Playing the part of a grad student at my first academic conference


I recently attended my first academic conference as a presenter, but in the weeks and months leading up to it, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I knew this was a great way for me to add more experience to my CV. But as a humanities/social sciences student (or “arts,” if you prefer), there typically aren’t a lot of opportunities for undergrad students to go to conferences, let alone present at one.

I tried looking online and asking on Twitter and Facebook for advice on how to present at a conference, but to no avail.  I was sure I’d make an ass out of myself.

The conference organizers told me I’d be presenting for about 15 minutes.  I cut down the paper I submitted to the conference to what I thought was an appropriate length, and decided to work on the paper while I was there, since I was presenting on the last day.

I packed up my clothes, laptop and camera, and boarded my connecting flight from Vancouver to Victoria.  About six hours after I set out that morning, I was at the University of Victoria, eager for the Engaging and Conceptualizing ‘Race’ conference to start.  I was also as nervous as hell about what I was to expect, and wondered if the graduate students at the conference would be nice to me, a lowly little undergrad.

PhD student T.J. Tallie talking with another presenter (and being watched by a rabbit)

The ironic thing in all of this is that of the four schools I applied to for a Masters this year, UVic was the only one that didn’t accept me.

Within a short time of getting my residence room keys, I had made friends with some of the other presenters.   I had also taken about 150 pictures of the feral domestic rabbits that were on campus.

I did some meeting and greeting, and retired a bit early to work on my paper while everyone else went out.

The next morning, I sat through everyone’s presentations and realized that presenting at a conference is actually very easy.  You know when you give presentations during your undergrad and you’re told that you can’t read off your paper?  At a conference all you do is stand at a podium and read off your paper.  Yup, it’s that simple.  You can be angry at your professors now.

That afternoon, I finished up my edits and printed my paper at the library (which was an adventure and a half in itself).  With a few of the other presenters I explored the city of Victoria that evening.  I went to bed that night feeling good.

I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling not so good.  I’m not sure if it was some possible secret ninja dairy I ate by accident, or my nerves.  But I was sick, and only slept about two or three hours the whole night.

Since I was awake long before everyone else, I walked around campus and took more photos of the campus (and another couple hundred of the rabbits), and prepped myself for what I thought was going to be an awful presentation.  I was the third presenter in my group of four and, after hearing what the other presenters said, I was anxious.

When I got up there, though, all of that washed away: my paper went well, and other presenters and faculty commented and asked questions after I presented.  All of the doubt I had about my abilities as a grad student were now gone.

Meleisa Ono-George, a masters student in history at UVic and one of the conference organizers says attending and presenting at a conference is so important because:

“Conferences are not just about sharing your work, networking, or gaining experience, although these are all important things. For me, participating in a conference is about the conversation that is the ongoing dialogue between scholars working on a similar subject or field. It’s amazing how much you learn from just engaging with people grappling with the same or similar questions. This engagement with others and participation in the conversation has helped me develop my ideas and work. As far as I’m concerned, conference participation is fundamental for any serious graduate student and historian.”

Looking back, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to go to this conference, and to learn so much.  Of course I learned about race, racialization and racism, but I also gained insight into what the next two years as a grad student will be like for me.

For more articles and resources on going to grad school in Canada, check out the rest of the So You Want to Go to Grad School series!For more articles and resources on going to grad school, check out the rest of the So You Want to Go to Grad School series!