What exactly is an academic conference anyway?

A key part of academic life is attending conferences. But what are they, and how do you go about going to your first one? A good friend of mine recently decided to take the plunge and re-work a piece of her MA research into a conference paper. She asked me for some advice, and it occurred to me that the process of attending conferences could do with a bit of de-mystifying.

There are a few different ways that conferences take shape, but essentially, they are big meetings in which researchers come together to inform people of their latest work. Smaller conferences may take a day or two, but some of the bigger ones can last a week.


Small conferences

These are usually arranged by research groups or societies which focus on specific areas of research. Within a History department at a University, there could be a handful of historians that all work on one particular area, e.g. the second world war or the eighteenth century. These people often form a research group within their department so that they can pool resources and grant funding, organise conferences and guest speakers, and potentially collaborate on books and articles. Also, they are a point of contact for anyone else interested in that area of research.

For example, the Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution (CHORD) at the University of Wolverhampton engages with research in retail and distribution in any period or discipline. They are holding a one day conference in September.

As you can see, there are a variety of topics in the programme from a variety of speakers. Conferences are not just for lecturers working in a university: I’ve heard great papers from archivists, people that work in museums/heritage centres and people that have worked on a project in their spare time. The theme of this particular conference is retailing in the nineteenth century, so the papers covering furniture sales, the Finnish human hair trade, German itinerant traders and creating a national brand, all share one common theme: the specific time period. As it is a small, one day conference, the format allows for all the speakers to take turns presenting their papers and to have a chance to answer questions.


Big conferences

I’ll use the conference I attended a few weeks ago as an example. The Social History Society holds an annual conference that invites anyone interested in social history. That’s a pretty big umbrella of a term, so naturally it creates a very big conference. To manage this, the SHS divides the conference into eight strands to denote different areas of interest:

Spaces and Places

Economies, Cultures and Consumption

Self, Senses and Emotions

Politics, Policy and Citizenship

Life Cycles, Families and Communities

Deviance, Inclusion and Exclusion

Social Action, Social Justice and Humanitarianism

Diversity, Minorities and ‘Others’

These strand titles help break down the study of social history into smaller umbrellas, whilst still leaving scope for diverse research in terms of time periods and geography.

All the papers selected for a conference will fit into (at least) one of these categories, which will then form a series of panels. A panel is a block of around four speakers that each speak for around 20 minutes, then usually answer questions all together at the end. Here’s an example:

panel2aAs you can see from the titles of the papers, the research is varied but still fits into the broader strand.

The downside of panels is that you will find yourself staring hopelessly at your programme as you realise that you cannot be in 5 different rooms at once, and you will miss some really interesting talks. Your head will tell you that you need to be in the room that has papers on a topic you’re currently working on, whilst your heart wants you to go to something new and exciting that you can see yourself working on if you find the Magic Grant Tree.


The Call For Papers

When a conference is being organised, a Call for Papers will be sent out. This is an announcement that a conference is happening, and gives the outline for what topic they will be covering. Click here for an example from the Society for the Study of Labour History. Scholars are usually invited to write an abstract of around 150 – 400 words and a short CV, although the requirements can and do change. An abstract is a short explanation of your research your argument and your methodology. I’ve used this site to help me channel my thoughts into an effective abstract, but there’s plenty of advice out there. Remember: the best way to figure out how to write a good abstract is to read plenty of them first.

After you submit your abstract, you have to play the waiting game. Depending on the size and the scope of the conference, it could take a while for you to hear anything back as there may be hundreds of abstracts for the organisers to read and consider. They have a theme and budget to stick to, so I imagine it’s like playing a game of abstract Tetris. If your paper doesn’t make the cut, it’s unlikely to be because your idea isn’t good; it’s far more likely that it didn’t quite fit the specific shape of the conference, or perhaps there were simply too many paper submissions to fit into the conference. You *should* be contacted and told if your paper hasn’t been accepted, but unfortunately that is not always the case. I recently found out that my paper wasn’t accepted for a conference when the organisers tweeted their programme and I could see my name wasn’t on it. I was a little hurt that no one thought to let me know directly, but I chalked it up to a possible admin error and left it at that… Until I actually got the rejection email several weeks later, as did a fellow researcher, whilst we were at the SHS conference. Poor form, yes, but that has been my only negative experience of a conference application process, so by no means the norm in my view.


Actually Writing the Paper

Yay! Your abstract was great and the conference organisers are delighted to have you on board! Now what? Unless your abstract detailed a thesis/book chapter/article you have already written, it’s now time to sit and write your paper. In order for me to talk for 15-20 minutes, I need to write around 2,700 – 3,200 words. This will change from person to person though, and I tend to be quite a fast talker. Always, always, always time yourself when you think you are close to finishing your first draft! Twenty minutes sounds like a vast amount of time when you are new to public speaking, and it would be awful to have to miss your conclusion because you ran out of time.

My recent paper, ‘Wages Fit For Heroes’, was based on a thesis chapter that stood at just over 7,000 words at the time that I wrote the conference abstract, so writing that paper was more of an editing exercise. If you’re working on a large project (a book, or a thesis etc) a good rule of thumb is to introduce the project briefly for context, but then focus on a part of it in order to explore some details and nuance in your findings. My thesis is on the early years of the GFTU, and although I could do a whistle-stop tour of their first 50 years in about 20 minutes, it probably wouldn’t be in depth enough for a conference in terms of underpinning the research with wider scholarship. Therefore my paper focused on their one specific campaign about wages for soldiers and sailors, which allowed me to talk about the context of the trade union movement for the armed forces, whilst also highlighting the key points of involvement of the GFTU.


The Rules

Do try and attend a conference to see what they are like before committing yourself to presenting at one. Hearing about new research is always interesting, and you will enjoy it so much more if you don’t have panic gnawing at the back of your head because you know your slot is after lunch.

Do take a look and see if there are bursaries for conference travel/costs, especially for postgraduate students. These could be offered by your university or the conference organisers, so look around. Smaller conferences tend to be more affordable, but the big week-long ones can go to hundreds of £s. Don’t be out of pocket, it’s not worth it!

Do make your first conference one in which you already know the venue, and preferably attend with someone you know. Walking into a roomful of people that you don’t know that are already huddled into groups can be very daunting. As you attend more conferences, you will start to get to know people in the field, but try to make your starting point a little easier if you can.

Don’t talk over your allotted time. If the person chairing your session is waving their arms madly at you because you ignored their ‘one minute left’ warning card that they held up, you need to stop. Talking into someone else’s time is rude, always. It’s better to finish on time, be honest that you didn’t get to the end of what you wanted to say, but say that you’re happy to continue discussing it with anyone who is interested during the coffee break.

Most importantly, enjoy it!

SHS crowd

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