My first conference: what I learned presenting an academic paper at #PopCAANZ19

Last week the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand (PopCAANZ) held its annual conference over three days in Melbourne, and there I presented my paper Friends with benefits: Neoliberalism and heteronormativity in the bromance film.

It was a very new, very nerve-wracking experience — but ultimately extremely rewarding. Prior to last week I had never even attended an academic conference, let alone presented a paper at one. In fact, I didn’t know Honours students could present at conferences — until I did it myself.

I thought my experiences might prove useful to others in a similar position, so here are some of the thoughts I took away from my time at PopCAANZ 2019.

Yes, it’s possible for an Honours student to present a paper at a conference

Some, perhaps most, conferences only accept submissions from established academics or PhD candidates, but there are some that also accommodate Honours students. I was fortunate that PopCAANZ took place this year at RMIT University, my home institution, and was convened by an RMIT staff member whom I felt comfortable asking whether they would accept an abstract submission from an Honours student. The answer was yes, and I was one of two students from my Honours cohort to present at PopCAANZ.

Presenting ended up being way less intimidating than I thought it would be. I was mercifully scheduled on a panel that took place in the conference’s smallest room, and I presented my paper to an audience of roughly a dozen people — small enough that I didn’t feel overwhelmed, but big enough to generate fruitful discussion. It was a great way to test the waters in a relatively low-stakes, extremely supportive environment, and get my head around the completely new and unfamiliar experience of attending a conference, presenting, fielding questions, and explaining my research.

If you’re an Honours student, I would recommend searching for relevant conferences and checking whether their CFP mentions that they accept Honours students. If it doesn’t say, just ask.

A conference paper probably won’t help your PhD application, but it doesn’t hurt to have it on your CV

In most Australian universities, for most purposes conference papers don’t count as research. They’re not peer-reviewed and they don’t have the same requirements for original contribution to knowledge as journal articles, book chapters and other forms of published research. Also, in the calculus used to decide which PhD or scholarship applications are successful, they’re generally worth either nothing or very little. So presenting at a conference won’t help your PhD application.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I found the process remarkably rewarding and interesting for its own sake — once I got over my crippling fear of presenting, I was able to take in a diverse program of wonderful and interesting research from all over Australia and New Zealand. In years to come, when I begin applying for academic jobs, I’ll have a list of publications and conference papers stretching back to my Honours year that should reflect positively on my work ethic, level of expertise, and commitment as a researcher.

Presenting at a conference is a great way to develop your speaking skills

I’m not a natural public speaker. I get nervous, I can’t speak off the cuff, and I struggle to make eye contact with the audience. But one thing I’ve learned from presenting live radio is that the best thing — really, the only thing — you can do to improve your performance is to watch or listen back to yourself. After all, how can you possibly improve the experience for an audience if you don’t know what your performance is actually like for an audience?

At first it’s incredibly awkward and embarrassing to hear your own voice. You will cringe, you will hate it, you will hear every single one of your mistakes. But the first step towards fixing a mistake is identifying it, and by closely listening to yourself speak you can identify big and small problems in your performance before you stand up in front of an audience. Over the past few years I’ve listened to my voice so much that it just doesn’t feel awkward any more. I often record myself rehearsing a talk or in-class presentation before I deliver it, and tweak any unnatural phrasing, difficult passages and long sentences along the way. I’ve also found that I have a tendency to talk too fast when I get nervous, but now that I’ve heard and identified that issue I make a conscious effort to regulate my tempo when I speak, which makes me sound more natural, more authoritative and less nervous.

Conferences can — eek — introduce you to people

Let me be very clear: the idea of networking fills me with a crushing sense of dread. I, like many people, want absolutely nothing to do with anything even resembling networking. I also know, however, that every single advice article and blog post for students and early-career researchers says that it’s a necessary evil and a skill you must develop to have any chance at a career in academia. Whether you’re into networking or not, conferences are an objectively excellent way to build a profile, find your community and start acting like an academic.

Also on my panel at PopCAANZ was Dr. Nicholas Godfrey, a lecturer in screen media from Flinders University in Adelaide, presenting research on Barbra Streisand’s place in (or exclusion from) the Hollywood auteur canon. After our panel concluded, he came over and introduced himself and said that he would connect me with a PhD student of his whose topic area is closely related to my own. It was a small interaction, but it was nice to have a chat to someone about their research and I got a useful contact out of it.

So if you can, try to make the best of your attendance at a conference by striking up a conversation with someone new. Or, hey, don’t do anything and maybe someone will come up to you and do all the work for you. Thanks, Nicholas!

Papers can help clarify your research or develop ideas

My paper developed out of an undergraduate cinema studies essay I wrote last year, which I practically threw out of my mental filing cabinet immediately after submission. But I’m glad that I was able to rescue the idea and turn it into a conference presentation, because I’m now considering the option of developing it further into a journal article or video essay.

My friend and Honours classmate Sam Harris used his paper — on post-cinematic affect and the glitch in the Unfriended films — to work through some of the fundamental theoretical aspects of his Honours thesis. For him it’s a win-win: the work he’s been doing to prepare his thesis helped make a great conference paper, and the feedback and discussion he received after presenting it will help clarify his thinking and can be fed back into his thesis.

Having to synthesise and deliver your research in an easily digestible form to an unfamiliar audience is invaluable. It helps clarify your ideas and forces you to consider how your research will be understood by an audience. Plus, the work you do could be preparing you for future publication.

If you have any tips for presenting at a conference, hit me up on Twitter.