Category Archives: Conferences

Re-thinking the Conference Presentation

Conference season is now upon us. Travel. Networking. One dull, poorly-constructed, over-time PowerPoint presentation after another.

I suspect that less than a quarter of the presentations I attended last week at a major, international conference remained within the allotted amount of time. 10 minutes is, quite simply, not long enough  to fully (or even briefly!) discuss research questions, theory, methodology and results. The almost inevitable outcome, it seems, is a sequence of PowerPoint slides full of text too small to read, and that distract the audience rather than enhance the presentation.

I have no idea where the standard conference presentation format came from. If a 10-15 minute presentation followed by 5 minutes of questions pre-dates the invention and widespread adoption of PowerPoint or rose to dominance alongside it. Regardless of how or when this tradition developed, the fact of the matter remains that it is ineffective.

As PhD candidates (and early career researchers), we’re hardly in a position to overhaul the academic conference system. I think that we can, however, adopt innovative approaches to presenting our work that might eventually and collectively shift expectations for what a good conference presentation should be. Rather than conform to the status quo, we can choose to focus in on one aspect of our research (research questions, theory, methodology or results) in our presentations, and remind the audience that the other dimensions of the project are discussed in the accompanying paper. More focused presentations will require fewer slides, less text.

More focused presentations might also lend themselves to a diverse range of presentation tools. Why not illustrate your main points with images (photos, icons, clip art, drawings, diagrams, graphs, etc.). Your presentation then becomes an explanation of the graphics rather than oral repetition of projected text. Similarly, new presentation tools like Prezi are better able to visually demonstrate connections and relationships between complex ideas than linear ppt. slideshows. That said, learning to use these tools well takes time. An effective, memorable presentation is not created the night before.

Practice is also essential. Rehearsing is the only way of knowing how long your intended presentation will take. If reciting your notes takes 20 minutes in your hotel room, you’ve got more work to do. But better to find this out when you still have time to fix it than by being caught out on stage. It might seem like common sense, but I suspect that very few scholars actually bother to run through their conference presentations in advance.

Professional conferences provide excellent opportunities for networking. They also give you a chance to draw attention to the originality of your work as well as your promise as a young researcher. A bad PowerPoint presentation will only undermine your efforts to make a good first impression.


Call for Papers – IVSA Annual Conference

Lisa Petheram and I will be co-chairing the panel Who, when & why: Critical perspectives on (new) visual methods at the 2013 International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) Annual Conference in London from 8 – 10 July 2013.

The full call for papers and details about the conference are available on the conference website

Abstracts are due 31 March 2013

Who, when & why: Critical perspectives on (new) visual methods

Visual methods are now accepted across a range of disciplines and seem to be attracting the interest of a growing number of researchers. Reflecting on these developments, Pauwels[1] has recently suggested that there “should definitely be room for more experimentation” in visual research, further specifying that “audacious” experimentation must always be accompanied by an explanation of what the audience is looking at.

We welcome this invitation to explore the validity and potential of innovations in visual methodology. When writing up their use of visual techniques, however, researchers commonly prioritise the what (i.e. type of visual material) and how (i.e. approach) of their work. As new visual methods emerge and existing methods are adapted, the whowhen, and why of visual research demand critical reflection. Is it appropriate, for instance, to use visual methods with all potential research participants?  How might contextual factors influence the ultimate success or failure of a visual research project? Researchers adopting visual methods could also be more open about the limitations of their approaches and the potential dangers of implementing existing visual methods in new contexts. This panel will critically reflect on these less-discussed aspects of new visual methods and practice.

We are particularly interested in papers that:

  • Explore the limitations of new visual methods or innovations on established visual techniques;
  • Challenge established parameters of visual research;
  • Problematize the process of integrating visual materials and methods with other research techniques;
  • Investigate the replicability of visual methods with different types of participants, in new contexts or for novel research purposes;
  • Emphasise the importance of (researcher and participant) reflexivity in the development and implementation of new visual methods;
  • Reflect on the production and use of visual products as a way of representing findings (derived from visual research) to stakeholders, decision-makers and other audiences.

Paper proposals can be sent to l.hinthorne [at] and Lisa.Petheram [at]

[1] Pauwels L (2012) Contemplating the State of Visual Research: An Assessment of Obstacles and Opportunities. In: Pink, S. (ed) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 248-264.

Finding your academic voice

It is easy to forget that completing your thesis is only one part (albeit a large part) of becoming a professional academic. Publishing in respected journals and gaining teaching experience are other easily identified steps on the path to an academic career. But is that really all there is to it?

