The Value of Academic Communities Part 3: Challenges

On the 8th of November 2017, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk at the Historical Geography Research Group’s (HGRG) annual postgraduate conference, Practising Historical Geography. I talked about my experience of academic communities, because of how important they have been to me during my PhD. I have decided to turn my talk into three blog posts, which I will publish here over the next few weeks. Part 1 was the about the various groups that make up my academic community. Part 2 was about the various activities I have taken part in to build and maintain that community. Part 3 is about the challenges I faced whilst building those networks.

The Dreaded ‘Networking’

Networking

Most people don’t like networking, but I try to think of it from a different perspective, and then it doesn’t seem so bad (Source: Solo Practice University)

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that actually enjoys networking. It can be awkward and embarrassing, particularly if you think of yourself as lacking natural social skills. However, what have I been talking about today if not networking? So instead of thinking about networking as a way of making connections that might further my career, which I think makes most of us feel slightly callous and uncomfortable, I try to think of it in a different way, based more around the idea of being part of a community. If I think of networking as meeting like-minded, interesting people who are overwhelmingly friendly and supportive, I actually start enjoying it, as weird as that might sound.

Jealousy

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The green-eyed monster can be a difficult opponent to overcome (Source: Single Dad Laughing).

I’m going to ask a question now and I’d like you to be honest: have you ever felt jealous when a colleague or fellow PhD student has had something published, won an award, got a job, or achieved something similar? I think it’s very common, but it’s hard to know because it can be a hard thing to admit to. I personally struggle with jealousy, and it’s not a part of myself that I’m proud of. It has sometime even caused me to cut myself off from my academic community, at times when I most needed support. I desperately want to be happy for my peers when they achieve something wonderful, and part of me is. But another part of me starts to question if they are just better than me, and whether I will ever reach the same milestones.

There are multiple theories around what causes jealousy. Many argue that it is a defence mechanism, causing us to protect things or relationships that we value.[1] For those of us pursuing a career in academia, it has to be something we value, or we would probably choose a different career. For other researchers, jealousy is linked to low self-esteem; and what is imposter syndrome but a form of low self-esteem?[2] Journalist Dawn Foster contends that capitalism exacerbates the issue, arguing that “Capitalism mandates that everyone be in perpetual competition with each other. This naturally spills over into personal, as well as professional, lives.”[3] I think there is something to be said for all of these arguments, but they don’t really help us to find solutions.

Whenever I feel the green-eyed monster rearing its ugly head, because a contemporary has got a job, or had something published, or submitted their thesis, I have a set of mantras that I repeat to myself. These include:

  • Every PhD is different and progresses at different paces, so making comparisons is futile.
  • You should publish or present when you have something to say, not because you need to tick a box on your CV.

To be perfectly honest, sometimes this helps, sometimes it doesn’t. So, like the other problems I’ve encountered during my PhD, I’m trying to talk about it more. As with most challenges, realising I’m not the only one that sometimes feels this way has been incredibly helpful.

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Myself and Dr. Jo Cagney in New York City during a Royal Holloway undergraduate field trip. I really enjoyed taking part in the trip as a member of staff (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

My academic community has been incredibly important to me over the course of my PhD. The people I have met and got to know have given me opportunities, advice, and support. Just as important is that I’ve had a lot of fun along the way. In the last three blog posts I have tried to convey that, as well as explaining what I have done to become a part of that academic community. I’ll acknowledge it isn’t easy, particularly at first, but it is most definitely worth the effort. Being a postgraduate can be a lonely existence, but only if you don’t make the most of the opportunities you are offered to be a part of something. Grab those opportunities, take part. I did, and hopefully as these three blog posts have conveyed, I’ve had a wonderful time.

Sources

[1] David De Steno, Piercalo Valdesolo, and Monica Y. Bartlett, “Jealousy and the Threatened Self: Getting to the Heart of the Green-Eyed Monster,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91, no. 4 (2006): 626–641.

[2] Mark R. Leary, Lisa S. Schreindorfer, and Alison L. Haupt, “The Role of Low Self-Esteem in Emotional and Behavioural Problems: Why is Low Self-Esteem Dysfunctional?” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 14, no. 3 (1995): 297–314.

[3] Dawn Foster, Lean Out (Repeater: London, 2016): 10.

The Value of Academic Communities Part 2: Being Part of the Community

On the 8th of November 2017, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk at the Historical Geography Research Group’s (HGRG) annual postgraduate conference, Practising Historical Geography. I talked about my experience of academic communities, because of how important they have been to me during my PhD. I have decided to turn my talk into three blog posts, which I will publish here over the next few weeks. Part 1 was the about the various groups that make up my academic community. Part 2 is about the activities I have taken part in to build and maintain that community.

