Tips for Preparing for Your First Academic Conference

Punita RiceAcademia

Preparing for your first academic conference can be confusing. It can be unclear what to do first. I presented at a conference earlier today, so I wanted to put together this list. Here are some tips…

Tips for preparing to present at your first academic conference

So you’ve been accepted to present at your first academic conference! In offering these tips, I am assuming that you’re going to be presenting or sharing something at this conference. If that’s the case, this probably feels a little like when you first got accepted to graduate school or your doctoral program or your any other exciting and prestigious but terrifying opportunity. You celebrate and you’re super excited, and then the reality — that you now have to prepare for said opportunity and do the work it entails — begins to set in.

But preparing to present at an academic event, like a conference, need not be a stressful thing. What follows are some basic tips for preparing.

(By the way, if you aren’t presenting anything and are just going to a conference, you have less work to do to prepare, but some of these things may still apply or be helpful.)

Tip #1: Become familiar with the requirements for your participation

Logistics related to what you need to do to prepare for your first academic conference will depend on what your conference organizers want and what’s expected of you. Are you just attending? Or maybe you’re doing a poster session? Are you giving a formal presentation? Or perhaps you’re sharing an article?

They might provide you with detailed guidelines for what you’ll need to prepare, or they might not provide much guidance. In my case, I got an email with lots of attached sample poster formats, guidelines for key topics they wanted me to cover in my poster, and guidelines for how they wanted me to interact with people during the poster session. Constraints can foster creativity and/or productivity, so I found all this super helpful. Make sure you follow their required guidelines and give serious thought to their recommended ones.

Tip #2: Create a draft of your poster/visual/whatever

Depending on what you’re doing at the conference, if you’re participating, you’ll want to figure out what you’re making/producing for your deliverable. If you’re creating a poster, you should figure out what you want to include first.

I pulled together a list of all the key concepts and data points I wanted to include and sketched out a quick idea of what information I wanted to provide in my poster before I started. I think this was helpful in organizing my thoughts and preventing me from wasting a ton of time playing with formatting on my computer before starting.

Tip #3: Use your poster design software of choice and create your visual

I love Photoshop, but for a research poster, I think presentation software is effective and sufficient for a poster for your first academic conference (or any conference thereafter). I made my poster using a Power Point template to start, then uploaded to Google and finished everything in Google Slides.

A closer look at the poster that provides a very brief overview of my research findings. More info available here, and If you're about that life, here's a link to download the PDF of the poster.

A closer look at the poster that provides a very brief overview of my research findings. More info available here, and If you’re about that life, here’s a link to download the PDF of the poster.

If I could go back, I’d have probably done the whole thing in Google Slides from the start. You can format the size of your slide in the editor. I used 36″ x 48″ which was what I was asked to do. Also, there are a lot of basic Google Slides templates built into the platform that you can tweak as necessary. I used VistaPrint to have it printed.

Tip #4: Prepare for what you will say during your poster session

Depending on the format of your conference, you might be doing a basic gallery walk, a full-on poster session, a hybrid of the two, or giving an actual presentation. This varies from event to event. Organizers will probably (hopefully?) make it clear to you what is expected. Even if you’re not doing a full poster session, you should prepare for questions… run through what you’ll say. If you’re giving an actual full presentation, you’ll probably need to formalize this a bit more.

In my case, I was told that our event would run like a gallery walk. But, I would also have to give brief poster sessions at our individual posters, and be available to provide overviews of the work and to answer questions. The organizers recommended having brief spiel prepared for when people came by. So to prepare, I ran through what I’d say (talking off of the poster) during the poster session. I didn’t turn it into a formal speech or anything, because I felt like this would go a little more conversationally than if I were teaching a class.

“If you’re presenting, prepare well. You’ll need to feel as confident as possible with the material [that you’re presenting], and prepare with potential questions in mind.”
– @ReadytoHelpNI

I asked folks on Twitter what they recommended to prepare — @ReadytoHelpNI‘s advice stood out. They recommended that first-time presenters should prepare well to feel as confident as possible.

Tip #5: Figure out what you’ll wear

This might sound frivolous or whatever, but unless you’re planning on going naked, which I wouldn’t recommend, you should decide ahead of time what you’ll wear, and try it on at least once so you can make sure it’s appropriate. Here are some good, gender-neutral criteria for what you should pick out:

  • It looks reasonably professional.
  • It fits you.
  • It’s flattering (if you don’t feel good about yourself in it, probably you shouldn’t wear it!)
  • It isn’t dirty. If it is, wash it.
  • It doesn’t have holes. If it does, fix them.
  • It isn’t crumpled. If it is, iron or steam it.
  • You feel like you in it!
Tips for what to wear to your First Academic Conference - Dr Punita Chhabra Rice at JHU Celebration of Research

Tips for what to wear to your First Academic Conference – Dr Punita Chhabra Rice at JHU Celebration of Research

I feel most like myself in black (or white) and feel poised in a pencil skirt, so I wore a black button-down shirt (similar here in silk, or similar here in dark red) tucked into a dark red pencil skirt (similar in black), comfortable black pumps (same style here but in charcoal). (I also brought a pair of flats for the walk to and from the car – some cute styles by Zara here).

Next, we’ll chat about what to do once you’re actually at the conference.

PS – Here are some tips for how to apply for your first academic conference, if you’d like to read them.