As the Society’s New Researchers prepare to submit their final papers for our conference in March, Anne Murphy gives some invaluable tips on how to win the highly coveted prize for the best ‘new researcher’ paper. Excellent advice for first time and new scholars presenting everywhere ….
WHAT DO WE LOOK FOR IN A PRIZE-WINNING EHS NEW RESEARCHER PAPER?
Don’t skip the Friday afternoon of the Economic History Society Conference, that’s when the New Researchers Sessions are scheduled and it’s often the most interesting part of the weekend. Adding to the excitement is the tension in the air because everyone knows that the presenters are competing for one of the Society’s prestigious New Researcher prizes, awarded each year to the best one or two (and sometimes three) papers.
Between 2014 and 2016 I was lucky enough to be the Chair of the Committee. Hence I got to read dozens of New Researcher papers, to observe numerous panels at the Conference and to hear and read the deliberations of my colleagues on the Committee. I concluded that, although we sometimes disagreed about the merits of a particular paper, what we were looking for was not in dispute and could be summed up in five points. I offer these points here as advice for future New Researchers but with the caveat that, as with any advice, it’s easier to deliver than to act upon!
1) The Committee wants to know why they should care about your argument and findings.
This point shouldn’t come as a surprise. Your PhD supervisor will have told you many times that you need to position your thesis carefully within the existing historiography to demonstrate your original contribution to scholarly knowledge. You need to do this in a conference paper too. Tell us why your work is important. The Committee won’t just know because they won’t all be experts in your field. Also, never assume that you are writing about something so obvious that all scholars rooted in economic history automatically will see its significance. They might but they will still want to know what you are bringing to the debate.
2) The Committee wants you to demonstrate your credentials as a historian.
To do this ensure that your paper provides details on your data, sources and methodology. Are you the first to use the source or are you using your data or sources in a new way? It is true that your footnotes might demonstrate this but you should also reinforce these points through your argument. Also discuss your methodology but with a focus on what you are doing that will make a contribution to the literature or on establishing the appropriateness and relevance of your techniques. Do remember though that your paper should not just focus on your methodology, the Committee expects to see historical context and a strong conclusion.
3) The Committee wants to read work that is clear and well-written.
The Committee will be reading lots of papers and will appreciate well-written work. Again this won’t come as a surprise, you have probably done some teaching, and marking, so will already know the joy of coming across beautifully crafted prose. To generate a clear piece of writing you should remember that you can’t, and shouldn’t, cram your entire thesis into 2,500 words. Pick a representative aspect of your work, something that illustrates its totality but is compact enough for you to present a tight argument based on sound evidence. Pay attention to the way that you say things, not just what you want to say.
4) The Committee wants you to deliver an excellent presentation
Everyone understands that you might be giving your first paper at a big conference and you might be presenting in front of people whose work you admire (or indeed question). We know that is nerve-wracking. But, the prize is not just awarded for the written paper, it’s expected that the presentation at conference will be excellent too. So be clear, confident, pay attention to timing and engage your audience. With regard to content, you should highlight your research question, establish your scholarly contribution, focus on your argument and analysis and present your conclusion.
5) The Committee will expect you to give good responses to the questions
You will be asked questions at the end of your presentation and the Committee will be taking note of how well you address those questions. They will be concerned chiefly with how you defend your argument so make sure you have thought about what sort of things you might be asked before the presentation. Do defend your position and do so calmly, politely and firmly. Be precise and concise. Remember that the time allocated to questions will be short so don’t use it all explaining one point.
If these are the things the committee is looking for, how can you maximise your chances of delivering them?
• Pay attention to the criteria for the New Researcher papers: especially the word count and time limit.
• Write a new paper, don’t just cut down a chapter and think that will do. It won’t!
• Get feedback. Show your paper to your supervisors before you submit.
• Act on the feedback. It might be right; it might be wrong. If you believe the latter, consider why your reader misunderstood or was not convinced by your point. Maybe you need to explain more clearly and evidence more effectively.
• Read previous winning papers: http://www.ehs.org.uk/events/nr-prize-winners.html
• Rehearse your presentation to ensure that you can present well and that you keep to time. And then rehearse again!
• When presenting be confident, speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard.
• Face the audience: do not turn around and speak to the PowerPoint. If you’re using your PowerPoint as a prompt then look at it on the computer screen or better still have some prompt cards in your hand.
• Ensure that your PowerPoint presentation is neither too text-heavy nor too sparse.
• Don’t have dozens of slides, a good rule of thumb is one for every two minutes.
• Keep to time!
• Make eye contact and smile (even if you feel like weeping)!
And finally… ..Good Luck! And remember to practice your gracious winner/loser face for the conference dinner…
Anne L. Murphy
University of Hertfordshire