Forums and Symposia

At some point during your research career, even as an undergraduate,  you will be asked or required to perform some sort of presentation of your research. If you are lucky enough to be funded you may well be required to host a conference or an event to promote your research to the broader academic community. This can be a pretty daunting prospect, but is quite manageable and can greatly enhance your CV and may also provide you with publishing opportunities.

I have always found Postgraduate forums or symposia to be a great starting point in organising events of this nature.

The advantages of keeping it local is that you can start small scale and keep it quite restricted. Most departments run a forum for PGs to get together to share their research; volunteer to help run these events if you can. The effort is minimal compared to the reward and it will give you invaluable experience.

Annual events such as welcoming Symposia are also good things to organise or take part in. New comers to your institution will value any experience you can share as they embark upon an academic or research career. We host a half day event for new and returning students at the beginning of each academic year and PGs and staff alike give 10/15 minute presentations on matters that arise most commonly when you move to a new place:, where the pub is, where the best coffee shop is, where you can find wifi, how to get a print card, what finances are available to you. Presenting on non academic matters can provide the experience you’ll need when you move on to presenting your own research.

Organising conferences is a much bigger affair and involves inviting keynote speakers and forming panels and usually sifting through abstracts. (if you are lucky and you have enough abstracts to sift through! Sometimes the opposite is the issue where you are trying to desperately fill a programme instead of whittling it down! The latter situation is by far the most preferable!) Initially I would recommend joining with someone who has done this before and knows the lie of the conference-land and the protocols involved.  Again, keep it small, local and relevant.  A one day event can be as rewarding as as successful as a huge 3 day international affair. Make your keynote speaker as attractive as possible – no I don’t mean make sure they dress smartly and wash their hair – invite someone you know will draw in a crowd. Don’t be afraid to approach non-academic figures, or those outwit your disciplinary field. One of the best keynote addresses I heard was by the author Kate Mosse, at a conference on Women and History. She was spellbinding.

The first step is to approach your supervisor with a conference theme. You can get ideas for this by simply looking at other conference posters and CFPs and use them as a map to plot out your own idea. Check what funding your institution can offer you and if they are prepared to host (i.e. provide lunch, refreshments, room space, techy support). Don’t be afraid to look for external sponsors – but bear in mind that it wouldn’t be appropriate to use commercial money that might  reflect badly on your theme (using money fromBP to host a conference on Ecological Preservation of Fossil Fuels for example could be considered a  conflict of interests).

I’ve just touched on the basics in this post – but it isn’t as daunting as you might expect. Running events can provide you with important transferable skills, and shows your colleagues and your supervisors that you have initiative and drive, making them more likely to involve you in future events of their own. Well worth considering at any stage in your research life.

A brief checklist for conference organising.

A more detailed checklist for planning

 

 

 

 

Book Clubs & Reading Groups

Studying alone, in any field can be an incredibly isolating experience. Often the work you are interested in can be rather too niche, and therefore you can seldom find others who are working in the same area. Everyone knows that sometimes the best ideas come from bouncing thoughts around with colleagues and friends, so how can you achieve this whilst maintaining your focus on your specific subject area.

One way to help encourage the collegiate atmosphere of your undergraduate days is to form a book club or reading group. These kind of groups have become increasingly popular in recent years amongst ‘civilians’ but can also be a worthwhile learning tool for those of us involved in Academic pursuits.

Book clubs and reading groups can be formulated on almost any basis. At my university there are several varieties open to all students: Queer Theory, Jane Austen, Poetry, The Middle Ages, Theoria ( a lit crit and philosophy reading group)  to name but a few that are currently running.

All it takes is a person with an interest to get a few others with a similar interest (broad spectrum) to coordinate the event on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. The setting can be in a pub or a cafe and be largely social, but because you will all have read a set piece or book the conversation will be conducive to expanding your knowledge and encouraging ideas. You can explained the group by making it interdisciplinary or allowing members to bring along friends from other areas of their life. It’s not only academics who have good ideas: often those completely unconnected with academic life can be insightful and full of good ideas, coming at a situation from a completely different perspective.

