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Deep Breaths: Conference Anxiety as a Graduate Student

As a graduate student, one of the most frequent emails I receive is from faculty advertising calls for papers. At UNC Charlotte, professors heavily encourage students to attend and present at conferences. Conferences are an enormous part of academia and allow scholars to share and hone their research. For graduate students, conferences can provide important experience, yet they are often costly and difficult to attend. When combined, the high cost, schedule disruptions, and an all-too-common case of imposter syndrome coupled with anxiety may lead graduate students to forego conferences altogether.


As a student, I have struggled with the anxiety of being among "real historians" and presenting my own research, but have found that the experience is not nearly as scary as it appears. If you are not sure what to expect or cannot bring yourself to submit for a conference and need help overcoming your nerves or uncertainty, this post is for you. While conference anxiety can be hard to manage, attending is well worth the effort and usually proves to be an academically enriching and even a fun experience.


The primary purpose of conferences is to serve as forums of intellectual exchange where historians share ongoing work and other attendees provide important (and usually collegial) critiques. As a graduate student, conference presentation is the best way to get broader feedback about your work from outside of your department. It allows you to put forward your arguments and find ways to improve them, as well as connect with established historians who can help guide and provide insights that might otherwise be limited. However, even if you know how beneficial conferences are, these events can be daunting and presenting is often accompanied by deep anxiety.


The easiest way to familiarize yourself with a forum that can feel very closed off (especially for a graduate student), is to first attend conferences without the pressure of presenting. While you are likely already familiar with peer reviews and hearing your classmates discuss their work, watching others present their research in a more formal setting is a great way to figure out how you want to present your own. Preparation also helps curb anxiety. Look at programs ahead of time and identify panels in which you are most interested. While presenters are speaking, take a few notes of things that most interest you and come up with a question or two. Even if you do not have a chance to ask your question during the panel, you can use them later if you later run into a presenter or to start a conversation with other attendees. Casual discussions that take place outside of panels are also a great way to build connections, as many established historians will know someone who might be working on something similar or know of sources of which you might not be aware. I have found myself on more than one occasion engrossed in conversation for an hour or longer when I expected no more than a few moments of small talk.


Outside of panels and chance encounters, there are also numerous conference-hosted opportunities to connect with others. Every major conference I have attended has had a “meet and greet” for graduate students. They are a great way to meet other students, commiserate on shared frustrations, or gain extra perspective on how different programs operate. It is especially helpful if you, like me, are in a terminal master’s program and are looking to move up to the Ph.D. level. You can ask about faculty support, funding, and get an inside perspective on what life would look like at that university. While experiences vary across graduate programs, you will find that many other students share similar experiences and it can be helpful to build friendships with people that understand the struggles that all too many graduate students experience – from mental health to workload. Not to mention, those same people will be ready to celebrate your victories along the way, too.


Finally, remember that you are not alone. My first presentation was at a small university-hosted conference. I stood at a lectern in front of more than two dozen strangers as well as family members and shook like a leaf the entire time. Yet, when I finished my presentation, none of my fears came true. I answered a couple of questions going more in-depth about my topic and then it was over. Days of worry led me to believe that I was going to fail, yet I didn’t. NACBS 2023 was my fourth presentation and I still experienced a lot of the same feelings, but they were far more muted and I was able to discuss my research confidently. If faculty or other students have encouraged you to submit for a conference and you think it is too much, know that some of the most experienced historians felt exactly the same way and went on to have excellent careers. There is no shame in being nervous, but don’t let it stop you from sharing your work!


Our faculty tell us over and over to go to conferences, how important it is for our careers, and that it looks great on a CV. All of those things are true, but I have found that the most persuasive voices are those of fellow students who don’t have years of conference experience. By reading this, hopefully you feel a little better prepared for what can be an intimidating event. While it will not ease all the anxiety, knowing how conferences work and how to prepare for them takes a lot of the pressure off and allows you to enjoy yourself and get the most out of your conference experience. Now all that’s left is to do it. Submit that proposal or register for that conference. Most importantly, have fun doing it.


 

Katie Cordell is a second-year master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She serves as the UNC Charlotte Graduate History Association President and is Editorial Assistant for First World War Studies. In her free time, she can be found playing video games.


 

The views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the original author/s and do not necessarily represent the views of the North American Conference on British Studies. The NACBS welcomes civil and productive discussion in the comments below. Our blog represents a collegial and conversational forum, and the tone for all comments should align with this environment. Insulting or mean comments will not be tolerated and NACBS reserves the right to delete these remarks and revoke the commenter’s site membership.

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