‘A day in the life’: first conference

We’ve asked our #DataImpactFellows to share a day in their life. 

Stuart Campbell shares about the first time he presented at a conference.


The first conference I went to was early on in my PhD. It was at a very classy venue and we were given a nice lunch by the organisers (and that counts!).

I always feel lucky to be able to go to conferences, especially in cities where I haven’t been before.

It can be intimidating to meet new people working in your area, but making the effort to talk to people seems like a small price to pay for the incredible luxury of being able to do these things as part of your job.

I remember talking to someone about the differences in attrition rates between Labour Force Surveys in different European countries, and thinking that it wasn’t a conversation you could have at every social event.

I also remember explaining to him that my research wasn’t very good yet and he shouldn’t come to my presentation. I did say I was optimistic that my work would improve in the future. I hope it has.

My presentation

My presentation was on the first afternoon.

Looking back, I think I would have designed my slides differently as I don’t think they looked professional enough. I’ve also learned to include better data visualisations than the ones I included. I did have a slide with a map on it which people seemed to enjoy looking at, and one lesson I took away was that all presentations should have at least one map if possible.

I’m lucky that I don’t usually get anxious about presenting or speaking in public as I know some people do. I’ve also got a pretty loud presenting voice which I am sure helps to convince people that what I’m saying is wise and correct. I saw one well-known academic in my field arrive and I took this as a sign that my paper had a good title.

I only had one person interrupt me when I was presenting to ask a question. At the time, I didn’t know that was a thing but as it turns out, it is normal in these types of conferences and seminars, and really I should perhaps have been more concerned that I was only interrupted once. It’s nice to have questions because it shows people are paying attention and care about your research.

Getting questions from smart people who are trying to engage with your work is one of the real benefits of being able to go to conferences. It’s a nice feeling and the feedback can be very useful. When you are working on a project alone or with a small number of other people, it’s not always easy to spot bits that need extra explanation, or parts which might seem counterintuitive to others.

Being a discussant

I was also asked to act as discussant for another presenter’s paper at this conference, which is tough when you are just entering a field and don’t have particularly good awareness of the whole literature or what is happening in the most recent research. It may not have been the best idea to take this on.

Unfortunately, there had also been a bit of a mix-up and I hadn’t been sent a draft of the paper beforehand, so I had to improvise. I felt bad for the presenter who didn’t get especially good feedback at that conference as a result.

What I took away from the experience

It was a good experience overall and I was lucky to get thoughtful feedback which I’m sure improved my work. Knowing how to present in the best way requires some trial and error, and getting good advice from people who have done it a lot before. It’s rarely perfect the first time.

If you are interested in an academic career, going to conferences is also a good way to get to know the culture of academia and your disciple outside of your own department – which will necessarily be more limited in its range of experiences.

Sometimes going to conferences can even be fun!

About the author

Stuart Campbell is one of our #DataImpactFellows for 2019.

Stuart is a Research Associate in the Department of Social Science at the UCL Institute of Education. He has an MSc in Economics from the University of Sussex, and a PhD in the Economics of Education from the UCL Institute of Education. His PhD was funded by an ESRC Advanced Quantitative Methods scholarship. Stuart previously worked as a Research Associate in Economics at the University of Sheffield and fulfilled a shorter research contract as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He is a fellow of the Global Labor Organization.

Follow Stuart on Twitter.

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