Make the rule simple. Allow each member to nominate one or two books, then vote on which texts you want to tackle first. Whoever has nominated the book should then take on the responsibility of formulating possibly discussion points or questions. The discussions should be free flowing and not hampered by too much ‘chairing’.  Sending out the discussion points in advance can also help generate conversation as it gives the reading purpose. Always choose short, engaging texts that are rich in material worthy of discussion. Intersperse normal sessions with quiz nights, movie nights or pot luck suppers to give a social vibe to proceedings. Simply meeting with other researchers/students will help you feel as though you are not in this alone. It is very simple to set up, cost effective to run and can add a whole new dimension to your research life.

 It’s well worth giving it a shot!

Planning Ahead

My first post on here was a little bit about surviving procrastination and ways to avoid getting distracted and one of the tools I mentioned was effective use of planning/ planning devices.

I have yet to master the art of planning, I am fairly random in my approach to life, I tend to wing it and this has really caused a few problems since I began academia I can tell you.

 

 

I work much better under a little stress, so long deadlines are anathema to me. I just can’t get to grips with the ‘slow and steady’  need to be’ a tortoise not a hare’ mindset. When I started the end posts seemed impossibly long way away where as now they seem improbably close!

I have a finite amount of time left in which to capitalise on my research and to write up my final thesis so this word ‘planning’ which everyone kept banging on about when I was a fresher is looming very large in my conscience and I am having to take a long hard look at how I structure my day! See there is another concept that I am ambivalent about – structure.

One major problem is – I have never really worked out what is the most effective form of planning! 

I have tried using google calendars ( a suggestion made in one of my early researcher guide classes) to plan out blocks of time and schedule other events, it simply became yet one more thing on the to do list! I have had PDAs, phone apps and computer software all designed to ‘help me be more productive’ but I seem to spend more time figuring them out than actually putting them to good use and this usually results in me flinging them across the room accompanied by lots of really bad sweaty words  abandoning them in frustration, wondering why it is everyone else seems to have mastered ‘endnote’, ‘scrivener’, ‘evernote’ and the like. I ever bought a scanner pen to make note taking easier … but it was so temperamentally difficult I seemed to spend more time correcting faulting scans that I would have if I had simply written out the notes in the first place!

There is another thing I have never managed to master – effective note-taking!

I promised myself I would work through my ‘iMac for Dummies’ book in the summer months, because I know that the machine I am using is far cleverer than the person using it and it would be good to know how to work it properly it might also explain why it occasionally does random things like scroll, or close windows when I have no idea what I’ve hit, I am sure this would help productivity no end. But that old devil procrastination got in the way!

So this is me putting my hands in the air and admitting – my name is Pimpernel and I am a shit planner!

So the schedule for this week is to get my new outline in to my supervisor, then spend the rest of the week devising a cunning plan (hopefully NOT of the Baldrick variety) in how to plan! I have the multicoloured gel pens and sticky tabs  handy – which as any student knows are the essentials to good planning!

So any advice gratefully received! 

I don’t like Monday’s

… which is more than a little odd as I don’t really have a true ‘week’. My partner works shifts and has different days off each week and I work from home, so can organise myself any which way I choose, yet I still get Monday Morning Blues.

From Parada Creations

I find that I can’t shake the mental ‘weekend’ even if I have been working all through it. Monday still somehow looms ominously in front of me and I still get that ‘pit of the stomach’ back to school feeling. This feeling is so very different from the ‘new term’ feeling which is usually one of bubbling excitement at the thought of new pens and stationery! It is a real ‘oh no do I have to?’ sinking sensation.

How do you beat it?

I’ve come to the conclusion that somethings cannot be beaten and therefore have to be endured and worked around. So now I allow myself Monday mornings off. I don’t even think about starting work until I have savoured the peaceful morning which accompanies the children’s return to school/college and several cups of tea and maybe an hour of catch up TV, from things I have missed the previous week. It provides me with a gentle entry into the new week and prevents me hyperventilating the minute I open my eyes!  One thing about being a WOB (wise old bird)  that has a definite advantage over being a FYT (fresh young thing) is that I have learnt not to sweat the little things. That somethings cannot be changed and therefore any attempt to do so is futile. Flexibility is crucial to maintain a healthy work/life balance. If you become intractable in your habits you will find yourself being frustrated time and time again by interruptions and events you cannot predict or prevent. If you lose an hour here you can make it up at another time.

I think one thing I have always felt during my time working in my PhD is that there is never enough time.But there is … all you have to do is breathe deeply when things get a little hectic and remind yourself that:

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you. Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)

Wise words, which I think I need to remind myself of daily.

