Tag Archives: advice

Tips for Conference Presentations

Presenting at a conference as a graduate student can be intimidating and stressful, but a crucial part of your graduate school experience! As conference season rolls around, members of the CSGSH committee offer a compilation of presentation tips for graduate students preparing to present in humanities conferences. Whether this is your first time presenting or you are a seasoned presenter, these tips can help improve your presentation. We have divided the list into tips for before, during, and after presenting.

 

Before the Presentation

Allot yourself enough time to begin preparing well in advance of the conference, as there are a lot of things that need to come together by the presentation day.

 

When presenting from a seminar paper, you should plan on revising it to make it effective as an oral presentation. An unedited seminar paper rarely has the level of signposting required for an oral presentation.

 

Similarly, it is not recommended to present from an outline containing just key words or to speak impromptu. Withstanding extensive public speaking experience and nerves of steel, it is recommended that you create a carefully edited script.

 

When editing a written work for an oral presentation, it can help if most sentences are two lines long or shorter. Good punctuation can ensure that a five-line sentence remains coherent in writing, but in speech it can be hard to follow. Leaving really long sentences in a script before can mean losing your place while reading, or giving words the wrong intonation as read, which makes the ideas harder to follow.

 

If you are using a PowerPoint or a Prezi, avoid overloading with too much text, which can distract your audience. You want the audience focusing on you, not your slides. Here are some helpful tips for slides. (Also, mark the slide transitions in your script, if you are using slides.) Too much text also relates to accessibility.

 

Consider guidelines for accessible conference presentations. The Society for Disability Studies presents accessibility guidelines here. A disability accessibility specialist offers tips here. And the Web Accessibility Initiative offers many accessibility tips here.

 

Practice reading your presentation aloud. It is a truism that one double-spaced page takes about two minutes to read at an unhurried pace, so ten pages would make up a twenty-minute talk. But really, sometimes ten pages ends up taking eighteen minutes or sometimes twenty-two minutes, to read aloud. So, once your script says what you want it to say, read it aloud as many times as you can, making quick notes as you go (and editing afterward), until it sounds right. Some sentences that look fine on the page do not sound quite right when spoken.

 

Once the script sounds right, practice it with any A/V you will be using. That practice may bring forward technical issues you might not otherwise anticipate, giving you an opportunity to smooth these issues out. Then practice leaving extra space to say hello to the audience, to thank the panel organizer, and to offer any background that the audience might need (i.e. remarks that prepare and engage them). It is more than okay to write these extemporaneous-sounding remarks into the presentation script, if it will keep you on track. Ideally, try to practice in front of colleagues/department-mates. Practicing in front of a partner or friend can also work. Have someone time you as you read.

 

When it comes to A/V, prepare for the unexpected. What will you do if your laptop battery fails? What if your phone dies, and you lose your presentation notes? We live in a high-tech world, but sometimes technology can fail. Make a checklist of your materials and check it both before you leave home to travel to the conference, and before you enter the room to give your presentation. Have a video adapter for your machine (and expect that one of your co-presenters may need to use yours).

 

If you can, try to meet up with your co-presenters before the presentation, even if just for a 15-minute coffee to say hello. Meeting beforehand can really help organize the panel, and getting to know everyone’s work can make connections between the panel’s ideas during the presentation.

 

Bring business cards with you. You never know who might ask a great question or offer an idea post-session. Having your contact information handy allows you to take advantage of the connections you might make.

 

Plan what you will wear with your presentation in mind. For example, if you know you will be standing for your presentation, consider what shoes you will wear to be comfortable.

 

If you are nervous and have someone you know at your presentation, ask them to sit where you can see them. Sometimes, it is nice to be able to locate a familiar face as you look around the room at your audience.

 

Consider bringing a snack to eat an hour or so before your presentation, so you have something in your stomach.

 

Most of the time, you will have been asked beforehand for a bio, but if not, bring a short, succinct bio that a moderator can read during the speaker introductions.

 

During the Presentation

Get to the room where your presentation is as soon as you are able, and double-check your tech. Give yourself time to get organized and take some deep breaths.

 

Bring a bottle of water and take some sips during your presentation, even if you are not thirsty. This helps avoid a dry throat while talking.

 

Start by catching the audience’s attention and make a connection. This can be accomplished by reading a quote from the primary material that sets the stage, conducting a quick poll that gets them involved, or by sharing what led you to study your topic. Make it personal and make it pithy!

