International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training-Day one

Last week I went to Edinburgh for the UKCGE conference on Doctoral Education and Training. I’d been nervous the days leading up to it, not for the paper I was presenting, but because it involved a flight and I am, as anyone who has heard me talk about it will know, a nervous flyer.

Luckily the flight passed smoothly and we (me, and Catherine Mills, the UGS manager) made it to the conference venue in time for the second keynote speech, from Slobodan Radicev of Eurodoc. He had some interesting suggestions, including the removal of tenure for senior academics to free up career paths for post-docs; as could be imagined, this provoked murmurs of surprise across the hall! I could see that a lot of other people were tweeting the talk and a friendly Australian delegate next to me gave me the wi-fi code so I could get online. (note to self, when organising a conference, put the wifi code somewhere easy to spot)

The coffee break gave me my first challenge: networking. It’s something I always find hard, as I think a lot of people do. I was doing a scan for familiar faces when I spotted a name I knew. Dr Inger Mewburn, Editor of  The Thesis Whisperer (@thesiswhisperer). Summoning my courage I stopped past to tell her I loved both her tights (fantastic bright pink ones) and her blog!  We had a quick chat about my paper, her blog and the best place to buy coloured tights. Without the ‘in’ of being able to read the blog (which is fantastic) I would never have had the courage to say hello. I think this is one of the ways social media and blogs can really help at conferences – it gives people an excuse to talk to you and helps to make the initial introducing yourself aspect less awkward. It certainly did for me, at least!

Collaboration was the theme of the next three panels. I found Dr Irene Sheridan’s talk on how partners (in her example, industry partners) can support the creation of doctoral knowledge interesting, particularly as regards how we can recognise the learning and development that happens outside the University, and how this learning and development can be articulated. I wondered if the Researcher Development Framework could have a part to play in establishing a common vocabulary of skills.  Both the talk on collaborative skills training between the Universities of Aarhus and Edinburgh  and Dr Emer Cunningham’s talk on the Dublin Regional Education Alliance mentioned accredited skills training, something we traditionally haven’t done at Birmingham (although this is changing for some PGRs with the Postgraduate Certificate in Advanced Research Methods and Skills). While both talks were clear on the benefits of collaborative approaches to skills development, they also spoke of some of the challenges, particularly around administration across multiple sites.  I really liked the suggestion around specific sessions on academic relationships for International students, to help them acclimatise to the UK (or Danish, in the case of Aarhus) academic environment, although I think care must be taken to make sure attendees on such sessions don’t feel singled out. If you’re an international PGR, what kind of specific workshop would you have found useful at the beginning of your study?

My workshop, on academic writing, was after lunch. It covered some of the research and mapping on academic writing development I did last year, and outlined some of the changes we made as a result of that.  The room was pretty full, although of course some people might have been there to see the other talks on digital literacies or reflexive writing.

Although I only had ten minutes I felt like it went really well, and I had some interesting questions asked in the session.  It was also quite personally and professionally validating as I felt like I was one of the few people there without a higher degree, yet people took me and my work seriously and assumed I knew what I was talking about!  It was a nice antidote to the imposter syndrome I can quite often feel in these contexts, and we had a bit of an interesting discussion about how we can support Supervisors, as well as PGRs, in this area.  You can see the Prezi I used here 

I had more people approach me during to break to ask more questions about my research and recommendations, and what we are starting to do here at Birmingham. It definitely made me feel more involved in the conference and in the community, and meant I didn’t just lurk by the coffee table trying to work out how to talk to people. For that reason, if no other, I’d really recommend trying to give a conference paper, and I’m already considering topics for the Vitae international conference in September.

The day ended with a plenary on the Australian Cooperative Research Centre by Nigel Palmer and Dr Rachael Pitt (@thefellowette) and a keynote by Alexandra Bitusikova on developments in doctoral education in Europe. Both sessions looked at doctoral training  and measuring the impact of doctoral education and training. I was surprised (and not a little disheartened!) by one of Rachael’s findings, which said Australian Universities trained PhD students but then were not happy with the standard of PhD graduates they employed! I’m not aware of similar research being done in UK universities (if anyone is, please point it out to me) but this seems a slightly disturbing conclusion;  if even universities are not happy with the skills of PhD graduates, how does this affect those seeking work outside of academia? How should it impact on the kind of researcher development activities we offer?

The conference dinner was held in a gorgeous room in the Royal College of Surgeons, and included an impromptu lesson on Rococo architecture and plaster work from Inger, who ended up sitting at my table, along with Rachael.  Something Rachael said over dinner really struck me. I mentioned that I often feel out of place at events like these  because I’m not an academic. It can be hard to let myself ‘own’ my expertise and get over the feeling of being an imposter, that people will find out that really I don’t know what I’m talking about. She pointed out that a lot of people feel like this, and in fact, question what you know and how you know it is a really important part of academia. Anyone who doesn’t sometimes fear they don’t know everything probably isn’t very good at their job! It wasn’t an angle I’d considered before and it’s one I’m going to think more about.

So that was day one. Day two will be up later in the week if I can swing it. But in the mean time, what are your conference experiences? Do you find networking as tough as I sometimes do? And what do you do about imposter syndrome?

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