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Conference – Big or Small?

by on August 9, 2013

The first conference outside of my own institute at which I presented as a PhD student was the 19th international Sociolinguistics Symosium held in Berlin 21-24th August 2012. More recently I presented at the much smaller Inter-Disciplinary.Net Storytelling conference which took place in Prague 21-24th May 2013. So, big or small, which would I recommend?

It depends what you’re after. Karluv most/ Charles Bridge, Prague  Karlův most / Charles Bridge, Prague (Photograph by Lauren Dyll)

The large conference: As Laura McInerney points out in her post ‘In praise of the small conference’ on The Thesis Whisperer, large international conferences held over numerous days, with several parallel sessions and “stellar keynote casting” can be a great place to meet with your idols and to hear ‘famous’ intellectuals in your field report on their findings. But, these bigger gatherings can also be a very daunting place to begin. I have mixed feelings from my own experience at Sociolinguistics Symposium 19. The conference took place over four days and each morning and afternoon session began with a plenary speaker, to the best of my memory. These sessions were very useful. This was a great opportunity not alone to hear a keynote speaker of high regard report on his/her findings. It was also a great opportunity to learn about presenting. I got a taste of the different styles of presenting, how much material to include, ideas on how to use visual/audio aids etc., how to structure a presentation and how to engage an audience. This was an invaluable lession. As regards the parallel sessions…there were so many of them to choose from and it wasn’t always clear from the programme abstract which sessions would be of most benefit/interest. Sometimes I chose well, sometimes not so well. When it came to my own turn to present I was happy to learn that it would take place in a small room. This didn’t scare me quite so much as a big auditorium might have. Although there was a small attendance (this is one downside of conferences with several parallel sessions), there was one or two leading academics in the group. There was a good discussion after the presentations. Large conferences attract a huge variety of people, from leading academics to PhD students. This brings great diversity and stimulating conversations. It is, however, easy to get lost in such an atmosphere. On the other hand, it can be hugely gratifying and a great confidence booster to present at such a large gathering.

Eilis Presenting Story4, Prague 2013 (Photograph by Lauren Dyll)

The small conference: The attraction of the Inter-Discliplinary.Net storytelling conference, apart from the fact that it was taking place in the beautiful city of Prague, was that it was to be a small conference gathering people from varying disciplines and backgrounds together to discuss storytelling. There were only two parallel sessions and every delegate was asked to attend the conference in its entirety and to participate fully in the discussions following each session. The advantage of the small gathering is that over the course of the four days you get to meet everyone and find time to discuss matters of mutual interest. Although this conference was a much smaller affair than the Sociolinguistics Symposium the number in attendance at the session at which I presented was about threefold. Also, those in attendance came from various backgrounds, some from an academic background others were medical practitioners, counsellors, language and community activists. This added great diversity to the discussions. The discussions were, however, of a less academic nature and being still in the early stages of my PhD I would have welcomed some more constructive feedback. I think the positive nature of all comments throughout the conference was a reflection of the inclusive and supportive atmosphere which was being fostered. Following the conference an invite was extended to all participants to submit their papers for an e-publication. At this point the feedback became much more constructive and useful. This publication was very welcome and was something which did not come out of the larger conference. So, I guess, there are advantages and disadvantages to either a big or a small conference.

Tips: I would recommend choosing conferences wisely as there is expense and time commitment involved. Choose a well recognised and well regarded conference in your field. Find out who the plenary speakers will be. Are they people you are interested in hearing speak, or perhaps you would like to meet with them. Arrange this before hand as plenary speakers are often busy during their visit, perhaps they have organised other meetings while they are there or perhaps they cannot stay for the duration of the conference. While there make an effort to meet people working in your own area – informal discussions over lunch or dinner can prove invaluable. And don’t be afraid to ask for contact details if there is something you would like to follow up on. Most importantly, enjoy the experience.

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