 

Signpost your argument with easy-to-follow language so that your audience stays with you throughout the presentation. Your introduction should prime the audience for what is to come (i.e. “In this paper, I draw on X and Y to argue that Z…”) and the structure of your presentation should be verbalized. Words like “first,” “next,” “furthermore,” “however,” and “finally” are your friends!

 

While the script you have prepared will keep you organized and ensure that your language is precise, make sure to read slowly and make eye contact with the audience. Notes in your script to “pause,” “slow down,” and “look up” make this easier.

 

Bring a couple printed copies of your presentation slides for accessibility.

 

Speak to the audience in front of you, not to your college professor and not to your high school English teacher.

 

Be respectful of your colleagues’ and the audience members’ time. This is essential conference etiquette and ensures that there will be time for discussion. Having the script that you have practiced reading aloud and timed beforehand keeps you within your allotted time.

 

One useful gesture is when you are exploring a new idea in the presentation, to say so and tell the audience that you would welcome their suggestions during the Q&A. This gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise, and to help you refine your idea.

 

It is okay to ad lib if you want to point out a connection between your presentation and someone who has presented before you.

 

Do not sweat the Q&A. More often than not, you will get genuinely helpful, encouraging, and generous feedback that will help you work toward the next stage of the project. It is okay to take a second to think about your response before answering an audience member’s question. If you do not know what someone is referring to, you can always ask them to clarify or to restate their question. There may be audience members who seem to be there with the sole purpose of tearing down you and your co-panelists’ work, but this does not reflect on your presentation. And, keep in mind, that even a seemingly “hostile” question can indicate a gap in or a useful addition to your research that you had not considered and could become something that you follow-up on after the conference.

 

Take notes during your fellow presenters’ presentations. This will help you to make connections between your presentations and come up with questions.

 

Here is an essential part: be confident that you have something important to offer. You were accepted to your panel, to the conference, to the convention. No small feat. You have already convinced the panelists and the organizers that you belong. So, you do.

 

Don’t forget to have fun! If you are having fun, your audience will be too.

 

After the Presentation

Get together with your co-panelists. You have enough in common with them to be on the same panel, so try to have a meal together during the conference. They may even become your most treasured collaborators.

 

Take time after the conference to reflect on what you have learned during the conference, as well as to reflect on how your presentation panel went. There are many connections, materials, and new resources that you have probably learned about from your panel and during the conference, so do not forget to follow-up on these notes.

 

Remember, we are all learning and refining our arguments. Conferences are a great place to get ideas for further avenues of research. Pursue these threads after the conference is over so that you can further your project ideas.

 

–List contributed by Ariadne Wolf, Didem Uca, Kristina Reardon, Amir Hussain, Gerard Holmes, and Kayla Forrest

Tips for Applying to PhD Programs in the Humanities

As application season gets going, CSGSH members offer advice to prospective doctoral students on applying to PhD programs:


As someone who just completed my Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literatures, I can offer three pieces of advice for people considering applying for graduate programs in the humanities. The first is quite basic: dig deep and make sure that a Ph.D. in your discipline is really what you want to do. This might sound obvious, but feeling energized and excited by your field of study is incredibly important and, considering the immense workload and stress that you will face for the next 5–7 years, will sometimes be the one thing that holds you steady on the path towards graduation.


Second, seek out graduate programs where there are multiple faculty with whom you would like to work rather than just one faculty member. Having this deep bench will make getting through coursework much more meaningful and enjoyable; in later stages, you will have to select additional members for your exam and dissertation committees, so having a team composed of other supportive mentors in your department and affiliated programs will be crucial for your success. Furthermore, so much can change in the long course of a doctoral program, so giving yourself the option of working with multiple people in your department can provide a safety net if, for example, your intended advisor retires before you are finished.

Third, research what recent alumni of each program have done since graduating. If you are thinking of pursuing an alt-ac path, but all the former graduate students in a particular program are leading more traditional careers, it might not be the best fit for you. Usually a department’s website will feature alumni or news sections where you can learn about their post-doctoral lives. You might even be able to reach out to former students and ask about their experiences in the program.  — Didem Uca, Visiting Assistant Professor of German at Colgate University


On funding:

Look at the pay rate for TAs and GAs and determine if you’d be able to survive in that area on a certain salary. I was awarded a presidential fellowship from one university I really wanted to attend—but cost of living was so high in that city that the award didn’t even cover half of my living expenses. Meanwhile, another university offered me a regular TAship in a more rural area, and it turned out that the TAship paid twice what the presidential fellowship offered. So while the presidential fellowship sounded nicer and excited me at first, I made the pragmatic decision to take the TAship at the more rural university. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m really glad I did. Really dig into the numbers to see if it even makes sense to apply to a university before you decide where to send your applications.

