In July 2022, I attended the International Gothic Association (IGA) Conference, which took place in Dublin, and was titled ‘Gothic Interruptions’. My contribution to the conference was a paper on how the city of Manchester was represented and perceived during the COVID-19 lockdowns and how tourism – and especially gothic and dark tourism – adapted to the new online market to create new virtual tours and re-enchant the post-industrial pandemic landscape of the city. My PhD looks at the Gothic qualities of Manchester, Paris and Edinburgh in literature, culture, and tourism. Here, I share my experience of attending and presenting at the conference and offer some of the advice I wished I could have read before I left for Dublin.
Attending a conference is exhausting and presenting is intimating. But my first advice is: find a research community as welcoming as the IGA. Being nervous for your first conference (and subsequent ones!) is normal. I have found that within the community, criticism is sparse but always well-meant and constructive, and people are friendly and genuinely interested in you and your research. Which takes a lot of pressure off as soon as the conference starts.
Preparation is key. When it comes to writing a conference paper, everyone has their own method. When talking to some colleagues, some mentioned they had written out their whole paper to a publishing standard, others had written it all out but to a speaking standard – that is, the way they would really speak during the presentation. The best advice I heard and that I implemented, was to have bullet points written out, rather than the whole paper. That way, you still know what you are talking about, but you are more engaged with the audience as you can make eye contact more easily, and you can refer to your printout if you find yourself losing your thought. When it comes to delivering the paper, time yourself before your presentation: most conferences will have a 20 min limit for papers and chairs who act as moderators will let you know immediately and can sometimes cut you off, if you have exceeded your time. This is to allow everyone on the panel to present their paper and to accommodate questions at the end of the presentations.
Embrace FOMO. By that I mean, don’t feel forced to do it all. There is no point in exhausting yourself jumping from one panel to the next. A well-organised conference will have plenty of breaks, but also plenty of panels and events happening at the same time. Choose carefully where you want to spend your time, but don’t feel like your whole conference experience will be changed if you missed one paper or one activity. The IGA Conference took place over four days, with half a dozen panels happening at the same time, three to four times a day. There were also activities in the evening such as a PGR pub quiz or a walking tour of the city. I missed a couple of papers I really wanted to see simply because another one was taking place at the same time.
Conferences are full of opportunities. From meeting that ‘famous’ academic in your field to having fascinating discussions with like-minded people, you are sure to be stimulated the whole time – that’s also where the exhaustion comes from. My own panel was such a great experience: all three papers presented were connected to space and tourism and they all tied in nicely together. Questions were thought-provoking and interesting for my thesis, but also for my own development as a researcher. This took a lot of pressure off me, and it ended up being a great opportunity for in-depth discussion about my research interests.
Get involved. You also have the option to get involved in other ways than presentation: the conference I attended was looking for people who could take pictures and or videos for social media throughout the conference, for example. You can also choose to chair one of the panels on a day you are not presenting: it is a great way to get familiar with the inner workings of the conference and get to know even more researchers from your field. My colleague Kristian J Agustin wrote some great tips on how to facilitate a conference panel in a previous blog post.
Network. Conferences are great places to start networking. Not only will it benefit your own research, but it will also allow you to see the opportunities available in your field and open new research doors that were previously closed. I had plenty of engaging conversations which make me reflect on my own research, whether in its themes, practice, writing. It also forced me to judge my speaking skills, whether during the delivery of my paper or when talking to colleagues with the inevitable ‘so, what is your PhD about?’.