Meeting unknown gods (or presenting at an international conference for the first time)

Gemma Williams, first year Linguistics PhD student based in the School of Humanities, recently presented at an international conference for the first time — just a few short weeks after delivering her first-ever conference presentation in the UK.

Below, Gemma shares her personal experience (and some beautiful Andalusian photos) of how she approached this exciting and somewhat daunting event in Seville.

Meeting unknown gods

Gemma Williams

The week preceding my trip to Seville was one full of intense angst and apprehension. Gemma of the past had thought it a good idea to submit an abstract to present at the 8th International Symposium on Intercultural, Cognitive and Social Pragmatics (EPICS VIII), if only as a helpful exercise in ordering my ideas as concisely as possible, with little expectation of being accepted. Gemma of the present was freaking out.

I’d had the pleasure of attending my first academic conference — ‘Beyond Meaning’, co-organised by my supervisor Tim Wharton — purely as a consumer of knowledge, in Athens the previous summer so I had some idea of what to expect in terms of conference mechanics, but as the date approached my nerve gradually evaporated as the reality of standing before experts in the field and touting my fledgling ideas loomed increasingly. Something about deciding to put myself among these knowledge-shapers suddenly seemed incredibly ‘bold’, though perhaps, I tried to reassure myself, this thinking was simply a result of good old Imposter Syndrome. In order to quell the fear a little, I gave myself a mind-trick. I would see it all as a symbolic act. My talk would be my offering at the feet of unseen knowledge-keepers, and the room a temple of knowledge. Clearly bonkers, but somehow this felt less frightening than facing a room of potentially hostile, and certainly very clever humans.

I arrived the evening before the conference began, and took myself out for a romantic stroll in large central park, packed with parrots mimicking the traffic crossing signal and a meal of tapas and beer, kept company by my book (note to solo travellers, always have a good book). People were out late, the rain spell rolled elsewhere to allow a warm sunny evening to break through and it was true! Seville does smell of oranges. I was enjoying myself. How did this happen? (Draw your own conclusions as to whether a pre-conference beer is advisable.)

The venue for the conference was the old 18th Century Royal Tobacco Factory in the centre of Seville, now part of the university, and allowed my temple fantasy to run wild. The high, ornate brick building threaded through with open courtyards and fountains provided a most exquisite backdrop to all the coffee-break chats and encounters that really make a conference. I was happy to see some familiar faces from the conference I’d attended last year, and most people I spoke to seemed to know my supervisor in one way or another. I found myself out for dinner the first night with a lovely bunch of individuals from different countries and specialisms, several of whom will be at the next conference I plan to attend too. People were friendly, supportive when they heard I was giving my first talk, and open to conversation. The impression I came away with was one of a network of warm, intelligent and curious people that wasn’t in anyway clique-y.

Gemma presenting
Photo credit: Ryoko Sasamoto

When I came to my talk itself, I can’t say I fully tricked myself out of the nerves. My advice would be, if you too are prone to anxiety, don’t drink the free and delicious conference coffee on the day of your talk. The audience wasn’t huge, but not too small — just the right number really, to allow for a convivial Q & A session post-talk. Unlike in my fearful imaginings, the questions and feedback that came were both insightful and encouraging. I found myself really enjoying the back-and-forth, and being able to enthuse about something I’m passionate about with others with knowledge and experience in the field. One audience member asked some particularly helpful questions which I took in the same relaxed way as the whole questions session had gone, only later realising that she was in fact one of the plenary speakers and someone who’s work I’d read and admired! Unknown gods indeed.

Seville photo gallery

To find our more about Gemma and her work, you can visit her new blog (which includes a recording of Gemma’s presentation) and follow her on Twitter.

Starting a PhD at Brighton

Abby Barras is a full-time, first year PhD student based in the School of Applied Social Sciences. Her research focuses on transgender and gender non-conforming people and their experiences of participation in grassroots sport in the UK. She is also a co-rep for PhD students on the Centre for Transforming Sexuality and Gender Management group.

Below, in a post republished from her own blog, Abby reflects on her first term of doctoral study at Brighton and shares some approaches she has found invaluable.

The Ocean is not a Swimming Pool

Abby Barras

Profile photo of Abby BarrasLiving by the sea, I don’t have to look very hard for metaphors when writing about my PhD journey. The title of my blog (Sink or Swim) gives it away. I wrote in my first post that my blog would be about my PhD journey, and what happens when you start (and hopefully finish) a PhD. What do you actually do?

