Despite being in my fourth year of my PhD I’ve never really done the whole academic conference thing. I’ve done a couple of PhD-led small informal ones but never ones that attract people from all over the world with formal panel sessions and shiny booklets etc. I hate public speaking, I never think I have anything to offer to conversations, I don’t have the confidence to speak up, and while I love learning from others, that’s not really justification for spending hundreds of pounds going to some awesome intellectually stimulating conference somewhere. Right? Until yesterday I was still very much concerned I had chosen the wrong career path to have such a lack of confidence…
Then I went to the Political Studies Association 2015 conference in Sheffield, and yesterday presented with two of my peers Alex Dorgan and Simon Chin-Yee on a panel titled “Trust and Trepidation in Civil Society and Governments: Food Security and the Climate Challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa“. I presented one of my thesis chapters – soon I hope to be a paper – called “Impacts of Natural Resource Management Programmes on Rural Livelihoods in Zimbabwe – the ongoing legacies from CAMPFIRE” (a crappy long draft of the paper can be found here).
Conclusion: Oh my gosh I wish I’d been doing this for so much longer. Of course it’s easier now because I have chapters written and concrete things to present but blimey it would have been easier getting to that point if I’d done some more of these over the last few years. Just one day was so valuable (and yes I realise I am probably still just riding on the high of the relief of it being over!) and here are 6 reasons why I feel PhDs should get out more:
1. The Fear
ONE panel done and I can feel myself getting over the fear. PSA is a big conference but the environment was lovely and not at all as formal and stuffy as I had expected from such an event. The panel before us (which included one of my gurus) was friendly, down-to-earth, and human. They weren’t polished presentations as one sees during a public lecture, but a chance for the academics to run past new ideas, new work, new thoughts amongst their peers. Realising that made me feel so much happier getting up there and waffling on about my research.
2. Knowing stuff
We are frequently reassured through every moment of self-doubt and hysterical panic while doing our PhDs that we do know stuff, and generally know more than we think. But hearing it from someone else and knowing it, and thus having confidence about it, are very different things. It’s therefore easy to think everything you’re doing is crap. Especially toward the end when you’ve been immersed in your research for years when your findings, conclusions and thoughts seem so obvious and simple. But getting up and presenting some of my work made me realise I do actually know stuff. Things were sliding off my tongue I didn’t know I really knew. And not only that but what I was saying made sense. People understood me, and thought it was interesting! And I could answer questions, and retort back to comments. Incredible. I know things! That is such an amazingly valuable affirmation to receive.
3. Comfort zone
I’m not Political Studies. I’m sustainability, development, geography. Of course they all have elements of political studies but I would never have imagined presenting at PSA (our panel came about very randomly!). But it was such a great experience of thinking outside my comfort zone and outside the box, while at the same time still making sense. Having the chance to come at my findings from a different angle and realise there are so many interesting nuances in my work was really exciting. I’d never thought about elements of trust or trepidation, let alone what this means for new projects coming into Zimbabwe, yet it made absolute sense and provided a new and fascinating look at the relationship between civil society and the government through the natural resource management programme I’ve been studying.
4. New conclusions
I’ve written the chapter, and am reworking it for a paper. I have it in black and white. It’s basically finished. Done deal. Then I find myself spewing out these new things while presenting. I say ‘new’… they’re not in the chapter or the paper nor were they any part of the presentation plan. But oh, there they were. Said, out loud. And they were interesting, and unique, and great! Quick, write it down before I forget what I just said. Being out of the comfort zone, out of normality and doing something unusual, allowed things that had been stewing in the back of my mind to break free. Boy, my thesis will be better for it.
5. The scary audience
This old cookie. One of the things that most puts me off public speaking are the questions and comments from the audience, especially at such an early stage of an academic career when you can guarantee there are people out there who can easily see the holes in your work. Supervisors tend not give you that much positive feedback because they’re trying to improve your work for publication and prepare you for the ultimate viva. And yes, there is always that one person sat at the back who thinks they know better (usually everyone will be able to see that they’re an arrogant so and so). But generally, people are nice, supportive, and they want to know what you’ve been doing. Two people independently said to me yesterday that we have to remember, as PhD’s we are on the frontline of research. We are the ones who are doing it, learning, pushing the boundaries of our area. Those big dogs we’re always scared of making a fool of ourselves in front of, need us! They want to know what we’re doing so they can get up to speed. Plus, who wouldn’t want to root for the newbies!
This is a no-brainer. You meet people over coffee, cocktails, in the loo, waiting at reception… Who knows where each chance encounter may lead. And it’s not always the chance encounters either. Despite Alex and I having started at the same time in the same White Rose DTC network (Climate Compatible Development Partnership) and becoming good friends who frequently chat about our work over coffee (and wine), we’ve never actually read each others’ work or heard it formally presented. Yesterday, while Alex was presenting I sat there going “yup”, “yup”, “yup”, “oh yes”… and now we’re going to write a paper together looking at the similarities across Zimbabwe and Tanzania in processes leading to food insecurity, the role of power with external organisations, and natural resource management. Or at least something like that…
…So, after hating public speaking, being so afraid and un-confident in my work, I’ve been motivated by the affirmations I received yesterday about my work both from others and from myself. One of my big questions has been answered – by me! – about why my research is important. And it is! What a relief. So my advice to everyone at any stage of a PhD is GET OUT MORE because the sooner you’re doing the things above, the better your mind will be, and the better your work will be.
And it makes a great excuse for a glass (or three) of fizz afterwards…