In this post, Núria Bonet gives some advice on how to make your first or nth conference worthwhile. Drawing from personal experience and the knowledge of a number of respected academics, in an entertaining account of the wonderful world of music conferences. Núria is currently a PhD student at Plymouth University where she researches the use of scientific data in musical composition. Núria is one of the Student Representatives for the Royal Musical Association.
Conferences you will attend during your studies can be some of the most important days as a student. A couple of days at a great conference can really reward you with the knowledge, personal encounters and enthusiasm to help you through the finish line of your degree.
When I set out to write this article after the RMA/BFE Research Students’ Conference 2016 in Bangor in January, I didn’t anticipate how much the process would help me through a far more tricky conference in March. I will not mention the conference of course, all you need to know is that it was an international conference that could be used as the guidebook for ‘how not to organise a conference’. To add to issues of poor programming, low attendance, speakers with too little knowledge of English to answer questions, absent conference organisers and no free tea and coffee (deal breaker!), I had booked a hotel next to the wrong conference venue which turned out to be an hour away on the bus. I came very close to giving up on the conference and going off on tourist activities as I happened to be in a spectacular region of the world. Thankfully, only a month prior to this, I had emailed a number of academics that I had met over the years and held in high esteem. I asked them to give me their tips on how to get the most out of a conference, and particularly a music conference. And truth be told, I think their advice did see me through this particular conference…
Presenting a paper or poster: The first aim of a conference is to present your paper or poster, or to experience other researchers’ papers and posters. Rebecca Herissone explains why you should be especially well prepared before giving your first paper.
‘The first few times you attend a conference actually to give a paper can be the most nerve-wracking, but they’re also particularly important because these will be among the first opportunities you have to present your research – and yourself – outside the context of your own institution. In other words, this is where you start to build your national and international reputation as a scholar (no pressure!). They are also unusual, however, because you can afford to present your research at a more ‘complete’ stage than you will probably be able to later in your career: by the time they are juggling their research with full teaching and admin responsibilities, most academics have to submit conference abstracts for research they have yet to complete (or in some cases begin!), which obviously limits what can go in the abstract. When you are a research student, you can choose your time more carefully: although you shouldn’t wait indefinitely, if you can present an abstract for a paper for which you know you have really good material you can make a strongly positive impression on your audience. If you add to that well-honed, confident presentation (practise, practise, practise!), people will remember you for all the right reasons…’
For many of us, giving a presentation can be indeed be terrifying, but remember to put in enough preparation to avoid all avoidable issues. Stefan Bilbao advises that ‘if you have an oral presentation, practise it many times and make sure the timings are ok…’ Also, ‘maximum one slide per minute. Try to let pictures and illustrations talk for you rather than cramming them with a lot of text! Same for posters’. Having held my Masters dissertation presentation in front of Stefan a couple of years ago, I can confirm that these two tips are crucial. I did not follow them at the time and sure enough, I was still explaining an introductory equation by the time I should have been wrapping up my results… (I passed and all was well).
Depending on the person, the most terrifying room will be one full of listeners or one with almost no listeners. Nanette Nielsen says you shouldn’t be discouraged by low attendance – remember that there are often parallel sessions, which means that there might be people who wanted to be at your presentation but had to make a choice. She stated that ‘even if you only have a few people in your session, there could still be that one scholar present who could have a hugely positive impact on your career, so don’t downplay opportunity here either’.
Finally, do prepare for the all-important question! As Freya Jarman explains, ‘[…] learn to sum up your work neatly into a sentence so you can respond well to the inevitable question, “What are you working on?”‘.
Expanding your horizons: Freya Jarman also advises that you ‘give papers whenever you can – it’s a major conversation-starter’. To that I would add that you shouldn’t be afraid to give papers at conferences which you might think are not strictly in your subject area. One of the beauties of conferences consists in being able to make connections between topics that you thought were unrelated. These might just expand your mind, give you a new angle in your research or even lead to a collaboration. The conference I just attended had a strong emphasis on teaching music by e-learning whereas I’m a composer. However, one of the participants established a link between my compositions and the use of music to fight ISIS! Surprisingly, the most interesting and useful presentation for me related to the use of technology in music teaching.
In fact, most academics think that it is important to be open to going to sessions you might not have thought of going to. One of Katherine Williams’ tips is to ‘go to the papers you’re interested in, and don’t be afraid to switch sessions between papers’.
