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Preparing for the annual conference: Presentation, networking, choosing sessions, and saving money

Elif Burhan-Horasanlı

University of Arizona

American Association for Applied Linguistics Conference is one of the largest conventions in the North American context. I would first like to congratulate you on being chosen for the conference and I wish you all good luck with your presentation and conference experience. In this blog post, I will briefly refer to some of the conference experiences that I gained since the 2016 AAAL conference and share some tips on how to get the most out of the conference experience. I provide some ideas for getting ready for the conference presentation, networking, and ways of saving money. I hope you enjoy reading it!

Tips for the conference presentations process

As the first step, I would recommend you to start working on the conference presentation as early as possible. As we all know, conference presentations, whether a poster or a paper presentation, are multimodal genres. If you will deliver a poster presentation, you can choose a poster template with high resolution and present your work with a clear font. I would also recommend you to pay attention to the font size. The audience should be able to read the content easily from close. Moreover, you can practice a five-minute talk to summarize the key points of your poster presentation, which would help you navigate your audience. If you would like to hear more tips on preparing poster presentations, you can check the link to a short video that I left below. Last but not least, I would like to remind you that poster presentations provide you a larger time chunk in which you can discuss the questions and suggestions of your audience in detail. Therefore, they do provide a rich research and presentation experience.

If you will deliver a paper presentation, I would recommend you to have a clear and concise PowerPoint which will be supported with oral talk. For paper presentations, each paper presentation has 20 minutes for the talk and includes a 10-minute questions and answers (Q&A) session. For us, novice scholars, it might be difficult to condense and present our projects in the allocated time. Therefore, it might be helpful to plan and prepare the presentation, at least the PowerPoint slides, ahead of time. During the planning process, it is important to keep in mind creating a narrative of the project to engage the audience with your presentation. Therefore, I would recommend you to devote some time to think of some ways to think of how the research gap resonates with the research motivations and who the project might speak to. As graduate students, we most of the time try to spend most of our time on the literature review section because we want to show the audience that we know the research landscape. However, we should keep the literature review section brief and allocate more time to show the novelties of our data, research findings, and the discussion. If you have some questions about your research project, it is okay to approach the projects as works in progress and seek recommendations from the audience. At the end of the blog post, I refer to some chapters from Michael Guest’s (2018) book Conferencing and Presentation English for Young Academics. Those chapters might be helpful to understand the role and purpose of conference presentations.

Once you have a draft of your presentation, it might be helpful to have presentation practice sessions with your peers and professors. My Ph.D. program offers practice sessions for conferences at which students and professors listen to students’ talks, ask questions, and give feedback. If there is one at yours, I would highly encourage you to participate in those sessions and rehearse your talk. If it is not offered or if you prefer to practice your presentation in a less stressful environment, you can form a group with your peers. In previous years, I also sought peer feedback and received insightful ideas, and suggestions from my friends, Dr. Rachel LaMance, Dr. Adriana Picoral, and Dr. Bruna Sommer-Farias; I have always been grateful for their thought-provoking comments and questions. I would like to add that while forming your peer groups you can consider working with friends who are committed to collaborative and supportive group dynamics and who believe that graduate school is a space to promote collaboration rather than competition.

Finally, I would also recommend you to back-up and store your PowerPoint slides in multiple locations. Once you arrive at the conference hotel, it would be helpful to set up and test your computer in the presentation room beforehand to prevent possible technical problems. My last suggestion is about the Q&A session. If you have a friend watching your presentation, you can ask them to take notes about the questions and suggestions so that you can revisit them after your presentation.

Tips for choosing conference sessions

The AAAL conference usually offers a “Newcomers’ Session” in which scholars inform the first time attendees about the conference application, presentation formats (e.g., paper presentations, plenaries, roundtable discussions, etc.), and provide tips on choosing conference sessions. The session usually takes place on Fridays; the day before the first day of the conference. I would also recommend this introductory session as an important venue to get ready for the conference experience.

