Leaving the Ivory Tower

At some point in your academic career you will have to put yourself out there. Being an introvert myself even typing this, let alone offering some sort of advice, feels very odd. While I secretly yearn for the life of a medieval monk happily copying manuscripts in a secluded monastery, I have come to admit that my supervisor is probably right when she tells me I need to network and that being a smart workaholic is not enough.

Over the past four years I have participated in four international conferences, of which I also organised one, and one national conference. Furthermore I have assisted my supervisor in organising a major international conference at our university and I am currently one of the organisers of an up-coming international conference. I have been on both sides of the table, actively answering calls for papers, being invited to speak and now reading and choosing proposals to our own conference.

Now, first things first. I have lazily summarised all of my networking action as ‚conference‘ – a meeting of academics, historians in my case, in order to discuss a certain topic. There are different levels to this basic principle.

Level 1: the colloquium

This one strikes me as a rather German form of getting together. A colloquium is a regular meeting of students, ranging from Bachelor to grad students, post-Docs and professors. It is usually limited to members of one department with the occasional exception for guests. The idea behind this is to offer the opportunity for regular feedback on current work. Some people present their idea for their Master’s thesis, others have the group read a chapter of their PhD thesis and so on. The point here is that all of this is work in progress. The colloquium is a place for seeking help, ideas and advice – or at least it should be. Compared to the next levels this one required very little preparation and is a good place to practice semi-public speaking.

Level 2: the (graduate) workshop

Workshops are a nice way of leaving the safety of one’s own department or university and meeting strangers, sometimes even on an international scale. For many researchers workshops are also the first time of presenting in English. Compared to the colloquium, workshops need more preparation which may include writing an abstract in English or translating a part of one’s work, or a PowerPoint Presentation (for some reason these are frowned upon as way too fancy in the colloquia I attend regularly).

The most important contrast, however, is that workshops tend to be one-time-only events, meaning my audience has no idea what I am working on. Therefore, the introduction to my current project is key. If I fail to summarise in a few sentences what it is that I am doing I will probably loose my audience after the first few minutes. Unlike a presentation in a colloquium the presentation in a workshop needs a concise introduction that covers the basics: the general topic of my research, my questions and thesis, my sources and a brief summary of the historical context.

Depending on who participates the historical context can be briefly summarised. If I present my project on Conversos and Moriscos in 16th century Spain to an audience of experts on Early Modern Spain, I can safely assume they know what was going on in Spain in that century. I can focus on the details, for example a phenomenon in a certain city or a specific group of people, or a specific event. If I present the same project to an audience of historians specialised in Jewish history, I will have to tell them the basic facts about 16th century Spain that do not pertain to Jewish history.

Of course, I can never be sure how much they know about a certain period. The general rule of thumb is: the more specific the title of the conference, the sooner I can delve into the thick of my project. That also means: The broader the topic (Annual Conference for Early Modern History, for example) the more time I need to spend on setting the stage. Personally I am rather safe than sorry. There is no harm in repeating something.

Level 3: the conference

The trend to hold conferences specifically for young researchers emerged recently. I am a great supporter of this for various reasons – but university politics and academic gate-keeping are a topic for another time.

What I want to talk about are ‚real‘ conferences for ‚real‘ scholars. You know, the fancy gatherings of tenured professors and established researchers. These conferences are both terrifying and fascinating. Fascinating because you get the chance to actually see the people whose books you cite all the time. Terrifying because as of last week I know I will be presenting my PhD project at one of these conferences in autumn. Though being invited is only a part of what scares me, namely disappointing my supervisor who opened this particular door for me. And making an utter fool of myself, of course.

Apart from that the format itself kicked up my performance anxiety. My presentation will have to be twice as long as usual. There will be a publication. I will have to send in my paper in advance. They asked for a PowerPoint which I loathe because I get so focused in talking – speaking loudly and clearly, slowing my pace, not tripping over words and so on – that I simply forget everything else.

And then there is the difference in what is expected of me. These conferences are not the place for work in progress or putting a problem up for discussion (meaning asking for advice regarding said problem). This is the place to confidently present my research – my thesis and my findings. It feels like levelling up from ‚I think this is how it worked‘ to ‚This is how it worked and here is the evidence I found in my sources‘.

Perhaps the challenge really lies in the fact that a conference needs both a good paper and a good performance whereas colloquia and workshops focus more on the papers and are forgiving with regard to how they are presented.

I guess I will see in autumn whether there is supporting evidence to this assumption.

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