Presenting your research findings to others is a central task of the professional social scientist. Ideally, presenting at a conference both disseminates your findings and moves your research along towards publication for an even wider audience. A conference presentation should allow you to practice presenting your ideas to an audience, provide valuable comments on your research, and connect you with others interested in your topic.
The major annual sociology conferences include The American Sociological Association Annual Meetings, The Society for the Study of Social Problems Annual Meetings, and the various regional sociological associations (e.g., The Midwestern Sociological Association, The Eastern Sociological Association, The Pacific Sociological Association). In addition, sociologists present at a number of specialized conferences nationally and internationally.
Generally, anyone can be considered for a conference by answering the "call for papers" and submitting a full paper or an abstract to the appropriate organizer. Most of our national conferences have deadlines for submissions in late December or early January. You cannot get on the program without submitting your work for review on or before these deadlines.
Information on these conferences and where to find their specific "call for papers" is listed below. You may also find information on a variety of other conferences in the "Meetings" section of ASA's FOOTNOTES or The Chronicle of Higher Education.
What You Should Do
- Identify a piece of research that you have completed or will complete before the submission deadline (While theoretical and review pieces are sometimes accepted, the preference at most sociology conferences seems to be for original empirical work).
- Review the call for papers for an appropriate session or two (You are allowed, for example, to make two submissions of the same piece to ASA). You should look for the "best fit" session. (e.g., If you recognize the organizer as a sociologist that you cite frequently in your research, this may work to your advantage!).
- Prepare the paper (or abstract) for submission. The paper you send should be as polished as possible. It should also include an abstract. (Ask a faculty mentor or peer to provide a careful review of your paper).
- Write a cover letter to send with your paper. The letter should be no more than one page in length. (Ask a faculty mentor for help with this if needed).
- Fill out the Submission Cover Sheet (if one is available for the particular conference). Include your e-mail address.
- Include a self-addressed stamped postcard for notification of "receipt." The organizer should be able to simply drop the postcard in the mail to you. Don't ask for feedback at this point in the selection process.
- Send the paper off to the organizer in a timely fashion. If you can get it out well before the deadline, do so.
After your paper has been accepted and scheduled, you should...
- Rework your paper for presentation. Generally, papers should not be simply read aloud. Rewrite the paper for a verbal presentation. You might, for example, work on adding some folksy or humorous verbal transitions, choose some sections to be read verbatim and others to "talk through," or plan for moments where you will make eye contact with individual audience members. (A rule of thumb: plan on no more than one page per minute).
- Construct any handouts or overheads to be used in your presentation . These should be clear and easy to read (as a general rule, avoid any fonts under 15 points in size). A Rule of Thumb: No more than one overhead per minute-less is more!
- Think about the consequences of using your visual aids—will the audience spend too much time rustling through a handout and miss the finer nuances of your argument? If so, pare them down to a minimalist format.
- In general, you should not include too much information on overheads or handouts: provide main points or an outline to assist your audience, but don't include all the details!
- Remember: Not all visual aids are textual. Perhaps you have an image or an object that helps illustrate your particular case (e.g., a magazine cover, an advertisement, a t-shirt).
- Practice and time your presentation . You should work on your presentation and presentation skills before the actual conference. Many presentations are ruined by poor planning (e.g., If you run out of time, you won't get your major ideas/arguments out there in an effective way).
- Plan your outfit. You should plan to dress "professionally" for your presentation. For an academic conference, business casual is appropriate—slacks and collared shirts, comfortable shoes. Remember to wear a watch—you need to monitor your presentation time.
- Plan to bring business cards . Networking is, in some ways, the raison d'être for conferences.
- Etiquette Rule of Thumb: Plan to attend at least two other sessions in addition to your session. It's discouraging to present to an empty room. Be courteous by listening as well as speaking.
What to Expect:
- The set up. Most sessions are held in hotel conference rooms. The speakers are generally seated at a table in the front facing the audience. In most cases, there will be water and glasses set up for the speakers. You can also expect to have an overhead projector available at most conferences, but I wouldn't count on the availability of higher tech presentation equipment!
- The Process. In most cases the organizer of the session (or an appointed moderator) will introduce the session and the speakers. Typically, a podium is available. You will also be alerted to the time-keeper, who will hold up a card alerting you to how many minutes you have left in your allotted presentation time (generally at the 5, 3, and 1 minute markers). Be sure to acknowledge (non-verbally with a nod) that you have seen the time cards.
- Question and Answer. Some sessions have been appointed a discussant. (The discussant reads all of the papers prior to the conference and constructs some general comments pulling together themes across the papers and providing a critique of each individual paper). Others sessions simply have a moderator who fields questions from the audience for the panelists.
- Q & A period as opportunity for intellectual engagement. The best questions are those that find something interesting in the work and ask for an elaboration or clarification. My advice for good behavior is to find something that you liked about the presentation and help the researcher develop his/her ideas further.
- Q & A period as opportunity for inclusiveness. Sometimes one presentation sparks more interest than others do. Rise to the challenge and ask a question of the presenter(s) being left out of the discussion.
- Q & A period as an opportunity to ask "attack" questions. Don't rise to the bait. Answer the question and move on. As an audience member, don't do it.
- Q & A period as an opportunity to "present research from the floor." This is a generally a despised practice. If the audience member wanted to present their research, they should have submitted it to the organizers. (When you're an audience member, don't do it!)