Crystal Taylor, Appalachian State University
Lindsay Fallon, University of Massachusetts Boston
Presenting at conferences is a rite of passage for many graduate students. For school psychology graduate students, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Annual Convention provides a unique opportunity to showcase their work and engage with their peers, school psychologists, and academics. Below, we reflect on our experiences presenting at NASP as graduate students, acknowledging the support we received from our mentors. These experiences not only shaped our views on the process but also fueled our enthusiasm for supporting graduate students in their participation in conference presentations.
Benefits Presenting at NASP
Beyond enhancing one’s curriculum vitae, presenting at NASP offers graduate students a platform to discuss their research with a diverse audience of experts (e.g., more senior scholars, practitioners, policymakers, etc.). This provides the opportunity to receive constructive feedback, suggestions for improvement, and alternative perspectives. Such input is instrumental in refining research methodologies, strengthening arguments, and improving the overall quality of one’s work. Further, conveying ideas concisely helps graduate students develop confidence in public speaking, a skill that is beneficial not only for academics but also for practicing school psychologists.
For students engaging in thesis or dissertation work, presenting at NASP can take their work beyond the defense stage. Presenting may result in invitations to share their work at other conferences (or to other audiences) as well as open the door for subsequent publication and collaboration opportunities. Findings from dissertations and theses might be shared at sessions or forums specifically targeted toward graduate student research or during the general convening.
Identifying the Appropriate Fit
The first step to mentoring graduate students and preparing them to present at NASP is to understand the current skills of the students and then identify goals for moving them toward independence. To do this, we suggest a developmental approach to mentoring. This worked well for us as graduate students and the model we follow now as mentors and supervisors of graduate research. An example of this is to first involve a graduate student in a collaborative project and support their efforts to present a piece of the research with you or other more experienced members of your research team initially. As the student gains comfort and familiarity with the process, provide the opportunity for students to take on more of the development and presentation of materials, ultimately striving for first-author and/or independent proposals by the end of their training program (we discuss this further below).
Another example is to start graduate students with the opportunity to present a poster. A poster provides opportunities to concisely represent work without focusing on too many technical aspects of the project. Audience members may ask questions to probe a more technical description, but the overall expectation is that presenters describe the study briefly and then answer basic questions. Overall, speaking to a smaller audience introduces the student to the process with less pressure. Further, poster presentations offer the student the opportunity to share a project they may have completed outside of your lab (e.g., for a course). As an instructor, you might build these opportunities into your course instruction and encourage graduate students to pursue submitting and sharing their work accordingly.
As students progress through the program, they can transition to presenting a paper with increasing independence in subsequent years. Paper presentations are often given to larger audiences with the expectation that the presenter goes into detail about the study method and results while also diving deep into study limitations and implications for practice. In the beginning stages, students might be expected to create or present one section and later be expected to create or present multiple sections or the whole presentation.
Creating the Presentation
After identifying the right fit for students, collaborate closely with students to create the presentation. Start early. Especially if this is the first professional presentation because they might be nervous. Starting early allows students time to think through ideas, send multiple drafts, and feel more prepared at the onset.
Having students create an outline with your help will get the process started. Involving them in building an outline will also allow them to identify areas that they are most comfortable working on or presenting. For example, in the beginning, I (Crystal) found the Results and Discussion sections the most difficult so I would ask to help with the Introduction and Method sections. Being a part of the data collection process made the method more tangible and easier to describe. As I became more comfortable with statistics and understanding the results of the studies, I started volunteering for other sections.
If a student has requested to help with a more challenging section such as a Results section, mentors might scaffold the support provided to their students. Outside of graduate school, presentations are often completed as a team, so modeling how you are part of their team and how you can support them in creating the presentation, provides a more realistic example of the preparation process.
Feedback on Revisions
You will probably be asked to provide feedback on one (or many) drafts. When providing feedback, base revision on constructive feedback. To reduce the workload, ask advanced graduate students to participate in the feedback cycle. This provides opportunities for advanced students to experience a different side of the process and allows them to learn how to refine content and strengthen arguments. Reviewing, editing, and providing constructive feedback is an integral part of the work we do so it becomes a great learning experience.
When it comes time to provide feedback, I (Crystal) begin by acknowledging the student’s strengths and then address any areas of improvement. I start with strengths to build the student’s confidence and hopefully increase their responsiveness to my feedback. Feedback is a natural part of the graduate experience, but I try to use it as a teaching moment, not criticism. After providing written feedback, I meet with students to address my comments, answer questions, and provide specific suggestions for improvements in future drafts. I have found this helps students process the feedback and improves the quality of their work in the future.
The Importance of Building Confidence
When preparing graduate students to present their poster or paper presentations at NASP, build in time to support the student by having them practice with you (and potentially other members of your research team). This might include the opportunity to run through their portion of a presentation or share their brief description of a poster in a trusted space, such as a lab meeting. The benefit of these practice opportunities so the student feels comfortable sharing with an audience. I (Lindsay) set the stage for a mock presentation by reminding the students that they are an expert in this area. I encourage them by telling them they are ready to share their work with others and field questions. I listen actively and share any feedback I have (e.g., pace of delivery, clarity of descriptions). Feedback is offered in a supportive manner to convey my interest in their development. By building their confidence in a trusted space, the student might feel more prepared to present to a larger audience and field questions with greater ease when the time comes.
You might also support students to anticipate questions that could arise from audience members when they present. Practicing answering questions in mock presentations will help the graduate student feel more relaxed and confident on presentation day. I (Lindsay) also let students know that it’s OK if they do not have the answer to a question. Often I am with the student presenting, but if I’m not, I let them know that they can always say, “I appreciate that question and am unsure at the moment. May I contact you later when I find out the answer?” This often helps the student relax and enjoy the prospect of presenting, too.
Supporting networking at NASP
When NASP arrives, supporting students to network is another important mentoring opportunity. One way I (Lindsay) enjoy doing this is to attend sessions or walk-around poster sessions with students, taking the opportunity to make introductions when I’m able to do so. Several events and sessions are scheduled to encourage graduate students to network with others and discuss issues of relevance to them. Compiling and sharing a list with students in advance of the conference can allow them to schedule times to attend those sessions. Further, the Early Career Forum has a networking session for early career scholars. At NASP 2024, this will take place on the evening of February 15 from 4-6 PM CST at the Sidecar Patio & Oyster Bar. Registration can be found here.
Preparing for and attending NASP can offer many opportunities to mentor student research. Check-in with colleagues within and outside of your institution and ask about their approach to this process. Consider ways of building infrastructure within your lab or research team to have students support one another to develop, engage in mock presentations, and connect at NASP to attend each others’ sessions. Supporting students to take advantage of the many rich opportunities for presenting research and networking with other scholars will help their professional growth and development in an impactful way. It can also be a time to connect and spend time together socially which may allow for stronger and more meaningful collaborations for years to come.