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Behind the Podium: A Graduate Student’s Experience in Presenting a Conference Paper

February 23, 2015

One of the perks of being an Architectural History graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design is having opportunities to step out of the classroom and get some real world professional experience. Recently, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the Ninth Savannah Symposium: The Architecture of Trade.

Glen Umberger (far left) hosts the Graduate Student Roundtable at the 9th Savannah Symposium

Glen Umberger (far left) hosts the Graduate Student Roundtable at the 9th Savannah Symposium

Presenting a paper at an academic conference may sound intimidating and it can be. But it can be very rewarding, too. For me, it was a chance to push myself a bit farther outside my comfort zone.

The process is fairly simple. Most conferences require you to first submit a 300 word abstract on your paper. I chose to frame my paper around a few ideas that I wanted to use for my master’s thesis so writing a short abstract was fairly straightforward. Along with the challenge of writing only 300 words (my first draft was over 750) I was given the following advice: keep it simple, make sure it is interesting and don’t forget to include a clever title.

Once my paper was accepted, the real work began. At the symposium, you only have twenty minutes and you only get one chance to make a good first impression. So, my paper went through numerous drafts (I lost count how many) and I spent a lot of time selecting my PowerPoint slides (more advice here: make sure they are “visually stunning.”)

Of course, you are writing a paper that will be read out loud to an audience, which is a bit different than writing a paper for a professor who will be reading it in the comfort of his office. So, I had to think about my unique speech patterns, making sure to limit architectural jargon and avoid getting tongue-tied over superfluous words.

But, the most important step in the process was rehearsal. I rehearsed my paper in front of a mirror to see how my facial expressions affected what I was saying. I rehearsed with friends, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude and I rehearsed in front of some of our department faculty, whose critique was enormously valuable to get my paper into its final form: fourteen-pages, 3208 words, and almost exactly 20 minutes complete with a polished, professional PowerPoint presentation.

By the time of my session at the symposium, I was well prepared. The night before, I read my paper one last time before going to sleep and then didn’t look at it again until I was standing at the podium, in front of professional colleagues and friends who wanted me to succeed.

I should mention that no matter how much preparation you do, always expect the unexpected, or just remember the Boy Scout’s motto, “be prepared!” Try to think of everything that could possibly go wrong and try to anticipate a solution ahead of time.

At the end of the day, the success of my paper gave me good feedback for my thesis and confidence I can take to the next conference.

(Editor’s Note: Glen Umberger is currently an M.F.A. student in the Architectural History program at SCAD.)

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