At the end of November I attended a conference that had attracted four top-notch keynote speakers. As I listened to these venerated academics discuss their work, it struck me that they each had a distinct voice. Put another way, each of these scholars had a unique approach and/or tone for addressing the topic at hand as well as the wider field. Moreover – and perhaps more strikingly – each of these speakers projected a sense of being comfortable in his or her own skin while discussing his or her own work.

Finding our voice is something that most of us probably aspire to, and achieve with varying degrees of success. There is, I think, a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) difference between willing confidence as a way of camouflaging unease and projecting genuine confidence. In addition to the keynote presentations, I attended a number of conference sessions where various academics and practitioners discussed their work. Some of these presentations were excellent and offered a clear, reasoned account of a particular research project. Others, however, left me with the impression that the speaker was begging the audience to accept his or her work.

The difference between these two extremes could be attributed to any number of factors. On reflection, though, voice is the quality that comes immediately to mind. The best presentations (where the speakers projected easy confidence; i.e. had a clear, academic voice) were generally given by seasoned academics (and practitioners), whereas graduate students often gave presentations where a thin veil of confidence masked an unmistakable sense of anxiety.

It is hardly surprising that scholars with more experience in their field – and more experience speaking at conferences – give better presentations. And this is my point: I suspect that you will stand a much better chance of giving a stand-out conference presentation at the end of your PhD (when it really counts) if you give a few (quite frankly) rubbish presentations at the beginning. Academic voice isn’t something that can be taught. It isn’t something you’ll miraculously acquire one day while reading feedback from you supervisor. You have to develop it for yourself.

Being part of a community

When I first started my PhD I thought there were two basic kinds of PhD students; those that were natural networkers and those that were not. The first type would be excellent at not just making contacts, but filling them with actual content and keeping them. That would be impressive enough, but the best part of it would be that they do it naturally, without appearing too interested or seemingly using people for their own purposes. I was certainly the second type. Any thought of networking would fill me with dread. It was not necessarily the talking to people that made me feel anxious (as I am quite a chatty person when I get going!), but rather the thought that they would feel I was only making conversation out of selfish interest.

I knew I had to change the way I viewed networking if I wanted to have a successful academic career, or at least that is what I was told in all the training sessions I attended. Still, I felt uneasy. The more I saw some of my peers excel as networkers, the more I felt alienated by the idea. Until I realised that there are different ways of viewing networking. The world of academia is small, very small, and in order to be part of it you must make an effort to be a full citizen of that world.  Being that citizen involves not just engaging in your community and being nice to people, but also discovering new areas and new people doing research, etc… And when you do that, usually, the reward is that the community also feels that you are trustworthy of being a member of it and it provides you with new opportunities.

It does sound a little rosy, and with just cause. However, it does not always work in this way; after all you are networking with people who also want to be rewarded. I think the point is not to be constantly thinking about the possible immediate benefits; that would turn many people off, including me. Instead, the idea is that you must ensure you gradually become part of a community of scholars. But, how do you do that?

Well, I do not have a right or a wrong answer. I am still in the process of learning myself! But I do think that some things are key:

  • Social skills – whilst you may spend most of your day reading and thinking about obscure things, and other academics do the same, they may not necessarily want to hear that in full detail at the conference dinner / drinks reception. Prepare a short blurb on your research that precise and to the point. Also be prepared to have a general chit-chat about everything and anything. Be nice.
  • Go to places where other academics meet – make sure you are aware of what is happening in your area of research, conferences, seminar series, workshops, email lists, working groups, etc. 
  • Be prepared to help – although you may be a young academic you may also be of help to more senior academics. Be ready.
  • Do not underestimate people – in an effort to impress, young academics focus their networking efforts only on senior academics. Whilst this may work for some, it is a risky strategy. From my own experience, people who are one step ahead from you are usually those who are more willing to offer you friendly advice. Don’t underestimate them!

Viva Prep: 5 things you can do TODAY

I suspect that most people think that viva prep is something that you do after you’ve submitted. I certainly did. Immediately after submitting my monster of a thesis, I took some time off. My viva wouldn’t take place until nearly three months later so I had the luxury of time to rest up and gain some distance from the text I had produced.

A few weeks before my viva, I started to prepare in earnest. I bought a selection of coloured sticky tabs for marking the first page of each chapter and important examples that I wanted to be able to reference with ease should I need them.

