As a second year PhD student at Leeds, researching child food insecurity, I recently attended and presented at the LCYR conference on child and youth poverty. In this blog post I reflect not so much on the content of the conference but rather on my experiences as a postgraduate student reaching that daunting milestone of presenting your first academic conference paper.
To be totally honest, the spectre of my first academic conference hung over my whole summer. Actually, it didn’t so much hang, but was more like a little tiny knot in my stomach that was ever present, except for about 15 minutes whilst I attempted to body board in the North Sea. I got used to public speaking in my 20s, then had a decade of not needing to (very little call for it when you own a restaurant and live music venue). And so when I received the email confirming my abstract had been accepted for the LCYR conference it became a BIG issue. The thought of standing up in front of people made me want to be sick on the floor. But practice makes perfect and so I recently got used to speaking to activists and non-academic people through my voluntary campaigning work. But in terms of having academics listening to every word I say? Ugh. I am still waiting for them (not sure who ‘them’ is, but they loom large) to find me out as an imposter, and kick me out of the University. So this is why I had that tiny knot in my stomach over the summer holidays. However ……
The LCYR conference came at the end of a fortnight in which I attended two day-long workshops (one for academics and the other a multi-sector event), went to my first ‘big’ academic conference, and travelled to London for a campaigning meeting (on the topic I am working on – food poverty – but not directly connected to my PhD). So I was full of conversations and new contacts and ideas and examples of how NOT to do a presentation. It was maybe because of this that on the morning I felt fine. I introduced myself to Kim Allen, one of the organisers, and she asked me how I was feeling about presenting. By doing this she acknowledged that I might be feeling something other than totally nonplussed and made it ok to be nervous. Which then made me feel less nervous.
It was a really fantastic day and marked a kind of tipping point for me – I came home saying that I finally felt like an academic. I don’t think it was just that I popped my academic conference cherry, but rather that I really liked all the people who were there, and felt proud to be associated with them.
Attending the conference helped me reflect on and refine my own research. In particular it reinforced for me that small sample studies are legitimate and can generate useful data. Desperate to ensure that my PhD study is useful and will have impact, I had originally planned to do what I now realise is an unrealistic number of interviews. Since the conference I have halved my proposed sample. This is a direct result of a conversation with a fellow researcher with 20 years of experience in my area who kindly came over to talk to me after I had presented, and listening to other presentations on the day which drew on small samples. These papers confirmed that despite being ‘fragments’, individuals’ stories are a ‘rich elaboration of experiences’ (Emmel, 2013 p. 139) and, as such, can be very powerful.
I also learnt several important things about conferences:
- Reading your presentation is ok – if you do a TEDtalk, then you have to spend three months learning it off by heart, but otherwise, it’s absolutely fine.
- Lots of people get really nervous – all the other PhD students I spoke to that morning said they were feeling scared about their talks.
- Pictures are good – Katy McEwan did an amazing presentation with beautiful, arresting images and about 25 words of text in the whole thing and I loved it.
- I will take away a few shocking statistics –for example, I learnt that 52% of Indonesian children do not have any kind of sanitation in their homes.
- One of the best things about conferences is all the connections you make with people.
- The pub afterwards is the best bit.
I think actually everybody knows these things already. But my number one best ever top tip for public speaking that I’m going to share came from my little sister who stands up in front of audiences of hundreds of people. She said: ‘WEAR A TOP THAT DOESN’T SHOW THE SWEAT’.
References: Emmel, N. 2013. Sampling and choosing cases in qualitative research. A realist approach. SAGE Publications.
About Annie: I am a ‘non-standard’ PhD student. For that, read old (nearly 42), a parent, and not having been in an academic environment or research before. I have a background in project management, campaigning and owning a restaurant and live music venue. I did an MSc in Food Policy in attempt to bring together my campaigning and my constant ranting about food and social justice and somehow ended up doing a PhD. My study is about child food insecurity and the impact of welfare reform on household food insecurity. I love the topic of food, as it is a brilliant lens through which you can examine any issue: the environment, gender, class, neoliberalism, social justice. I tweet at @connolly_annie and more information about my research can be found here: https://www.geog.leeds.ac.uk/people/a.connolly