Maximizing An Academic Conference by Bessie DiDomenica, PhD PPA student

The following account of presenting at an academic conference was written by Bessie DiDomenica, a Walden University PhD student in Public Policy.  We appreciate her sharing her experience on our blog and we hope you find it useful in managing your own career and building your academic reputation and professional network.   

Lisa Cook, Director of Career Services


From Bessie DiDomenica, PhD PPA student:

The Northeast Conference on Public Administration (NECoPA) happened on November 2 and 3, 2012. The conference theme was Public Administration in a Time of Change: Emerging Challenges and Solutions.  The event was held at UMass in Boston, Massachusetts and organized by the local chapter of American Society for Public Administration (ASPA).

It was clear from the first day that people at the conference were concerned about the impact of Hurricane Sandy. Attendance was less than expected because people from the New York area and overseas could not make the trip. One of the main presenters was from the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York.  He gave a detailed account of devastation in Brooklyn.

The program stated that there were 110 presentations and 31 panel sessions and included professionals in government, the public and nonprofit sectors, and researchers. My panel session was called Challenges in Public Management. It included three other presentations by researchers from Malaysia, New York, and Washington State.

NECoPA was my first professional conference and it was a great opportunity to discuss my research on food policy.  Additionally, I was excited about meeting researchers, professionals and practitioners from different sectors and attending some of the other presentations. I also planned to explore career opportunities for life after graduation.

My presentation was scheduled for the last slot at the end of the day. As it turned out, the panel consisted of the moderator from Washington State and I – the presenters from New York and Malaysia cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy. The audience was small (eight people) but I was thankful that people showed up at the last panel of the day.

The moderator went first and discussed her research on shared governance between faculty and administrators in higher education. A lively discussion followed between academics and students who were very interested in the politics of higher education. Finally, I began my presentation on Urban Food Policy: Exploring Small-Scale Gardens for Local Food Production.

I memorized my speech for exactly the allotted 15 minutes, and was pleased that I could talk to the audience rather than read from the slides. People seemed to be genuinely interested in my topic as I explained the need for cities to find alternative ways to grow food. I stressed the role of food policy councils as a means for public managers to engage in decision making in their communities.

The Q&A session was excellent. People asked questions about growing food in cold weather, food labeling, and consumer education about food safety. One person explained that in her community, people lived far apart and had few interactions. A garden was not a place for food production. It was a meeting place for social interactions and building community with other people. Afterward, I sat with two other students and we talked about life in our communities, and the challenges of graduate level work.

The main event of day two was the poster session. There were fewer posters than expected because of Hurricane Sandy, but the presenters were very enthusiastic about their research. I spoke with four presenters, including Walden alumnus Raymond Marbury, a newly minted DBA. Other projects included strategic planning in the nonprofit sector, fiscal policy in Costa Rica, and the influence of money on the social development of the United Arab Emirates.

As I mentioned, I hoped to look at career choices and found the opportunity at lunch. I sat next to the president of my local chapter of the ASPA. He introduced me to a woman active in environmental and food issues. She was kind enough to share her contacts as potential participants in my research and for job opportunities. We exchanged information and I made a note to send her a thank you card.

Highlights and takeaways from the conference:

  • Make your presentation interesting and engage your audience in your research. Even if a topic is interesting, you can lose the audience by reading from the slides or looking down to read your notes word for word.
  •  Work on your career development as soon as possible. In addition to other doctoral students, several master’s level students presented their research at the conference. Professional conferences, workshops, and even a presentation at your local library or community group will build your public speaking skills and your confidence.
  •  Engage with professionals from different sectors. It was fun just to talk with masters and doctoral students about their projects and plans for their research.  The more you talk about your research, the easier it gets. I learned some new things about how people think about gardens as well as other challenges of urban food policy.

Overall, the conference was a great experience. I would highly recommend that students join and participate in a professional conference early in their academic careers. As I mentioned, several master’s degree students presented on a panel, participated in a poster session, or served as a moderator for a panel.  It helps to have a plan for a conference as well.  In addition to presenting my academic research, I strengthened my professional network and reputation through planning ahead to meet other practitioners and researchers.