I (Aileen Lichtenstein) am a first year AHRC-funded PhD student in History at the University of Glasgow. I signed up to help organise the 7th Annual Glasgow University College of Arts Postgraduate Conference at the end of last year to get an idea what it is like to organise these events and to meet other PhD students from different disciplines. You can find me through my AHRC profile: http://www.sgsah.ac.uk/about/students/profiles17-18/headline_550873_en.html
Conferences – attending, speaking at, and organising them – is part and parcel of the academic experience, or so I had heard during my masters degree a few years ago. Coming from a non-traditional background into the postgraduate academic world, I had never heard of conferences or their importance before and consequently, the idea of speaking about my own research at them terrified me. So when I could not muster up the courage to give a paper myself, I decided to instead attend Glasgow University’s College of Arts postgraduate conference to support a much more courageous friend. Suddenly I realised the great environment these student-led conferences provided to discuss my own ideas with many others who are in similar situations, and I knew I wanted to be involved in it.
So when the Graduate School’s office put out a call for volunteers to organise this year’s postgraduate conference I answered it in the hope to gain more knowledge about an important part of the PhD experience. Personally, getting involved was not just another box to tick in terms of gaining skills for my CV, and the scary thought of the future job market. It was also to see how it all works behind the scenes, in order to confront my own anxiety and muster up the courage to speak myself this time around. So far, it has been a great learning experience about everything that is involved in the organisation of an event like this: venue hire, catering costs, speakers for keynotes and workshops, hotel accommodation, and gifts. This was also a great opportunity to start thinking about applying for SGSAH Cohort Development Funding in the future, and getting experience in all the different aspects that need to be considered for a successful application.
The first difficulty we ran into as a team was picking the overall theme of the conference. To accommodate speakers and performers from every Arts and Humanities discipline, it had to be a broad and fresh theme which had not been used by any other university or college within the last 5 years. It took six people a surprising amount of time to find and agree on a theme. Being such a diverse group, of mainly international students from a diverse range of academic, cultural and personal backgrounds, the theme ‘connections’ meant something to all of us. Focusing on this for the Call for Papers was an interesting exercise which involved discussing our own research we were undertaking for our individual topics.
Another difficulty we experienced as a team, was grappling with the gender balance of keynote speakers and workshop leaders for the conference, while thinking of the kind of equal and inclusive academic environment we wanted to create for our speakers, attendees, and ourselves as an all-female team. The debates that followed showed that while we were an all-female committee, we could not assume that all of us had the same attitudes towards gender related issues within the academic environment, and we were careful to ensure that we had one male and one female keynote speaker. Organising everything, while trying to juggle our first year Annual Progress Review, was a difficult task but a great lesson in multi-tasking and teamwork.
Yet, while learning to handle all the different obstacles conference organisation throws at you, there were many rewarding experiences along the way. Reading all the abstracts that were sent in was a great way to see the breadth of topics that other postgraduates and PhD students are working on in Glasgow and the rest of the UK. While grouping all these diverse topics into panels definitely provided an afternoon’s challenge for all of us, it was a great exercise to debate and approach research topics from different and more creative angles to try and tie them together. This also gave me some interesting impulses to think about, and approach my own research in different ways. Most of all, though it gave me the opportunity to engage with other PhD students outside of my own school, discipline and cohort that I would have not otherwise had the chance to get to know. Being on the committee has been a great way to make friends for the coming years and to learn from other people’s viewpoints and backgrounds.
Helping to organise this event will hopefully help me to deal with my anxiety of presenting my own paper. Apart from the History department’s own first year APR presentations, this will be my first conference presentation. And while I have gotten used to doing a lot of public speaking in front of Scotland’s teenagers through my work as a Widening Participation tutor, giving a talk on a topic that I care about is quite a different cup of tea to me. I have chosen this to be my first conference to make sure my presentation is held in a supportive, student-led environment that I helped to create. While I’m sure not everyone feels like an imposter almost every day of their academic life, I quite often do, and being on the committee to create a welcoming and comfortable environment for others to present their research was important to me. It’s a fulfilling experience helping to make someone’s first conference a positive memory to look back on, and a way to handle my own anxiety. For now, I am looking forward to the conference taking place, and learning more about all the research projects our speakers will be presenting on.
If you’re interested check out our programme at https://guconnectionsconference.wordpress.com/conference-programme/ and join us on 29th and 30th May at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. You can register to attend until 17th May on Eventbrite under the following link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/university-of-glasgow-college-of-arts-pg-conference-2018-may-29-30-tickets-45287248379.
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