From Nerves to Elation: A Student’s Account of Her First Conference

Today we have a guest post from one of our final year students!  Kate Crompton was lucky enough to be able to present her dissertation research at the Welsh Centre for Crime and Social Justice Conference which took place on the 30th April and 1st May 2013. Kate’s talk was entitled ‘The myth of relational security: Invalidity of staff perceptions of patients attachment style’ and explored the inter-rater reliability of staff assessment of patients attachment style in a medium secure unit.  Her findings indicated that the validity of the concept of attachment styles, as it is applied to people suffering from severe mental illness, is questionable. Inconsistencies in staff perceptions of attachment style will invariably act as an impediment to achieving relational security.

The first time attending an academic conference can be a nervous experience, especially if presenting, but is a worthwhile event allowing you to meet researchers working on similar projects and discuss current research.  What follows is a personal and chronological account by Kate of presenting at conference, followed by a few words from Andy Watt, her dissertation supervisor and fellow conference attendee:

7am – Beginning the Day

After fueling up on coffee, it was time to get my bags packed. In hindsight, it would have been better to do this the night before, especially if you’re like me and apparently travel as though preparing for a zombie apocalypse. After, checking, rechecking, unpacking, repacking, furiously stuffing just one more change of outfit in my bag, you know, ‘just in case’, I was out the door and heading towards the bus stop.  

To those of you reading this, here is lesson 1 – pack early and save yourself early morning stress.

9.30am – The Journey

Whilst waiting to meet with my supervisor Andy, I have a slight sense of panic about the amount of luggage I seem to have amassed.  We loaded up the car with my over-night bags (note the plural) and it was time to head off to the depths of the beautiful Welsh countryside of Powys. What surprised me about the journey was how startlingly beautiful the Welsh countryside is. Admittedly, I haven’t taken advantage of what Wales has to offer since starting university and now I’m coming to the end of my stay here, I really wish I had.

Lesson 2 – explore Wales.

12 noon – Arrival

The most striking thing upon arriving at our destination, Gregynog Hall, was the gardens. The hall is set in 750 acres of Grade 1 listed gardens. Land complete with lily ponds, giant water fountains, landscaped and wild gardens. A horticulturalist’s dream! I’ve honestly never been anywhere quite like it before – breathtaking is the only word for it.

Gregynog Grounds

Gregynog Hall is over 400 years old and looks exactly like something out of a Tudor historical drama. The building from an architectural perspective is stunning. Indeed, I feel distinctly underdressed in the shadow of such a grand house. At this point I’m beginning to think I should have packed a bonnet and bustle. However, it does hide a great secret. The hall had a facelift at the beginning of the 20th Century. The owners, two sisters whom inherited wealth from the family business of mining and concrete, effectively rendered the house and commissioned the lattice ‘Tudor’ designs, which you can see in the pictures, to be painted to the exterior. It’s quite the juxtaposition.  Although it doesn’t detract from its charm one iota.  

Greygynog House

Due to us arriving slightly later than planned, there wasn’t time to take for us to take luggage to the rooms. However, we had time to pick the keys up and our welcome packs. Fueled by the excitement of such an amazing opportunity, I throw myself into mingling and exchanging pleasantries with anyone in my vicinity. I quickly learned that everyone was absolutely lovely and very approachable; I feel much more at ease about my impending presentation.

12.30pm – Lunch

Then it was time for lunch. This was the first real opportunity to get to know the other attendees in more depth. It is fascinating listening to the plethora of things people have accomplished, what they’re working on, what their goals are. One thing that was a clear common denominator between them all was their drive and passion for their work. The abundance of different research opportunities and potential directions there are out there is immense.

Lesson 3: Talk to people about their career and research, you’re likely to discover there is a lot more out there than you would first imagine. NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK.

1.30pm – Down to Business

After digesting the welcome pack, which was armed with titles and abstracts, it was time to work out what I wanted to see. The presentation schedule was jam packed, with two parallel sessions running simultaneously. It was difficult to choose between presentations as there was so much to choose from. In the first session it was a choice between the following topics; ‘Criminal Justice and Penal Practice’ or ‘Criminology & International Justice’. Andy and I opted for the former. Both presentations were excellent. I realised there was no real right or wrong way to presenting; it’s all about your personal style and method of delivery. However, just as I was basking in a sense of security, it was time for the question section at the end of the final presentation. In my eyes, one of the presenters received a bit of a ‘roasting’ from one audience member. This sent me into a blind panic about the questions I might be asked. Do I know the ins and outs of my methodology? What if they pick holes in what I have done? Oh God, now I have forgotten what the title even is and so on. As it turned out the audience member and the presenter had a friendly intellectual rivalry going on, and I was panicking about nothing. Lesson 4: If presenting, don’t freak out because of what others are doing, you will do as well as you will do! Then it was time to change over to the other conference room for the second session which as it turned out was being chaired by my supervisor Andy.

