Tag Archives: professionalization

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

Chasing Data: Creating a Graduate Student Survey

The University of Arkansas’s Graduate Students in English (GSE) recently used the CSGSP’s “Improving Institutional Circumstances for Graduate Students in Languages and Literatures: Recommendations for Best Practices and Evaluative Questions” to create a survey that gauged the climate and concerns of its department’s graduate students. The GSE then used those results to advocate for a hybrid committee:

The Committee will address some of the trends and concerns raised by the GSE’s inaugural survey, including devising and implementing new graduate program protocols.

Read more about this work by the GSE in this post, authored by Megan Vallowe and Christy Davis.

Grad School Summers: How Going “Off Track” Showed Me the Way

by Geffrey Davis, University of Arkansas

Hear me out. I want to suggest that, if you can afford it, if you can gain your advisor’s approval, if you can set the appropriate academic smokescreens, consider going “off track” this summer. I can’t emphasize enough my abiding sense that, by allowing myself to go “off track” during my summers, I left grad school with a greater level of institutional literacy, a more robust network, a more diverse set of professional skills and experience, and a healthier survey of my post-graduation horizons.

By “off track,” I mean to invoke paid (or unpaid, if you can swing it and it’s worth your time) positions that are neither required nor provided by your graduate program. More specifically, however, I’m recommending (especially if you teach throughout the 9-month academic year) that you change things up and gain some alt-ac experience by committing your summer to something(s) beyond the sanctioned scope of your advanced degree program.

In many ways, for academics, mid-May to mid-August are our cruelest months. We pick up as many sections of composition or language courses as necessary to float us financially until the fall paychecks return. Or we relish (mistakenly) in the theoretical abundance of “free” time we have to solve the critical problems threatening what’s viable (or feasible) about our thesis/dissertation projects. And yet, here’s the harsh reality: we rarely get as much work done over the summer as we imagine and/or need. And so, adding insult to injury, we often enter fall semesters feeling both inadequately recharged and rottenly weighted down by all the work we have failed to complete—sometimes quite literally, if we have also tried to fit in a family visit with book-packed suitcases.

Even if we must work during summers, summers don’t have to work like this. I learned this by accident. My first summer as a graduate student—both to sharpen my understanding of grad school (as a first generation student) and to strengthen my pedagogical chops—I stayed in-town and taught composition, and I have no regrets about that decision. My second summer, however, an alternative opportunity came across my desk when our Director of Graduate Studies recommended that I apply for an open position with the Summer Institute for Literary and Cultural Studies (SILCS). Still drawn to the idea of evolving my teaching strengths, I nearly ignored the call. But when I looked more carefully into SILCS—and, especially, when I realized its commitment to addressing a history of ethnic/racial underrepresentation by providing a cohort of minority undergraduate students with vital academic resources and training in literary and cultural theory—I scrambled to gather the necessary job materials, applied, and was offered a residency position as a graduate mentor.

That summer, rather than double down on the valuable training (as a teacher and a scholar) that my grad program was already providing, I spent the month of June engaging a diverse group of undergrad students in a new capacity, working alongside programmers and administrators, and networking with a range of academics from across the country. Furthermore, that experience gave me alt-ac skills and insight that simultaneously broadened my professional vision and yet deepened my sense of the academic structure to which I was committed as a graduate student. I never used my summers the same.

After returning from SILCS, I began realizing year-round “off track” opportunities that were lower commitment but similarly rewarding: I said yes to formal on-campus mentoring of underrepresented undergraduates, to outreach work within my local community, to summer creative writing retreats, and to less traditional summer teaching positions (for graduate students). For starters, I recommend that you visit your home institution’s Career Services to learn about all the summer jobs, fellowships, and internships offered on your campus. You should find out whether your university or college participates in the Upward Bound/Migrant Program. It’s also worth considering residency positions offered at other institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. If your institution offers graduate level internships (such as Penn State University’s GRIP program), you might consider that option. Finally, I’d keep an eye out for freelance gigs or positions with short-term funding via supplemental pay at your home institution.

Though I understand the real concerns and risks involved with spreading one’s self in this manner, my “off track” activities did not force me to forfeit the timely completion of my advanced degrees or compromise my ability to become an effective college-level teacher—both of which were extremely important goals of mine. Each experience did, however, help me evolve and advance my post-graduation prospects.

By the time I completed grad school, I had a rich professional network (both inside and outside of academia), a more developed institutional literacy, additional administrative and service skills (as necessary for administration or activism as for successful committee work), an ability to communicate to a broader audience (extremely important for grants, job docs, and interviews), a more informed and nuanced perspective on my professional and personal goals, and a refreshed interest in my academic work—not to mention a counter-force to both the pressures of an advanced degree program and the reality of job market uncertainties. As such, I encourage you to break the cycle as a graduate student by using summers to go “off track” in order to gain unique leadership, service, and communication experience.

Free job counseling at the annual convention

CSGSP member Shane Peterson has written a helpful guide to using the free job counseling at the MLA convention.

The lack of feedback one receives while “on the market” can be frustrating. Ever wonder what the committees are thinking when they look at your documents? I know I did. Here’s your chance to find out!

The Basics: Bring a copy of your cover letter and/or CV for review by an experienced departmental administrator. Make an appointment in advance at the Job Information Center (located in the Imperial Ballroom, level B2, of the Fairmont). Appointments last 25 minutes and will take place on January 10 and 11 from 10:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. And best of all: it’s completely free of charge!

My Experience: During my first job search, I remember wondering whether I was doing something wrong. The longer I waited for interview requests, the more I began to second-guess myself and my application materials. I had received detailed feedback from faculty members and students in my graduate program and read plenty of books and articles on the subject, but were we all overlooking something? Or were other candidates a “better fit” or simply further along in their dissertations or professional careers? For me, the free job advice session provided at least three benefits:

1. Fresh pair of eyes: Having someone who doesn’t already know you look at your CV and cover letter can be enlightening. The advice session helped me be more specific in my cover letter and work on framing my dissertation in a more widely accessible manner.
2. Networking: Don’t miss out on the opportunity to meet a senior professional in your field and enjoy their undivided attention. I chose to meet with a faculty member in a neighboring field to simulate how modern language departments and/or specialists in other fields might react to my application materials. In the end, I made a contact and discovered that we had two professional connections already.
3. Peace of mind: It’s nice to hear “really, your documents look fine” from someone outside your home department and institution. And if there is a problem, it’s better to catch it now when there’s nothing at stake! For me, the reassurance that my letter and CV were generally in good shape was the best part of the job advice session.

And don’t forget: You don’t have to be on the market to use this free service. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone the year before my first job search. It’s never too early to start thinking about how to communicate your academic persona in an effective manner.