Laura Tunbridge thinks that ‘the most rewarding thing about the conference is meeting students from other institutions, to find out not only about their research interests but also to hear about the wide variety of approaches to postgraduate study. My top tip, then, would be not to stay exclusively in your own group of friends but – however intimidating – to try to get to know some people from elsewhere. They can be friends and colleagues for the rest of your career’. This is particularly true of the RMA conferences for example, as the researchers attending will move in the same academic circles as you for many years.
Don’t get intimidated by other presenters’ presentations. You might feel that you don’t understand what they’re talking about or that their research is better than yours. While these feelings are understandable, you need to remember that at the end of your PhD, you will be the world expert on your very own niche of knowledge. You can’t expect or be expected to understand everything about someone else’s research. Even if you work on a similar topic as someone else, you will have your unique focus and ideas.
Being the ideal conference participant: By far, the most frequent answer I received was to be open to encounters, sociable and ready to talk to anyone about anything. I would argue that the more welcoming and sociable you are as a participant, the more you will also encourage other (equally shy) participants to come towards you and engage with you. In Bangor, a random lunch queue encounter led to a discussion at the end of which I had advised a new PhD researcher on contacting a specialist on popular Mexican music and I had hatched a plan to spend the summer researching Bangor’s instrument collection.
‘At the conference, be ready to talk about your own work, but don’t forget to ask about other people’s work (scholars *love* to talk about their work)! Engage in discussions and ask questions, be inquisitive and curious, both at the talks and after. And be open to possible random encounters of significance (if you’re good at remembering faces, that’s a great advantage)’. (Nanette)
‘Don’t be obsessive about going to all the presentations—sometimes there are really interesting conversations happening in the lobby outside the venue!’ (Stefan)
‘[…] Some of the best networking and discussion happens at the coffee table/bar. Try and be visible, and don’t be afraid to follow up on papers given with extra questions or comments in this informal setting. It often leads to an informal exchange of email addresses, which could lead to a friendship, a future conference panel, an edited collection, or even a teaching job. Lastly, don’t be afraid of any so-called hierarchy. I can guarantee that anyone, no matter how high up the professional ladder, will be glad to talk to someone interested in their work or career. So don’t be shy!’ (Katherine)
‘Be fully present at as much of the conference as you can, from sessions to socials. Be engaged and ask questions, from intellectual ones to comments about the weather while queuing for lunch. (Oh, and you might also need to learn to drink in moderation so you can still be awake for the morning’s sessions!)’ (Freya)
We have covered a lot of ground but don’t be overwhelmed by all these tips. You will find that by relaxing and engaging fully in the experience you will already be doing a lot of things right. I will add a couple of tips that I have collected during my own adventures and mishaps at conferences.
- Do try and keep your socialising to healthy levels, a big hangover makes you far less receptive and sociable during a long conference day. People will understand if you don’t want to drink or want to call it a night.
- You will probably get tired during the conference. Try and find the right balance between pushing yourself to attend sessions and concerts even when tired, and knowing when to retreat and recharge your batteries. Conferences don’t last very long and you want to make the most out of them, but you also need to know your limits and what keeps you working.
- Prepare your travels, particularly when going to international conferences. There is that one time I got the wrong conference venue, the time I turned up in Boston with no money, no charged batteries and no travel adaptor. It all worked out in the end but involved an evening meal of a loaf of bread and a muesli bar.
- If you’re attending with a grant from the conference, prove why you deserve this grant. Attend as many sessions as possible and engage with other participants. Organisers want to know that their money has gone to the right person and that it is serving a purpose, which is why you might be asked to write a report. Remember that they might be your future employers!
- Nanette recommends reading David Lodge’s book Small World which is a humorous and scarily accurate account of academic conferences. I was actually reading it during this last conference and the humour of the situations in the book and my own situation lightened my mood considerably. If you enjoy Small World, you can also read Lodge’s Changing Places and Nice Work which are equally funny accounts of academia.
With all these tips in mind, all that is left to do is to attend a conference and make the most of it! I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to Prof. Rebecca Herissone (University of Manchester), Prof. Laura Tunbridge (Oxford University), Dr. Nanette Nielsen (University of Oslo), Dr. Stefan Bilbao (University of Edinburgh), Dr. Katherine Williams (Plymouth University) and Dr. Freya Jarman (University of Liverpool).
If you or someone you know would like to write a post for the RMA Student Blog then we’d be happy to hear from you! Please get in touch with one of your student representatives.