Things I wish I’d known about my first academic conference

Last week, one of my academic mentors, Tanya Fitzgerald, sent me a copy of Raewyn Connell’s How to Survive and Thrive at an Academic Conference. I’ve read similar guides, but this one proved particularly insightful, mostly because Connell tells it like it is, no BS. I could have really used the advice in 2015 when I was weighing up whether or not to attend my first academic conference. It turns out I did attend, but for many of the wrong reasons.

For one, it was expensive – return flights from Australia to London, accommodation and food in one of the most expensive cities in the world, conference fees etc. – and it was self-funded. I did not apply for support from my university nor elsewhere mostly because, I did not know how.

I was also woefully ignorant of what I should expect and what was expected of me. Now that I was enrolled in a doctoral program, I simply wanted to do what ‘real’ academics did, and that was present at international conferences. So I did.

Some of the conference attendees

It began brilliantly, with the decision not to bring a USB backup of my presentation because surely ‘all computers will have internet access’. Ten minutes before my presentation and I found myself commandeering a kind, but slightly p***ed off academic’s office in the Institute of Education, London – only the best education school in the world!*

Naturally, I began my presentation utterly harried. That’s right the regular, heart-stopping kind of harried, reserved especially for one’s FIRST ACADEMIC CONFERENCE PRESENTATION was not sufficient.

No wonder the paper was a train wreck. By Connell’s reckoning, it was doomed anyway. Convoluted title, check. Original ideas swamped by odious literature review, check. Findings squeezed into last two minutes, check. Looks of pity from audience, check.

No one spoke to me afterwards: an ominous sign. At the break which followed, a senior scholar remarked in passing; ‘your ideas are important, but dangerous’. It did little to hearten me. My resolve to stand fearlessly alone during breaks quickly dissolved into fleeing at the end of each session.

Visiting Maynard Keynes’ home of Bloomsbury Group fame

Later that day however, things started looking up. There was a small Australian presence at the conference; members of the HERMES group from the University of Newcastle whose work I was familiar with. I was fortunate to meet Robert Parkes, Debra Donnelly and Vicki Parkes, who had endured my presentation and shared encouraging words. We also shared a number of beers together and that’s when things really started to improve.** See, I learnt the first of my own lessons about academic conferences then. A conference is never a waste of time or money, if while there, you make one new friend. I was fortunate enough to make several!

Upon my return to Australia, Robert generously invited me to expand my London presentation at a symposium at the University of Newcastle. I will always be grateful to Robert for giving a young, and untested scholar the opportunity to prepare what was my first, lecture-length presentation, as well as the chance to visit a new city and its university.

The paper I presented was far from perfect – the title probably too long, the theoretical work sketchy, conclusions arrived at hurriedly with little time to spare – but at least I carried several USB back ups, and received no pitying looks!

Importantly, while in Newcastle I met several Swedish scholars who were international guests of the research group. One of these, Daniel Lindmark, is now a colleague and friend at Umeå University in Sweden, and the host of my current Endeavour project. If not for the ill-informed and expensive decision to travel to London in 2015, I would likely not be sitting here now in Umeå, Sweden writing this piece.

So, for all the many dull and awkward, painful and embarrassing conference moments, I will continue attending with hope of making friends like Robert Parkes and Daniel Lindmark. Because despite the occasional ego-maniac, academia really is full of generous and inspiring people.

Now, nearing the end of my doctoral program, I am learning to be more discerning about where to invest my time, energy and intellectual labour. I am realising the importance of belonging to a community of scholars rather than attending random conferences. I am learning collegiality by seeing it in action amongst senior colleagues and trying to emulate it with my peers. I no longer spend every moment of a conference in sessions, instead taking time to speak to people, breathe, take a walk, and see the city.

Making new friends at ISCHE 2018

So, if I had my time over would I still choose to present so early in my doctoral program, overseas, no USB, too-long title and all? Though I don’t necessarily recommend it, the answer is yes. For despite the failures and the expense, the lessons learned and friends made were worth it. But perhaps, if you’re a new doctoral student reading this, try Raewyn Connell’s How to Survive and Thrive at an Academic Conference, before you make any decisions…

*At the time, according to copious marketing on all the buildings.
** Thanks also to Christian Mathis

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