So one term in, and this is what I have done.

The first three months have consisted of plugging myself into the PhD matrix, kindly constructed and maintained by the University’s Doctoral College. And it is a kind construction, the mother of all frameworks to cling on to, to stop you being cast, Odysseus like, too far from the shore. The university wants to look after you, keep you close – but here’s the thing: a new kind of effort is required. Making an effort sounds simple enough, but at this early stage it can be hard to understand what your tasks are exactly.

Being a compliant soul, I don’t mind the effort, so I appreciate this framework. I eagerly attended all of the development and training sessions which run all year round, on topics such as literature reviews, the importance of impact and understanding ethics. I took notes and went home and looked stuff up. I went to masterclasses and got my mind blown on topics such as phenomenology, gun crime and the philosophy of the PhD. I listened to talks given by real-life rock stars: Prof Gillian Bendelow, Prof Peter Squires and Prof Etienne Wenger-Trayner. I was even lucky enough to hear Distinguished Prof Kathryn Stockton Bond talk about queer theory and attend a workshop with her and others.

I completed a training needs assessment, to identify my knowledge gaps, and was warmly welcomed to a module on research methods in sociology, an invaluable asset, if, like me, you need to plug some worryingly large gaps. I found it helpful to read blogs by people such as Pat Thomson and PhD Forum, and find other networks to seek support from, not just other feminists, but other disciplines.

But this term has been about two main things: my research plan and my first writing task. Your research plan is a living document, it’s never really finished, but is an ongoing process of refinement and revision. I am currently on version four, though really this is about version twenty, as my original one was written for an (unsuccessful) funding application. It goes back and forth between me and my supervisors, each time we add something or take something away. It’s a roadmap, and an anchor, but it’s also a learning tool. It has helped me to identify my weaknesses (I feel like I will never understand methodology) and worry less about other things (finding an appropriate writing style, for example).

My second main thing has been a writing task, 5,000 words on two very specific questions. This was, I quickly realised, a very smart move by my supervisors. I went away and read an ocean of classic texts and papers by authors and activists I had never even heard of, as well as work by my own supervisors. It was like writing a masters’ size essay in a month, but because I am a full-time student, the experience was more immersive, more constant, sometimes out of control. It took a lot of effort.

So, what has been key this first term? One of the pieces of advice which is repeated again and again, is to keep a research diary. It has both a practical function and is a crucial reflective tool. This can take any form: mine is a notebook, which I then transcribe to a spreadsheet, and tracks what sessions I have attended, who I met, what I learnt, books to seek out, and how I feel. I have (of course) bigger, more detailed notebooks for longer sessions, but this diary is a constant snapshot. Some days it just has one entry and a smiley face. There are quite a lot of confused faces. Others are more detailed – books to follow up on, concepts and terms to grasp, action points. I am using it for this blog – it is already worth the effort.
Drawing of three children in swimwear holding a sign bearing the words 'The ocean is not a swimming pool'.

Walking along the beach over Christmas, thinking about how my first term has gone, I saw the sign above. The ocean is not a swimming pool. More coastal metaphors. But it reminded me of something my former tutor and feminist powerhouse Prof Alison Phipps once told me. She said that doing a PhD taught her how to think. At the time I just nodded, having no idea what she meant. But I think I am starting to: nobody comes to academia fully formed. You must learn this stuff, you have to make an effort. If you want to progress from the pool to the ocean, you need to put some work in if you want to get the most from this experience.

Here are the ten things I think have helped me to keep making an effort.

  1. You will never ever get this opportunity again. Three years on one research project, managing your own time and a universe of resources and knowledge in your lap. Do not squander it. Does this sound cheesy and pompous? Probably. But it’s what drives me.
  2. Everybody else’s project will sound better than yours. Everyone else will sound like they know what they are doing, and have lots more experience than you. In my case, everyone is at least 20 years younger.
  3. You hold the centre of your research. This does not mean that you know it all. It means that it’s up to you make the most of your PhD, your colleagues and resources.
  4. Talk to other students. You will learn more from them than from anyone else.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself: I work two days a week in my school student area. This means not only can I use the resources (photocopier, printing), I get to chat to others, including more experienced PhD students. It sounds corny, but being visible makes a difference. I am hoping for a job after this; it makes sense to be a familiar face.
  6. Go to any module that might help you, at whatever level. You might not grasp it all, but file it away, and come back to it.
  7. Start off organised. Create an online library (I use Mendeley, which is free). If you read an article, store it there. Talk to your university library about free software and training. Do it now, whilst you have the time.
  8. Don’t undervalue thinking time. Yes, it sounds ridiculous at this stage, but we are told again and again that when it comes to the viva, understanding concept formation and demonstrating that you can think matters.
  9. Respect your supervisors, and go to meetings prepared. Be engaged. Their time is stretched, you will learn so much from them if you are making an effort.
  10. Don’t give up.

