If the name makes it sound intimidating, it’s because it is. The World Congress of the International Sociological Association (ISA) is held every four years and is an undeniably huge event. This year it was held at the Metro Toronto Convention Center in Toronto, Canada from 15 to 21 July.
I sent my abstract off for the RC52 research committee on the Sociology of Professional Groups back in 2017 and was delighted to have it accepted for an oral presentation. It was only much closer to the event itself that I began to realise just how big it was. I found out that I would be presenting at 8:30 in the morning on the Thursday – day four of the conference – and that there would be approximately fifty parallel sessions that morning. This conference had its own app and an opening ceremony. It was at that opening ceremony that I found out there would be 5000+ attendees from 100+ countries, and 1200+ talks and panels over the six days. Needless to say, I was a little daunted, not just by the thought of presenting at such a thing, but simply by attending it.
There was a cruel/funny symmetry to the towering buildings of central Toronto, its famous CN tower, and how I felt walking into the convention centre: small. I was glad to be presenting later in the week, as it gave me the chance to get to know my way around, get over the jetlag, and practise my presentation. My talk was pretty much a summary of what I had done so far in my PhD, so I knew it well. But this was my first “proper” conference and I wanted to reduce my nerves by feeling comfortable with the material. So, practise I did! Thursday came around quickly. I left the hotel extra early and made it to the convention centre in good time, with a copy of my presentation on a USB, and my laptop just in case. I introduced myself to the panel chairs and other speakers, transferred my presentation to the computer, and tried to stay calm. Despite the early start, it wasn’t a bad turnout. After a brief introduction by one of the panel chairs, I got up in front of all these seasoned (so it appeared to me!) academics and did my presentation. None of the worst case scenarios I’d been playing out in my mind happened. In fact, I had a positive and curious response from the audience, panel chairs and other speakers. Success!
I spent my last few days in Toronto making the most of the conference and city feeling much more relaxed. While I was there, I thought about the main things I’d take away from the experience that would be useful for future large conferences, and that might encourage other PGRs to take the plunge themselves:
1) Practise to time – I don’t want to say much about presenting, since that can easily be its own post, but I will say this: if you’re presenting, practise your presentation to time. So many people (including some of those seasoned academics I mentioned) are far too ambitious with the amount they think they can say in 15/20/30 mins. Practise to time and the panel chair will be grateful. Getting your timing right will also help you feel less nervous, since you know you’ve got just the right amount of content.
2) Plan – with hundreds of talks to choose from, you’ve got to do some planning or you’ll see very little. You might think “oh, I can just pop in and see what’s happening.” Unfortunately, “just popping in” when there are sessions across eight different floors and who knows how many rooms isn’t as simple as you might think. Think about who/what you want to see and make a schedule.
3) Be flexible – because you might get the chance to speak to an academic whose work you admire or maybe you’ll find out about impromptu lunchtime/evening social events. Conferences are for networking after all! Mark down all the unmissable things you want to do in your schedule and let yourself be flexible otherwise.
4) Business cards – get them printed, hand them out like sweets.
5) Tweet – Twitter is great for networking: you might make some contacts that you meet in “real-life” at the conference; you might find out about interesting and relevant research you didn’t get a chance to see; and you just might get in on an informal social event. Get tweeting.
6) Be realistic and enjoy it – you can’t attend everything, you’ll get conference fatigue and your brain won’t take anything in. Fit strategically timed breaks into your schedule to give yourself a chance to actually enjoy the event.
Despite my nerves and apprehensions, I thoroughly enjoyed the ISA’s World Congress 2018. I saw some fascinating papers that will contribute to my own research; I got to hear what international scholars in my field thought of my work; I spoke to some engaging and inspirational academics; and I got see Toronto. It was a huge confidence boost to have academics with no vested interest in me or my project give me positive feedback. I got some ideas of where I can take my research, if not now, then in the future, and some thoughts to reflect on as I move forward with my project. If you get the chance to speak at a big conference (or a small one), take it. You might be terrified, if, like me, you’re not a natural public speaker at the best time of times. But I’ve come out of it feeling energised and eager to get on with my work, at least partly so I can have more to say and can contribute to these discussions. Next time you see a call for papers that looks relevant, write an abstract. Break out of your bubble every now and then, it’s worth it.
Emma Seddon is a Sociology PhD student at Newcastle and co-convenor for the BSA PGForum.