The AAAL conference is always home to numerous presentations that share groundbreaking research projects. Therefore, I always find it challenging to choose which sessions to attend. To organize my conference schedule, I first download the conference app and skim through the conference abstracts that align with my research interests. When I find the sessions that I would like to attend, I add them to my conference schedule. That gives me an overview of my daily plans. Sometimes, I see some overlaps in the sessions I chose. In that case, I go back to the conference abstracts and make my final decision. Moreover, it is okay to not attend every session, and to me, it is more important to digest and reflect on your take-aways from the presentations.

Tips for networking

One of the expected outcomes of our conference experience is networking. The AAAL Graduate Student Council has been organizing online webinars in order not only to help us prepare for our conference presentations but also to network with fellow graduate students and scholars. One of these webinars occurred in 2018 with the invited speakers Dr. Suresh Canagarajah, Dr. Paul Kei Matsuda, and Dr. Tim McNamara. Below, you can find the link to the webinar and its summary. I believe that whether it is your first or second time at the AAAL conference, the webinar would still be a helpful source to learn and revisit some of those key suggestions for conference preparation and networking.

As graduate students, we might feel insecure while networking and find it difficult to approach and communicate with other scholars. To help with the networking process, the Graduate Student Council organizes Conference Connections for graduate students. The goal of this service is to help you meet with a scholar who works in your field. The Council releases a sign-up sheet in which they ask you whether you would like to meet with scholars over a coffee break or invite them to your presentation. Last year, I participated in conference connections for the first time and had the chance to meet with Dr. Jim McKinley. We talked about both my conference experience and the dissertation project, and he introduced me to some of his colleagues. Similarly, my friends also met with other scholars through Conference Connections and this opportunity gave them the chance to organize and deliver a workshop with their AAAL mentor after the conference. This year, the AAAL Graduate Student Council released the conference connections sign-up sheet in January. If you missed it, don’t get upset. You can sign up next year!

As another networking strategy, you might want to reach out to scholars prior to the conference. If their schedules are available, you might set up a coffee break or invite them to your presentations. You can also go over the conference schedule and reach out to scholars who work in a similar field. However, I would like to remind that conferences are busy events for everyone. It is important to understand, appreciate, and respect everyone’s time and plans. Besides these, there are also some social events that take place in the evenings. I would encourage you to attend those happy hours and social gatherings and meet with scholars and fellow graduate students.

Last but not the least, the AAAL Graduate Student Council has conference planning sub-committees which organize lunch and evening events for graduate students. This year, there will be a lunch event on “Balancing the Holistic Experience of Being a Graduate Student” on the 28th of March. We will also hold an evening event on “Developing Strategies for Publishing and Interviewing Along the Way to the Job Market” on the 30th of March and host scholars that work in industry and academia. You can register for those events, network with scholars and fellow graduate students, and start to build your AAAL community. In the future, you can also consider volunteering for the AAAL Graduate Student Committee and have the chance to learn and contribute to improving the conference practices.

As my final note for the networking tips, I would like to remind you that these are some of the available options. You should consider all of them and choose the strategies you would feel comfortable with, and then plan your conference schedule accordingly.

Available options to save some money

I would like to end the blog post with some tips on saving money. We all know that even though we receive some travel grants from our institutions, attending a conference still costs beyond our budgets. There are two ways through which you can save. First, you can volunteer for the conference and not only get a refund of your registration fee but also have an additional chance to network with your peers. However, the volunteer sign-up sheet fills in quickly, so you need to act fast and sign up for the very first available spot the moment sign-up sheet is released! Second, AAAL Graduate Council offers roommate finder service, and if you haven’t organized a place to stay with your peers, you can find a roommate, share your room and/or place and save some money!

Book chapters on conference presentations:

Guest, M. (2018). Conferencing and Presentation English for Young Academics (Springer Texts in Education). Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Chapters 2, 4, 7, and 8 would be helpful.

Link to the poster presentations video

Link to the conference tips and networking strategies webinar

Links to graduate student events:

Link to the roommate finder service:

Link to the AAAL 2020 Conference introduction


I would like to thank Dr. Rachel LaMance, Dr. Adriana Picoral, Dr. Bruna Sommer-Farias, and Nicole King for their feedback on the earlier discussions and versions of this blog post.

Elif Burhan-Horasanlı is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching Program at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on academic discourse socialization, second language writing, and reflective practice.

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