Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Networking and Presenting

It's a dirty work for many in academia.

I have always struggled with networking being a self-proclaimed dedicated introvert. However, one this a PhD should provide in the experience to get out of your shell through conferencing, and as a result, grow in confidence as both an academic and as a confident, assured individual.

If you ask me to walk into the coffee break at a conference like the International Medieval Congress in Leeds where 2,500 medievalists attend or the Association of University Administrators conference where nearly 1,000 attend, sweat starts to form on my brow. It is intimidating if you know nobody, and striking up that first conversation takes a lot of courage on my part.

But the joy of a conference is that you are surrounded by like-minded people. This takes the stress and anxiety down a level. However, at the recent Harlaxton Symposium on The Great Household, 1100-1500, I discovered an added benefit of talking and networking with people.

On Tuesday evening the symposium delegates sat down for dinner, and an academic I quote a lot in my thesis sat down next to me and struck up a conversation about the text and author at the core of my research. It was a lively exchange of ideas, but it also challenged some of my assumptions, raised new questions, and had an impact on my paper.

Luckily, I was presenting the next day, so had time to amend my paper to address some of those points of contention and new ideas. It allowed me time to prepare in advance for welcome critical questions. Had my introverted-ness and shyness limited my willingness to engage in conversation, my paper and presentation would have been worse for it. And, thanks to that conversation and amendments to my paper, that academic subsequently described it as "spot on" (the highest praise I could hope for!).

So, open yourselves up to networking, especially before you give a paper or presentation. When we print our papers out before a conference, the seem like fixed entities - you have carefully timed it, have the Powerpoint honed to accompany it - so you may be reluctant to make any changes. But conferences are forums for sharing, challenging, questioning, and rethinking ideas. So be open and receptive to others and incorporate that into your presentations. It can only help.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Tale of Two Conferences

Conference Season is officially complete for me!

I have just returned home from 4 days at the Harlaxton Symposium on the theme of the "The Great Household, 1100-1500" where I presented a paper. Two weeks prior to that, I attended the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and presented a paper as part of a session series organised by the Oxford Medieval Diet Group (nope, it's not a dieting group for medievalists!).

I am incredibly tired but also incredibly inspired. 

As many of you know, I currently work in professional services at the University of Oxford and am thoroughly enjoying working on the "inside" of a university. It was a conscious and deliberate choice not to pursue academic positions at the moment, but that does not mean that I am suddenly disengaged with the academic community. 

My attendance at both conferences this month were the result of invitations to speak, invitations which were impossible to turn down. The conferences are wildly different. IMC Leeds is the second largest conference for medievalists, and over 2,000 people attend. While the number and range of sessions is staggering, personally I find it overwhelming if you don't know many people there, and the sheer volume of people attending makes it difficult to strike up conversations (especially if you are an introvert like me!).

Harlaxton Symposium is much more intimate, located in the beautiful setting of Harlaxton Manor, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. The fact that the 100 delegates all stay at the manor, and share meals and drinks at the bar, makes it far more conducive and less intimidating to talk to people. There are no parallels sessions, which means that you are exposed to a wide range of papers.

I attended Harlaxton in receipt of the Barry Dobson Scholarship to cover the costs, and I am immensely grateful to the steering committee. Harlaxton is a good model for conferences which seek to share knowledge, form connections and build networks, and also have a little fun. I already have a few article ideas stemming from the conference....

But, I do need to highlight one issue I have. And this is not a criticism of the Harlaxton Symposium at all, nor of the attendees. On discussing the recent completion of my doctorate, virtually everybody that I talked to asked me a variant on "where are you doing your postdoc?" 

That is a problem for a number of reasons. It is the naive assumption that it is *that* easy to walk into a postdoc in history straight after the PhD. That may have been more true 15-20 years ago, but the academic job market today is fierce, competitive, uncompromising, and often a matter of luck.

Another problem is that it can be quite upsetting for someone who dreams of that academic position, but is forced to work outside of academia which continuing to apply for academic jobs. Feelings of failure and inadequacy can be tough enough, without being compounded by such questions. Luckily, this doesn't apply to me as I am quite happy doing what I am doing. I was very open when talking to people that I have taken a break from academia, and most people were very responsive and encouraging. However, a couple raised an eyebrow...

More and more, this will become an issue as fewer PhD graduates in humanities will walk into an academic position immediately. More and more will take alternative jobs for various reasons (money, job security, needing a break, etc.) but will continue to conference. I conference because I enjoy presenting on my material, learning from others, and keeping up with advancements in my field. Others will conference to network and work towards improving their job applications. So, we need more and more nuance and understanding from everybody. One may assume that the question "where are you doing you postdoc" or "do you have a research position" is a generational one emanating from the older of the delegates. But the truth was that it spanned current PhD students to emeritus professors.

We must shift the question to one which is inclusive not exclusive. A better way to ask a recent PhD graduate is to say:

"So, what are you up to at the moment?"

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Apologies for the delay in a new post. Things have been a bit hectic and up-in-the-air over the past few weeks, but I hope to share some very exciting news shortly.

In the meantime, we have had Brexit, a new PM, a cabinet reshuffle - life in the HE sector is very uncertain at the moment in the UK. But, I just saw a tweet about the new Education Secretary talking about teachers who made an impact in her life.

It got me thinking about those who have influenced me to get me where I am today.

During secondary school, I took Art to equivalent A-Level, which had a strong Art History component. To my shame, I cannot remember the name of my teacher, but without doubt she instilled an interest in the History of Art which led me to apply to study that at Trinity College Dublin. I thank you!

During my undergraduate, I was under the tutelage of Professor Roger Stalley, a specialist in Medieval Art and Architecture with a focus on Ireland. I was immediately gripped. Took every course I could with him:

  • Gothic Cathedral
  • Romanesque Art and Architecture
  • Early Christian Art in Ireland
He also supervised my undergraduate dissertation. I was shaped under his guidance, and always anticipated pursuing a PhD in medieval art with him. But life never works the way you plan.

I wanted to have a grounding in medieval history before returning to a PhD in medieval art, so went to UCL where I encountered the incredible Professor David d'Avray. He brought humour and rigour into Paleography and the study of manuscripts and documents. He supervised my master's dissertation and guided it to insights and conclusions I would never have come to without him. He still supports me with references, referring it light-heartedly to referee abuse as "academe's dirty little secret". I thank you!

During my Master's I found the text which led me to my DPhil (PhD) at Oxford, under the supervision of Professor Lesley Smith. Again, another incredible person to guide, push, and provide different perspectives to propel a project in paths unanticipated. I thank you wholeheartedly for the four years we spent honing that thesis, and the support during the hiccup of major corrections.

Teachers, lecturers, professors, supervisors - you all provide an amazing, and all to often underrated, service to your students. Without you all, I would not be the person I am today. I only hope that, whatever I do next, I can have an ounce of the impact on future students which you have had on me.