On your academic experience:

I’ve always been of the belief that graduate school is what you make of it. Attending the most prestigious program does not guarantee you learn more or get a job. That’s on you. So choose a place where you can envision yourself doing your best work. For me, that meant attending a program closer to home. But I knew that about myself, and I was a well-supported, happy grad student with a sense of work-life balance as a result. I got to help my sister plan her wedding and attend my little brother’s track meets on the weekends. I’d have been so unhappy if I hadn’t been able to do all that. Maybe there’s a city you’ve always wanted to live in, or a place that seems just idyllic to you. Pursue universities that genuinely excite you in locations where you’d be happy to live. This is 5-7 years of your life, after all.

On job training:

Look for programs that offer you strong opportunities to teach and to get involved with a few aspects of university work while you are a graduate student, regardless of your field of study. I was grateful that, during my time at both universities where I pursued graduate work, I had the chance to work on a GAship at a writing center, in student affairs, with summer high school programs, and with a fellowships office in addition to getting the traditional time to teach. The truth is that the job market is very challenging no matter what your field of study is, and it’s probably not a good idea to try to choose a field, sub-speciality, or even university based on whether or not you think you can break through in the job market. Instead, look for the place where you can get the most diverse work experiences so that you build skills that extend beyond research and teaching to open a wide range of university-related careers to you. Professor is not the only university role that provides job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, or the ability to support students. You might be surprised at how much you might like certain jobs on campus! And it’s been my experience that, especially at offices that don’t typically have a lot of graduate student engagement, staff are eager to support graduate students who want to explore career opportunities across campus.  — Kristina Reardon, Associate Director of the Center for Writing at the College of the Holy Cross


First off, I’d like to echo some of the advice provided by my colleagues in this piece: make sure this is what you want to do with the next 5-7 years of your life, figure out if the financial situation of income/location of school works out for you, and pick the schools that have the most faculty in your field.

Being an international student (Canadian doing a PhD in the US), I will offer a few tips for international students considering a PhD in the US. First, makes sure to start the required immigration paperwork ahead of time. Bureaucracy can be slow and daunting and the last thing you want is to show up a few days late to your PhD in a foreign country. Second, research and consider the political climate in the area of your school. While most times college towns are welcoming to foreigners, it is always a good idea to know what to expect from the city off-campus. A good way to do this is to reach out to your potential advisor and current graduate students at your institution to find out how welcoming the town might be. Third, ensuring that your potential school has a good International Student support system can go a long way. These offices are of great assistance with several obstacles that are particular to the international student experience. One of the activities I enjoyed the most upon my arrival at the University of Kansas was the international student orientation, where we were able to interact with peers across the disciplines in the same situation. International Student services might also provide advice on immigration status to ensure that students remain in legal status throughout their academic program according to enrollment requirements of their visa. 
Andrés Rabinovich, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas


Expect (and prepare) to spend a lot of time writing and revising the Statement of Purpose, as this is a crucial part of the application for PhD programs and sets the tone for how you and your application comes across. This is time well-spent, as it’s your chance to share your academic interests, tell your story, explain in your own voice what you want or plan to do in graduate school, and share your project ideas. You are not setting your dissertation topic in stone by identifying your interests and questions in the Statement but you are showing the broader areas or questions that your interests—which are evolving, and will continue to evolve during graduate studies—fall into and how or why you came to them.

Try to see the Statement of Purpose as a way to define, integrate and focus your application. Be forthright in your interests and your project ideas—it is one of the few places in the application where you get to “speak” directly to your readers. And make sure to get feedback well before you submit it. Ask professors—who know your work, who you have taken classes from, or who have advised you. Professors will have the best insight into how to improve your Statement of Purpose, so implement their suggestions!

