Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of My First Academic Conference

‘The Imposter’ Syndrome

We all know about the ‘imposter syndrome’ but I hadn’t imagined how it would manifest itself at my first academic conference.  Who do I think I am, being here amongst all these professors, experienced academics and famous authors I thought.  Yet it happened, I survived it and I am all the better for it!


The Idea

All doctoral students are encouraged to attend conferences as a way of presenting their work, getting feedback, making contacts, and helping their thinking along.  A helpful fellow doctoral student pointed me in the direction of the International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) – an international three day event which, conveniently, was to be held in my home city of Edinburgh in 2018.  Focussed on public value, the link to my local government experience and setting was ideal. The event format, comprised primarily of simultaneous small group informal seminars, is ideal for early stage researchers and the conference actively encourages new researchers and practitioners.

But how could I, an inexperienced researcher, only just into the third year of the doctorate, have the cheek to submit an abstract?  The answer, as my supervisor wisely advised, was to submit a literature review, presented as a thinkpiece.  One advantage of this conference, as I discovered, is that only the abstract, rather than a finished paper is required for the initial submission; as I was then knee deep in my research proposal, that was pure relief.  To my great surprise, then trepidation, the abstract was accepted and suddenly the imposter syndrome began to take hold.

The Writing (and re-writing – ad infinitum)

The real work began in writing the conference paper – 7,000 odd words of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.  Most doctoral students read the manuals, the web posts, the sage advice from wise heads about how to write.  The good and bad habits, the tools and techniques, the barriers, pitfalls … and so on. We make resolutions, we plan, we try to organise ourselves.

The reality of course is somewhat different. I begin with wide-ranging – albeit often irrelevant, if interesting – reading; free writing; rough ideas, doodles and diagrams; incoherence and muddle.  At last a draft is ready. And rewritten and rethought, and rewritten … ad infinitum.  Writers block occurs.  Thoughts and dreams are invaded.  Everything elsewhere in life seems to have a bearing on that dratted paper.  Just as I decide that the reading is well and truly done for the moment; ‘work with the data you’ve got’ advises my engineer husband sensibly – advice ignored as another ‘vital’ paper pops up – changing everything.

At last, and usually in my case an unfeasibly brief timespan before hand-in, it all starts to come together.  Then my adrenalin kicks in and the final week passes in a bubble with minimal sleep, culminating in an all-nighter.  Exactly what all the manuals tell you not to do.  I am usually about 70-80% happy with the result.  I went through this marathon, only to find shortly before submission that the deadline had been extended – a common occurrence I’m told. Cue scream. Never mind, time for numerous further proof-readings.

IRSPM books

The Presentation

I discover that I have a 20 minute slot including Q&A.  (At that point I didn’t appreciate that academic chairs often have a fairly flexible idea of timekeeping.)  Do you need the slides in advance I inquired of the organisers, who replied with a wry laugh that if they got that from the academics, it would be a small miracle.  But bringing the presentation on a memory stick brings its own kind of anxiety, especially as there was to be no technical support.

In my professional life, slides comprised solely of bullet point text are virtually outlawed but are still part and parcel of the standard academic toolkit.  What to do?  I decided on a mix of images and some bullet points but with suitably bright colours, reasoning that discourse analysis is challenging enough without sending the audience to sleep with black and white text.  To avoid my ‘up against the wire’ habits, I arranged a dry run with my supervisory team a week in advance.  As usual, they provided much-needed reassurance, bless them.

In the end, all went well. I revealed my ‘imposter’ fears and the room immediately filled with the warm glow of support.  I even had a full-blown pep talk later about where my research was taking me.  All great stuff from a collegiate and thought-provoking few days.

The Aftermath – Pride, Legitimacy and Belonging

Reflecting on my experience of being a ‘newbie’, I rather liked the feeling of being able to expose my uncertainties and actively canvass advice from experienced academics.  It certainly helped me focus on the language I use for audiences in different theoretical fields, as social constructionist approaches are still relatively rare in policy research. Perhaps most of all, I left feeling well and truly part of an academic as well as a professional community.  In that sense, the reality of being a doctoral candidate really hit home and with it, a sense of pride, legitimacy and belonging.

So, any doctoral students out there wondering whether to take the plunge and submit a conference abstract, I highly recommend going for it!

Next: The Data Funnel (i.e. getting to a coherent research method)

One thought on “Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of My First Academic Conference

  1. Thank you Lesley for another inspirational article.

    For somebody with such a long and distiguished career, how you share your vulnerability here is refreshing.

    An integral factor of excellence is working up the courage meet such vulnerabilties head-on.

    So what you did thoughout this conference process is wonderful; not just for you, but for encouraging others to to pursue what may, often, seem like tasks or projects they feel they are good enough to take on. But with a growth mindset (i.e., hard work, and a positive attitude), it can be done. And you’ll be all the better for it!



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