As a literature student, I always hated having the same text on the screen as the text being read out to me – so I decided against that and went for more bullet points, images and paraphrases to keep the presentation concise and not too text-heavy. That said, it’s entirely up your personal preferences or the needs of your particular paper.

After that, there’s not much you can do – I found the best thing was feeling prepared and confident in my material. When it came to the day, the conference techs helped me set up my projection and (luckily) all the technology was working. You wouldn’t believe how many conferences I’ve been to where the mic or projector isn’t working, so it’s well worth getting there early and checking in!

As I stood up at the podium at the start of my 20 minutes, yes, I felt nervous – it’s not natural to stand up in front of people, who most likely know as much if not more than you, and talk at them. But I found I fell back onto my practice easily – remembering my material and ensuring I looked up and engaged the room as much as I can. As a result, the time flew by.

Usually a panel ends with a Q&A session – and there’s generally very little you can do to prepare for this. Just remember that everyone there at your panel shares the same interests as you so it is highly unlikely they’re going to take issue with everything you said. I’ve certainly never attended a conference where the environment isn’t anything but nurturing and encouraging.

Again, the University has resources that can help with things like public speaking, making presentations and other techniques relevant to delivering a paper. Check with your department to see what they can offer in terms of helping you develop this valuable skill.

So, go do it! It’s a great feeling once you’ve done it and, you never know, you may end up somewhere exotic with a great excuse for an extended holiday afterwards!

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