Finally, prepare for the possibility that it may take more than one round of applications to be admitted into the program of your choice, or into the one that suits your circumstances. This happened to me. The first time that I had applied to PhD programs, I secured one admittance—and while it was to a British university of my choice, the admittance came with no guaranteed funding and only the prospect of applying for funding in future years. I decided to apply again the following year to try once more into different funded programs, rather than to pursue a degree without knowing how/if the funding would pan out year after year. It was during the second application round that I found the program where I am completing my PhD degree. Shoring up your patience for the application process will help you get through these kinds of high’s and low’s.  — Amir Hussain, PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Emory University


1. Start having a backup plan for your post-PhD life, including the possibility of not working in the academy, as you are applying. Start putting it in practice the first year. The job market might turn around – anything is possible – but the current slump is ten years along and still getting worse. Even well-intentioned faculty advisors may have little experience with, or interest in, professional sectors outside the academy. Your experience in graduate school can be enriched by getting to know people who do public-facing scholarship, serve on nonprofit boards, and otherwise have experience that can help you prepare for work beyond the academy.

2. If a program lacks a piece of infrastructure you think it needs, you can create that infrastructure. If no one is talking about how to prepare for non-academic jobs, and you want to know more about that, convene a working group on the topic. If a department’s guest speakers don’t represent the discourses taking place among graduate students, graduate students can start a speaker series that does. (This helps you stand out in the department, and signals to potential employers, down the road, that you are an active and engaged colleague.) Some departments have designated funding for such purposes.

3. You can do it with a family. Yes, even with children. It’s extra work, and you will probably need to take any extra paid work that comes your way. But having obligatory commitments outside of your department can be a helpful reality check. Whether you have a family or not, having meaningful things to do outside of teaching and lit crit – and, as much as you will hopefully grow close with your cohort, with people who are not in graduate school – will keep you grounded.  — Gerard Holmes, PhD candidate in English at the University of Maryland

Tips for first-time graduate student attendees

The first time you attend the annual MLA convention can be a bit overwhelming — I attended for the first time in 2013 as a second year Ph.D. student. The CSGSP recommends trying to attend the convention at least once before the year you go on the job market. Even if you aren’t presenting, consider attending in your final year of coursework or the year you take your comprehensive exams. Having a basic familiarity with the general format and feel of the convention can help you feel less anxious during the year you attend for interviews (we all know interviews are stressful enough!). Consider organizing a trip with other Ph.D. students with whom you can share hotel and transportation costs. Responding to CFPs for our committee’s two guaranteed sessions each year can be a great way to get your foot in the door.

The CSGSP has some suggestions for first-time attendees who are not interviewing at the convention:

  • Don’t burn yourself out. The first thing you must realize is that it’s impossible to attend all of the hundreds of amazing sessions. It’s equally impossible to spend all day, every day, attending session after session from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Pace yourself, eat regular meals, stay hydrated, and don’t forget to get some fresh air.
  •  Support your friends and colleagues. Are other members of your department, former professors, and friends presenting at the convention? Be sure to attend their panels. No one likes presenting to only a handful of people in the audience and seeing a familiar face can put presenters at ease.
  • Check out panels both in and out of your field. Some sessions will be an exceptional gathering of key scholars in your field, but also don’t be afraid to check out panels in fields you are less familiar with.
  • Attend panels relevant to graduate students. Each year, the CSGSP puts together a handy list of sessions of particular interest for graduate students (posted here).
  • Dress the part. Even if you’re not presenting, you’ll still want to dress business casual. Wear appropriate and comfortable shoes though, because you’ll be doing a LOT of walking.
  • Visit the graduate student lounge. Often. Not only is the lounge a place where you can sneak away from the hustle and bustle of the main convention areas, but it’s also a space where you can meet CSGSP members and other graduate students. They’re your future colleagues, so take advantage of networking opportunities. The lounge usually has refreshments and small snacks too.
  • Consider business cards. There are several websites where you can create small, inexpensive business cards to bring with you. They allows for quick and easy exchanges of contact info.
  • Attend the presidential address. The president often addresses pressing concerns facing the future of English and foreign language departments and presents information on what the MLA is doing to respond to them.
  • Explore the city. The annual convention is held in wonderful cities such as Boston, Chicago, and, in 2015, Vancouver, Canada. Block out some time for sightseeing, wandering, shopping, or trying some fantastic restaurants.
  • Most importantly, have fun! The convention is a fantastic time. You will hear inspiring scholarship, meet wonderful new people, and come away inspired.