It was sometime during the second session regarding ‘Young People, Justice and Community Safety’, that I noticed a change to the programme. My presentation had been moved from the next day to in just 45 minutes time. If I wasn’t stressed before, I certainly was now! My mind is running in circles, my mouth is dry and I had far too much adrenaline is surging through my veins; where is my presentation? On my USB stick, where is the USB stick? Among the hoard of bags. Where are the hoard of bags? In Andy’s boot still. Oh God. Hopefully, by this point you can understand my mental state.

Andy brought the session to a close and I high-tailed it over to him to inform him of the developments. Definitely time to run to the car. Luckily I had printed out my slides the night before so I had a hard copy to go through in, what I believed at the time, was my leisure. With Andy looking on in amusement, I start whittling away to myself running over and over what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it etc. I must add that Andy was a particularly calming influence and had the patience of a saint. I know my study back to front; I have lived and breathed my project for the past 8 months. I knew my slides also, I had practiced them on numerous occasions so what was I worrying about? Armed with my USB stick and slides, we start the journey back to the conference…

Lesson 5: presentation schedules can be subject to last minute change, check and check again that you know for definite when your presentation is.

4.15pm – Presentation Time

My presentation was the final one of session 3, under the main topic of ‘Violence Research’. With two presentations before mine, there was plenty of time for me to sit and ruminate about what I was going to say, how I was going to say it etc.  Suddenly, I hear my name being called and I head up to the front with shaky hands and shaky knees.  I started out by telling the audience that it was my first conference, in a bid to explain my nerves and I was off. The introduction was a bit of a blur and I think my nerves were running rife at the time. However, by the time I was explaining my methodology I had settled into it and the rest flowed relatively smoothly. Well in my opinion at least. Although it was a 20 minute presentation, it felt like I was up there for 5 minutes. Before I knew it, the presentation was over, people were clapping and then came the bit I had been dreading the most… QUESTIONS. As it turned out I could answer all the questions directed to me. Nobody gave me a ‘grilling’ I hasten to add, people were just curious about the study. One woman commented that I came across really well. To which I got bashful and overly thankful.

Lesson 6: Practice going over your introduction slides, as the quicker you can settle into what you’re doing the quicker the nerves will subside and the happier you will be.

As I was the last presenter everyone started to leave as I was packing away. A few people came over to me to give me compliments/comments. I left feeling elated; after all the nerves and fears that I wouldn’t be able to do it, I was really proud to be able to say that I did it and it was apparently well received by the audience. There really is no feeling quite like it; it is definitely a worthwhile experience, and a brilliant learning experience. I would highly recommend that if you get the opportunity you grab it with both hands and give it a go!             


Reflections from an old timer

Kate really rose to the challenge of giving her first conference presentation and so impressed the audience that many in the audience thought that she was one of my PhD students!  Sitting and watching Kate give her presentation took me back to my very first talk and I re-experienced some of the anxiety that is natural in those kinds of situations, butterflies in the stomach, hypervigilance, dry mouth etc.  It felt as though the questions were being directed at me and I was taken back to 1988 and the Annual Conference of The Irish Psychological Society in Trinity College Dublin where, like Kate, I presented the findings from my final year dissertation.  The title of my talk was “Concurrent behaviour under a recycling conjunctive schedule of reinforcement”.  I stumbled through an impenetrable talk on the establishment of stereotypical behavioural patterns in rats.  You must appreciate that this was the days before powerpoint, in fact desktop computers had only just become a common site on Lecturer’s desks.  My talk was a blurry mass of transparencies, presented largely upside down or back to front on an overhead projector, my mouth was like the Sahara and it felt like I was talking in a whisper.  I can still recall trying (in vain) to control the shaking of my hands as I swapped chaotically from one slide to another.  My memories of the very beginning of my academic career remain extremely vivid and, rather perversely, I cherish them.  I am sure they will endure in the same way for Kate, and everybody else who has ever given a conference presentation.  The intensity of the emotions that we experience play a central and enduring role in our biographical memories and, in some senses, influence both the paths that we decide to take and the people that we become.

Final Lesson – Take a chance, it might be for you, even if you don’t think that it is!  If I hadn’t taken that leap and given the talk, if I hadn’t persevered and learned to manage my nerves, then I would never have gone down my current personal path.  I wouldn’t have become interested in publishing my work, I wouldn’t have gone to any of the excellent departments where I have worked or met any of the truly great people I have shared ideas with.  I wouldn’t now be working with a great group of colleagues or teaching and supervising such a great bunch of students.  I would have a completely different set of interests and, most likely, I would not have the freedom to pursue my personal research interests.  I am still passionate about Experimental Psychology, I am still fascinated by the interplay between emotion and cognition.  On reflection, I think I made the right choice and hope to be in the audience when Kate gives her next talk.