The spring term begins next week, and with it some bigger writing tasks, ethics approval and the literature review. I will write again soon about these processes from a student perspective, as well as what it feels like to be a PhD student representative and starting a student hub with others.


To find out more about Abby and keep up with her progress, visit Abby’s blog, Sink or Swim.

Meet the 2017 Festival Committee

L to R: Merryn Haines-Gadd, Dora Souza Dias, Majed Al-Jefri, Lynne McChesney, Fiona Sutton, Myrsini Athinaiou, Willem Stander, Dr Mark Erickson, Dr Susan Sandeman

With just over a month to go until the opening of our inaugural Festival of Postgraduate Research, we thought it was time to introduce the organising committee and offer an insight into the planning that takes place when putting on an event of this scale.

The committee was formed back in October 2016 and comprises our three Directors of Postgraduate Studies, three members of the Doctoral College admin team and around a dozen PhD students. We meet more or less monthly. The above photo was taken at our recent meeting in early April. Inevitably there are a couple of people each month who can’t attend so missing from the picture are Prof Darren Newbury, Patricia Soares, Adam Talbot, Omama Tariq, Heidi Von Kurthy and Helen Williamson (oh, and myself, Lorraine Slater, as I was taking the photo!). We’ve also had brilliant support from a couple of people who’ve had to step down due to other commitments: Helene Abiraad and Jenny Venton. We are enormously grateful to the students who volunteer their time and bring bags of enthusiasm to the table. We couldn’t – and wouldn’t want to – do it without them.

Read on to find out what one of our members, Willem Stander, has gained from being an organising-committee regular. And if you’re keen to check out the full schedule of the week’s events in May, stay tuned. We’re getting close!

Being on the Festival Committee

Willem Stander, 3rd year PhD student, School of Applied Social Science

Having previously been involved in organising the university’s 2016 research student conference, I was enthusiastic to join the committee again this year given the exciting changes outlined by the Doctoral College. Traditionally, past conferences have centered around oral and poster presentations by PhD students of their work to-date to other academics, and restricted solely to one campus. This year, given the festival format, the committee hopes to create an interactive, fun, and lively atmosphere through a variety of panels, exhibitions, and workshops spread across the university campuses.

Although I have greatly benefited from past opportunities to present my work to colleagues, I was personally interested in being able to have a hand in shaping events that would assist me in my current stage of study. As a final year student, I am looking at the write up of my thesis (akin to a trek up Mount Everest), a nervous breakdown or two (or three or four, let’s be honest), and life after my doctorate. As such, the inclusion of wellbeing sessions, and advice panels by early career researchers have been a welcome addition to the festival slate. Moreover, the research photo competition provides an interesting and creative way to think about our research in ways that easily (and imaginatively) translate our work to a wide range of audiences, and can be shared on several platforms. Time to put those Instagram and selfie skills to academic use, people!

To date, committee meetings have been a melting pot of ideas with much of our time devoted to tricky task of timetabling events. Alongside university staff, we have been able to share our ideas and draw on our own experiences in terms of what we thought would be practical, engaging, and needed by students at different stages of their project. It’s also been interesting to hear from colleagues from different fields about their work and facilities, and envisaging ways to share these across the schools (e.g. creative methods workshop, the Opposites Attract collaboration challenge, and a variety of lab tours). Personally, my experience being part of the committee proved to be invaluable in terms of co-organising a LGBTQ mental health conference with the University of Sussex. Having learned the intricacies of putting a conference together, I was able to draw on these skills to design a conference in my area of interest, and attract researchers whose work I have admired and drawn on in my own project.

We encourage all doctoral students to not only take part in the Festival of Postgraduate Research as an attendee or presenter, but also to consider joining the organising committee next time around. Often, our eyes are glued to our laptops as we try to churn out the word count in a caffeinated haze for that next deadline, and we feel that we have little available time for much else. We hope that you will use the festival as a resource to experiment with where you are and what you have, and that it will enable you to transform your project into a force to be reckoned with. We hope that you snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of the festival!