Christian Zielinski is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology of Utrecht University and the Interuniversity Center for Social Science Theory and Methodology. Before starting with his PhD, Christian obtained a Research Master’s in Urban and Economic Geography and researched the housing situation of international students in the Netherlands. His current research concerns family relationships in divorced families. In this blog, he reflects on attending the 2019 annual HSA conference as an early career researcher.
In April 2019, I attended the Housing Studies Association’s (HSA) annual conference in Sheffield. This was not just my first presentation at a conference, it was also the first time I had attended a conference. My fantastic Master’s thesis supervisor, my fiancé and my friends were excited for me and supported me in every possible manner. My bags were packed, my presentation rehearsed and my slides double and triple-checked for even the tiniest spelling or orthographical mistake. I was ready to go.
Still, on the plane from Amsterdam to Manchester, sheer terror hit me. My anxious brain couldn’t help but bombard me with questions that I could not answer: What will the delegates think about my research? What if they do not like it/me? What if I cannot find anyone to talk to and I will just awkwardly stand silently in a corner somewhere for the whole conference?
If you are prone to having thoughts like these, you are definitely not alone. I met half a dozen young researchers at the HSA conference that felt exactly the same way. In this blog, I want to zoom in on some of the questions and insecurities I had before attending the conference and how all of them turned out to be unfounded.
1. You are going to meet the right people, trust me.
Not meeting the “right” people was probably my biggest fear. If, like me, you are an introvert, highly sensitive or have social anxiety, you can probably relate to this. I met a lot of early-career researchers at the conference: Bachelor students, Master’s students, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. What all of them had in common was that they were incredibly nice people and could relate to my anxieties and (irrational) thoughts about attending and presenting at a conference. After all, for many of them, it was their first time at a conference, too! I can say with confidence that if you attend the HSA conference, you will naturally meet a group of like-minded early-career researchers that are all sitting in the same boat.
This is not to say that you should only hang out with your peers. What perhaps surprised me the most about the conference is how incredibly approachable everyone was. Distinguished academics and housing professionals were not just willing to talk to me in the first place, but were genuinely curious about my own research, experiences and oftentimes offered valuable suggestions. So, if there is someone that you always wanted to talk to and who happens to be at the conference, just do it. It will be great, I’m sure.
2. Presenting at a conference is not as bad as you might think.
Presenting my paper was my personal highlight of the entire conference. I presented my paper about international students’ housing biographies in the Netherlands to a room of about 15 people. Yes, I was terrified during the first half of my presentation. Perspiring profusely and feeling slightly nauseous, if I might say. But once I got into “presentation mode”, the rest of the experience was a pure delight.
During the Q&A session, I received the nicest, most thoughtful and ego-boosting feedback and questions you could possibly imagine. While this (hopefully) says something about the quality of my research, it also says something about the attendees. They are not mean-spirited housing academics sitting in the ‘ivory tower’. They are caring, approachable and genuinely nice people who want to make a difference in this world.
So, if you are to present one of your papers at the HSA conference, whether it is your Bachelor or Master’s thesis or a chapter from your PhD dissertation: there is absolutely no reason to worry. I am confident you will do great and you will get extremely valuable and validating feedback.
3. Enjoy (and do not overthink) the experience.
All in all, my biggest tip is to not overthink what might possibly go wrong, but to just “go for it”. Instead of worrying, just talk to people, enjoy the food (and socialising!), do some sightseeing in Sheffield and also take some time off when you need it. Take a walk, enjoy the sun (if the weather happens to be good), maybe go to a pub with some new-found friends. Academic conferences are not just about science, after all…
All in all, conferences are really not as daunting as they seem. Especially the Housing Studies Association’s annual conference which offers a lot of support for early-career researchers and seeks to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Do not hesitate to sign up for next year's conference!
Follow Christian on Twitter: @czielinski95