I have been fortunate to solicit feedback on a few papers in the past year and a half from individuals at several conferences. The range of conference venues includes: the Eastern Sociological Society (ESS) meetings, a research colloquium among four universities, an ASA conference for the Development Sociology subdivision, and the Population Association of America (PAA) meetings. At each of them, it was important to be a professional through and through. This means dressing the part (collared shirt, dress pants, polished shoes, etc.), having business cards (which you can easily get through Printing Services on campus), making new connections with professors, and most importantly, being prepared for your presentation. But each venue provides unique challenges.
For example, PAA is an enormous event and your panel session (or poster session for that matter) will likely be attended by some of the top names in the business. So you will want to have your presentation and timing nailed down, which come through a few practice runs. With many different rooms in which one could present, it is important to figure out which room you are in ahead of time, so that you are not intimidated or surprised at the setting on the day of. At a big conference like PAA, you may receive some harsh criticism of your work, but it is more likely that people attending your session will be really interested in your topic and willing to help you. Look forward to receiving comments—since they will likely come from some very brilliant people—and do not be scared to hear them (keep a notepad on you at all times)!
A smaller venue, like the Development Sociology conference, can have sessions in intimate settings that felt quite welcoming (but this should not equate to relaxed standards in your presentation). The crowds may not be as large, so you may not get as many comments as at a bigger venue or be able to network as much, but the select group of scholars at these conferences will be able to provide some really useful comments that are very specific to your work. I would recommend trying to get into one or two of these if you have not yet presented work on a major stage, since it will serve as a serious, yet hospitable practice run for larger venues.
Each conference has its own style and it is important to “play the game within the game” at these things. Participants at PAA really like seeing your findings, so spend less time presenting on the theoretical development. Participants at smaller venues probably want to see exactly how your contribution is unique within a smaller body of literature, and therefore spending a bit longer on the theoretical development is important! So find out ahead of time from your advisor, or someone who knows the expectations at these conferences, so that you can plan your presentation accordingly.
All in all, it is important to be a professional, enjoy presenting your work, and welcome feedback from conference participants. Throw yourself out there with your research and be open to meeting some new people. Conferences are great opportunities for professional development. Presenting at them will only increase the confidence you have in your research, while simultaneously improving it. They really are win-win situations.
Tyler is a 2nd year Graduate Student