As a late-stage PhD student, the whirlwind that is attending and presenting at academic conferences is still a relatively new experience for me. Attending the 2023 Academy of Management (AoM) Annual Meeting in Boston, USA – with instrumental help from the Graduate School Research Support Award – gave me a new perspective on the value of conferences.  

Events like these can be daunting. In 2021, while the pandemic still had not released its bind on our ability to get around, I presented some of my early ideas at an online conference hosted by SMK University in Lithuania. By all accounts, it went well. My CV touts it as an “international” conference. Though, it hardly was, sat there in my dingy, north-facing home office box room before, during, and after the event. There was not much room for “networking” on Zoom that day.  

Then, the following summer, with restrictions lifted, I ventured to the British Academy of Management (BAM) Doctoral Symposium with a little piece of my work and then absorbed the “real” conference over the days that followed. In my mind at the time, the people presenting at the “real” conference were doing something that I could not. I have no idea what that was, but it was my impression. However, my mindset changed on the last day. Something shifted.  

I got chatting with a chap who had presented in a remarkably relaxed way their rather intriguing paper from their PhD. I had several other memorable conversations at BAM, but this one was particularly so. The reason for this is because, to my mind, not only had this person already done something that I thought I could not (present at the “real” BAM conference), but in our chat I learnt that they had also presented more of their work at the AoM Annual Meeting only weeks before. To boot, that conference paper was in press (and has since been published) in my target journal! They had submitted their thesis and were seemingly calmly anticipating their viva.  

Now, why the case study of this specific scholarly force of nature? Well, because in meeting them and seeing the fruits of their labour, I realised that I had not even considered myself worthy of presenting my ideas at a “real” conference, let alone figured out how I would go about it. I had no objective evidence that I could not do so because my self-conviction that I was “not there yet” (wherever there is) was evidence enough for me. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there were one. That friendly encounter inspired me to have a go. As my wife (wiser than I) says in these instances, transliterated from her mother tongue, “why not? You’ve already got the no”. In going for it, I got the “yes”.    

What do we miss out on every time we do not put our ideas out there?  

Considering just the work that we toil over, even if our work gets knocked back, we learn what might be right by knowing what apparently isn’t. That’s feedback. That’s usable knowledge for refining our ideas. The time spent is not time wasted, it is time invested.  

I was incredibly anxious about my presentation, classically catastrophising the way it would obviously be ripped apart by senior scholars who saw me as wasting their time deludedly waffling on about some nonsense or other… as I tend to do. On reflection, I am glad I was nervous, I think it made the presentation what it was, and it was great! If I may say so myself.  

I was able to relax into the flow, it somehow went perfectly to time. It received praise: “you are a volcano of knowledge”; it received critique: “I still don’t buy it”. It did what was intended, it sparked discussion. Experienced academics even asked me advice about their work!? Though different people, these were the presenters at the “real” conference that I thought I wasn’t ready for just one year before. Don’t be as silly as pre-me.  

Be part of the conference. Work hard. Don’t coast. Enjoy it. 

There is so much that happened at this recent conference that I shan’t bore you with. To me, what I experienced was important, but you’ll find your own important experiences at the events you attend. The best way to summarise the impact of any conference is that the paper/presentation is what you can give to the event, and in return of it, you can gain so much more.  

Oh, and by the way, the friendly chap I mentioned… We met again. I went to see one of their presentations…. Yep, presentations, plural. Three in total, all of which had been nominated for best paper in different tracks. Wherever you set your bar, don’t let it stifle your potential. 

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