Then I sat down to read. I read…

…and I read…

…I found a typo…

…and I read some more.  Not having looked at my thesis for several weeks, I now spotted what seemed to be an embarrassing number of typographical errors that neither I nor my supervisor nor my husband had found when proofreading earlier drafts. I kept a list of these to take along to the viva. (To my immense relief, my list was considerably longer than that of either of my examiners.) I underlined important passages and stuck my sticky tabs where they belonged.

As I did all this, however, a nagging voice in the back of my mind kept taunting that what hadn’t learned in the previous four years, I certainly wasn’t going to learn in the next four days.

The shouting gradually softened to a whisper, though, as I reflected on the various forums in which I had already exposed my research and writing to (sometimes intense) scrutiny. While I would definitely not dissuade you from reading through your thesis one final time before your viva, I firmly believe that the best viva preparation takes place months – even years – before the big day.

With that in mind, here is a list of five ways you can start preparing for your viva today no matter what stage you’re currently at in your research. If you start now, you can be confident that when the big day finally arrives you’ll be as ready as you possibly could be. (And as an added bonus, these activities will probably make your thesis stronger too!)

  1. Look for upcoming conferences.  Although I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time, in retrospect presenting papers at conferences was the most constructive way of preparing for my viva. There will be a blog (or two, or three) on attending conferences at some point down the road. For now I’ll just say that post-graduate conferences are a great way of breaking yourself in slowly. The PSA hosts a number of post-graduate conferences around the UK and Breaking Boundaries is an excellent post-graduate conference for researchers engaged in interdisciplinary work. Try to attend post-graduate conferences in your first and second years. By your third and fourth years, however, you should be going to professional conferences of an international standard. The prospect may sound scary, but once you arrive you will soon realise that they aren’t really so different from the post-graduate conferences you’ve become used to. Not only will presenting papers at professional conferences enhance your CV, it is at these conferences that you will get asked the really tough questions. Better to discover holes in your argument now (while you can still fill them in) than on the day of your viva.
  2. Submit a journal article for publication. Ok, so you may not actually be ready to submit a journal article today. But you can – and should – start thinking about possible publications now no matter what stage you’re at in your PhD. While you can expect to field interesting questions at conferences, most attendees won’t ever read your paper. Journal article referees, however, will read your submission very carefully and provide detailed comments. This feedback is incredibly helpful for pointing out any weaknesses in your argument or sections that warrant additional explanation. Moreover the criteria used by journal referees (i.e. originality, is this work publishable) are similar to those used by your examiners. But in order for publishing to work as viva prep you have to start early! Again, there will be other posts on the process of submitting articles for publication later. In the mean time just be aware that it can take a year or more for articles to go through the reviewing process at top journals. This means that in order to have the referees’ feedback before your viva, you probably need to be submitting articles no later than 12-14 months before you plan to submit your thesis.
  3. Discuss you work with other students and faculty. You may do this already (and if you do that’s excellent!) but oftentimes the last thing that I wanted to do when I wasn’t actually working on my PhD was talk about it. It is particularly tempting to dissuade people from talking to you about your research when you’re feeling less than confident. In fact, when you’re having trouble can be one of the best times to share your work with people in your department. Unlike conference audiences and journal referees, people in your department know you and want you to succeed. There are various ways that you can share your work with people in your department. Invite someone for a chat over coffee. Volunteer to present your current work at a departmental seminar. Create a support group with other PhD students and arrange a regular time and place to informally discuss and/or critique each other’s work.
  4. Think about impact. Can your work be applied outside of academia? If so, how? Who might be interested and why? As the demands for academic work to have practical significance increase, it is worth thinking about how your research might be applied in other contexts. The earlier you start thinking about this, the easier it will be to build an assessment of you work’s potential impact into the text of the thesis. The wider relevance of your work is likely to come up during the viva, but this is one question you can be ready for.
  5. Teach. Even if you don’t covet an academic career, you should still try to do a bit of teaching for two important reasons. First, it gets you used to thinking on your feet and answering unanticipated questions. Useful experience to have before attending your first conference and certainly before you walk into your viva room. Second, teaching lets you feel like you are the expert. It wasn’t until I started teaching that I realised how much I really do know: not everything, but a vast deal more than undergraduates certainly. Teaching boosts your confidence and gives you the pluck to submit your work to public scrutiny.

If you welcome constructive criticism of your work while you still have time to improve it and can get used to defending your choices in response to tough questions, you will be well equipped to handle whatever your examiners throw at you.