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Demystifying conferences

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I came into grad school know almost nothing about my program, my university, or my newly chosen field (came from English in undergrad to Anthropology). It's my understanding that at some point in the near future I'm expected to present at a conference or something, and I just don't understand how someone of my knowledge level is going to pull that off. Presenting a paper is something I never envisioned myself having to do here - I have crippling social anxiety and doubts about my own work. Can someone please explain what conferences they may have presented at, or tell me about their first time? I'm at the end of the first semester and there are so many things that I still need to be demystified!

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My first conference presentation was actually at a conference organized by and for other undergraduate students in my field in Canada. So while it was pretty scary, it was at least comforting to know that everyone else was also a student and we were mostly all doing this for our first times too. I still cringe when I think about that first presentation. I used flashy slide transitions (thought they were so cool! lol), put red text on blue backgrounds (unreadable!!) and talked so fast that I finished my 12 minute talk in 7 minutes. I was unfortunate enough to be scheduled at 8pm, after dinner, on the last big day of talks, so only a handful of people were present (mostly other people scheduled in the same time slot!) But I guess that was a good thing after all -- fewer people saw that embarrassment!

Shortly afterwards, I presented the same thing at a "real" conference (i.e. attended mostly by faculty members) and that was really scary. But I think my previous experience was helpful. I kept presenting at student conferences to build up my skills and confidence. Student conferences usually have faculty member "judges" that actually provide valuable constructive criticism afterwards and I found that to be very helpful. I think I am a competent presenter now, definitely have come a long way since that first undergrad talk. Now, I am not nervous at all about an upcoming talk until the person just before me is speaking!!

What I found worked really well for me is to find a friend you can practice in front of. If you're attending a conference with a roommate, you can practice with each other. Better still, you can find out if anyone else in your program is presenting and interested in giving a practice talk. During my undergrad, we got the dozen or so students who were going to present to get together and have a mini conference session of our own. It's easier to present in front of your friends and this also allowed us to see our friends' talks, so that if there was another interesting talk scheduled at the same time during the real conference, we could go see that one instead.

For my graduate school level talk, I usually go over the slides with my supervisor to make sure I didn't make silly errors. I honestly think practice is the best way to gain confidence. I don't know the extent of your social anxiety but I know public speaking was a big challenge for me to overcome to get to where I am today. I used to break out in tears when I had to talk in front of my class in elementary school. Fortunately, that has not yet happened to me at a conference yet! :P

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