**CONFERENCE ALERT**

THE MIDDLEBROW – NEWCASTLE 12TH APRIL 2012

Procrastination

procrastination is the thief of time

Most of my academic life has been blighted by my own tendency to procrastinate. And there is nothing worse for an expert procrastinator that FACEBOOK! Admittedly only a bad workman blames his tools, and I know that Facebook was making me a very bad workman. So – I took a very drastic step a couple of weeks ago and cut off my right arm deactivated my account. Initially I was so busy trying to write a conference paper that I really didn’t notice. I had hit ‘the research zone’  – that magical place where you eat, drink and sleep your ideas until they begin to formulate themselves into a coherent argument.

But then the editing stage began. I’d had the ideas, I’d written several drafts, I had a fairly complete piece of work, but it needed the polish to finish it off. And I reached for my crutch when faced with a task I find laborious – Facebook! Only it wasn’t there!

And a good job too. It meant I had to face the reality of actually getting on with the job in hand! As a result I finished a fairily decent paper within a much shorter space of time than I would normally need, because I didn’t have to factor in the incalculable hours I spent ‘checking’ my online accounts!

I am not saying anything new here – procrastination is everyone’s friend when it comes to getting on with it. So how do we create a situation whereby we can keep this urge at bay?

These are strategies that work well for me.

  1. Set yourself daily realistic goals: A short list of things that you know you can achieve.
  2. Work in relatively short bursts: I found myself sitting for hours plugging away trying to write or read. Now I allow myself 45 minutes to an hour and then I force myself to take a 15 minute break. I make a cup of tea, I walk about, I catch up on emails/texts. It refreshes me and helps me digest what I have been trying to absorb.
  3. A dedicated workspace: I am still dreaming of the log cabin in the mountains with just me and the whirr of my laptop, a glass of chilled pinot grigio to one side and a plate of antipasti on the other as I delicately pick out the bones of my thesis. But, I may as well face it: It ain’t gonna happen!  But I can clear a space that is just for work! Make it pleasant and just for me.
  4. Turn off distractions: Unplug phones and log off websites. It takes guts sometimes especially for academics who work in an isolating environment, but you can allow yourself reconnection time during your breaks or at the end of the morning or afternoon sessions. Just because you can reply instantly doesn’t mean you should! 
  5. Plan ahead: When you wind up for the night take ten minutes to schedule your goals for the following day! It means you can get straight on with them, rather than using the planning as a way of procrastinating.
  6. Keep life simple: There are endless ways of making life ‘easier’. I think this is a really misleading way of viewing the world. Phone Apps, online apps, electronic organisers, kindles, etc etc etc all demand time. The more linear you can be the less time you will spend checking or modifying your different applications. Work out if your methodology is really the most productive one you can follow, and if not what needs to change? I’ve just discovered Scrivener, but I have to analyse whether the time it takes for me to familiarise myself with it is actually time worth spending. Will it really enhance my life exponentially, or will it just provide me with yet another ‘tool’ to play with?
  7. Flexible Approach: Spend one morning a week looking back and forward. Assess what was good about the past 7 days and then try to make sure the next seven capitalises on that. Don’t be afraid to change things that you know are not enhancing your working life.
  8. Schedule Treats: Every couple of days or so go out, make time and see people. Do something you enjoy. Or work in a coffee shop of pub for the day … a change is as good as a rest.

The internet is a marvellous tool for researchers and procrastinators alike. But don’t be a bad workman and blame it for not getting the job done. It is a tool and how you use it is up to you! I’ve been off Facebook now for nearly three weeks and even though I miss the contact with friends near and far I feel I really should remain offline. Or maybe develop an out of office hours policy that will allow me to stay in control. Hmmmmm ….

Fresh off the plane …

and into a new blog.

I used to blog here at  http://thephdpimpernel.blogspot.com/ but I fell into bad habits and one missed post turned in to several months of missed posts and even though I have decided there is space in my life to blog again I felt the need for a fresh start.

Firstly I am an academic. I refrain from using the word ‘student’ (though really that’s what I am) as I feel my PhD demands a greater level of commitment than any other course of study I have undertaken and therefore needs a greater degree of professionalism. It has to be a full time job and incorporate all the aspects of working as a full-time academic, be it teaching, publishing, editing, conferencing and last (but not least) blogging.

