Reflection on the Experience of Conference Volunteering

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Reflection on the Experience of Conference Volunteering

Rebecca Wynne-Walsh

One of the many extra-curricular activities post-graduate researchers are encouraged to actively engage with is conference attendance and presentation. Though positioned as essential opportunities for research dissemination and professional networking, conferences remain a daunting concept for many. If diving head-first into conference presentation is excessively overwhelming at first then offering one’s services as a conference volunteer is an excellent way to look behind the curtain and break down the conference process so that it becomes a less intimidating prospect. 

I recently volunteered in the running of MMU’s own annual Postgraduate Conference. As part of my work in this endeavour I was assigned a wide variety of tasks gaining from each a valuable transferrable skill in my larger academic career path. My work for the conference ranged from basic tasks such as aiding in the folding of the printed conference programmes to greeting delegates on the day and aiding in the practicalities of setting the event up. This included the hanging of the research poster displays and guiding attendees to relevant rooms throughout the day. My responsibilities also included acting as chair for one of the many engaging and intellectually enriching panel sessions of the day. As chair I was in charge of keeping each speaker to time in a polite but firm manner, of ensuring that the PowerPoints or images associated with each presentation were working properly, and that each speaker was made to feel comfortable in the panel environment. This latter point was achieved by taking the initiative to introduce myself to each panellist and ensure I was pronouncing their names correctly as well as offering each speaker water before their presentation. As chair I introduced the panel theme and the individual panellists to the audience and led the question and answer session. In my case this session proved to be rather lively with alternating constructive and controversial questions from the audience, as well as the always dreaded: “this is less a question and more of a comment”. 

Through this volunteering experience I gained invaluable insight into the conference process. I learned a great deal about the practicalities of running a conference. A key example of this is the reality of the high possibility of technical failings and as such the need to bring a USB key with me for my own future conference presentations. I also learned of the value of social media in conference promotion and of having my contact information readily available on the day for ease of networking. Serving as panel chair also indicated the various types of questions that can be expected during question and answer sessions. Needless to say, chairing a panel at a respected conference will itself also benefit my growing academic CV. This experience on the whole was highly educational not only for these reasons but also because it allowed me to learn from intriguing talks that I may not otherwise have had the privilege of attending had my volunteer work not placed me in the room.