This blog is aimed at fellow mature students, post-graduates, academics, bibliophiles, fans of Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Modernism, WWI, feminism, gender and all things literary. I hope to share insights into life as a PhD candidate who is fast approaching the final hurdle, and also those of a book and literature lover. Sometimes I wil take time to explore somethings which have fascinated or preoccupied me in order to make sense of the world … or as Rebecca West once said to a prospective dissertation student who approached her –

I explained that I was writer wholly unsuitable for her purpose … that I had never used my writing to make a continuous disclosure of my own personality to others, but to discover for my own edification what I knew about various subjects which I found to be important to me …

Supernatural Power

I am going to kick off my first entry with a post about the joys of Academic Conferencing as I am fresh off the plane from Baruch College City University of New York having presented a paper there on Rebecca West.

When I first started my career as an academic in 2003, conferences didn’t figure too largely in my life. The odd class presentation was bearable, if a little uncomfortable, but not too demanding. I could cope. But my first ever full-size conference was another matter altogether! I had submitted an abstract based on the thesis I had written at the conclusion of my MLitt course. The argument was condensed into a 20 minute format and I was not confident in either the content or the structure of my paper. The conference was at Newcastle University and was to host over 200 delegates. I was terrified. I could barely speak for the entire three days … and my 20 minutes (well the entire 1 hour 30 minute panel session) is a bit of a blank for me. I do remember that I shook, my hands trembled as I turned the pages of my talk, my throat closed up, I licked my lips repeatedly, I spilled water, and  stumbled through the Q&A without actually hearing any questions properly at all. All in all I looked a complete wreck!  Or so I thought. The feed back was fabulous – my paper was even referred to by the keynote speaker,the author Kate Mosse (Labyrinth and Sepulchre) because her new novel tackled similar issues to those I had raised in my paper on Vera Brittain and The Lost Generation Myth.

I was heartened. I presented the paper again at a smaller venue for local scholars at my home university, but also in front of many of my former tutors. All people I admired and wanted to impress. Again I felt my paper lacked adequate erudition to impress and I stumbled my way through it, blinking like a proverbial ‘rabbit in headlights’ each time a question was directed my way. Again the feedback was not so bad.

By this time I was well into my PhD, which was slowly taking on a proper form. So I felt bold enough to submit an abstract to a huge international conference, held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge as part of their week long celebration of Women’s Writing.  I worked hard, adapting a large chunk of my thesis into a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation, with photographs and quotes. This foray into technology did oohing to quell my nerves. I  dreaded the return of my usual stammer and twitchiness but to my surprise when I took the floor I found myself giving an accomplished and articulate presentation. I fielded the questions with skill and dexterity and even managed to throw in a few laughs along the way. I found I actually enjoyed the experience! What a transformation. The feedback was better than I ever expected. I felt I had made a success of my trip, and yet I knew I had missed opportunities to chat to other delegates in the preceding couple of days because of my social nervousness.

But this time I took a new approach to presenting in front of an audience of world-renowned West scholars. Conferences are a necessary part of any academic career. They give you the unique opportunity to ‘geek it up’ with fellow nerds who find your subject as equally as compelling as you do. Unlike your family, who tend to glaze over when you even utter the name Rebecca West, these individuals embrace the conversation and provide you with fresh and new insights and approaches that can only enhance your future research. I embraced the conference experience and as a result I found that I looked forward to the event with far less trepidation and as a result my paper went even better than I’d hoped. I have also made some new friends and some important contacts who will be able to help me in my future research. It has been an invaluable experience.

There is a reason that this trajectory has taken the course it has and that is confidence. Presenting is a skill that can only be learnt through experience and over time. Some people are born presenters and they may flourish from the get go but most people are like you and me and they take time to acquire the confidence and know how to give a polished performance. And conferences are the killing fields of experience. It’s where you can make mistakes and no one will remember them. 20 minutes in a 3 day even t is a mere blip in time … I’ve accepted that the only way to approach a conference is with my head held high and my paper well researched.

I am already scouring the web to find future events that I can participate in and share what I am learning about the fabulous writer Rebecca West … I embrace the conference challenge!

BTW – the banner header photograph is one of my own, and it is the torn fragments of a rejected draft of my recent conference paper … my other love is photography and I can also be found on Blip – a daily photographic journal. Please feel free to come visit.

All photographs are my own unless otherwise acknowledged.