Seminars

My Seminar Groups

The Landscape Surgery and London Group of Historical Geographers seminar groups have been very important to me during my PhD.

Just as there are probably different types of people in your academic community, there are different ways in which you can extend and strengthen it. Seminars are not just a way to hear about new research, they are also a way of participating in various communities. Attending departmental seminars are a good way for PhD students to be part of an academic department, particularly if you don’t have an office or desk in the university. The Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group at Royal Holloway have a bi-weekly seminar series in central London called Landscape Surgery, for postgraduates and staff. It is a forum for Landscape Surgeons to share our work and ideas, and also sometimes features external speakers.  Landscape Surgery has been a lifeline for me during my PhD. The Human Geography postgraduates at Royal Holloway are quite geographically dispersed—most of us don’t go into the department on a regular basis. So Landscape Surgery was frequently my only contact with an academic community. It helped me to maintain my connection to the staff and students of the Royal Holloway Geography Department.

However, seminars can also introduce you to communities that go beyond your department. Another important seminar series for me is the London Group of Historical Geographers, which also meets every other week in central London. The seminars, and the trip to Olivelli’s Italian restaurant for dinner afterwards, have really helped me to develop my academic social skills over the years. The dinners in particular have introduced me to a range of historians and historical geographers in a less formal setting, which made it easier for me to actually carry on a semi-intelligent conversation.

Conferences

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The Royal Holloway contingent in a pub in Preston the night before the 19th Practising Historical Geography conference in 2013 (Photo: Innes Keighren).

I have been to quite a few conferences during my PhD, from small-ish ones like Practising Historical Geography to massive international conferences like the RGS Annual Conference and the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. Like seminars, attending conferences is a brilliant way of meeting other academics. If you are presenting a paper, people will often come and introduce themselves to you, and it also serves as something to talk about, thus helping to avoid awkward silences or introductions. I have found organising conference sessions to be even more helpful. Putting out a Call for Papers connects you with people who have similar research interests. Or, you can invite people to take part in your session, providing you with a reason to get in touch with that Professor that you’ve always wanted to talk to. I’m convening a session at the International Conference of Historical Geographers in Warsaw next year. The prospect that I would get silence in response to my invitations and Call for Papers was a scary one, but I actually got a fantastic response. So I’m making new connections and extending my academic community, as well as building on my pre-existing connections with excellent academics and the conference is still months away.

The point that conferences help to maintain and develop pre-existing connections as well as making new ones is important. There are a number of my peers from all over the country that I only ever really see at conferences, so they represent a good chance to catch up. Being part of a community isn’t just about making new connections and meeting new people, it’s also about staying connected to people you’ve already met but don’t see very often.

Research Groups

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The attendees of the Digital Geographies Working Group’s (DGWG) first annual symposium in London in June 2017 (Photo: DGWG).

Research Groups are open, welcoming, and often actively encourage the participation of postgraduates. They also organise events that give you the chance to participate in academic communities.

Research groups also give you the opportunity to give back to your academic community. For just over a year, I have been a member of the committee of the Digital Geographies Working Group. Serving on a Committee provides you with the opportunity to meet new people, and work with those you already know, but it also allows you to develop new skills, such as organising academic events, managing budgets and accounts, or running a website. I helped to organise the first annual Digital Geographies Symposium last year. It was a steep learning curve, but it was also great fun.

 

Social Media

Faxsly Twitter

I am active on social media, including Twitter and this blog.

Not every academic makes use of social media, but I have found it to be very beneficial. I am active on Twitter, and I also run this blog. Twitter has allowed me to make new connections, and stay in touch with people in between conferences. Twitter can also act as a sort of leveller, making it less intimidating to approach and start a discussion with a big name.

As well as being something that I really enjoy doing, and allowing me to toy with the concept of impact, my blog gives me a presence on the internet beyond your normal Twitter account or departmental webpage. If someone wanted to, they could get a good sense of who I am and what my research interests are from Turbulent London. I am also keen to publish contributions from guest authors, which is another reason to make connections with people that you perhaps otherwise wouldn’t. Although not universal, there is no doubt that social media has changed the way that academics interact. I personally think it is a great way to participate in the academic community.

Participating in academic networks can be time consuming, but it is incredibly worthwhile; you can learn new skills, cement your place in academic communities, and it is great fun. In is not all plain sailing however; in Part 3 of The Value of Academic Communities, I will talk about some of the challenges I have faced whilst building my academic communities.

The Value of Academic Communities Part 1: My Academic Community

On the 8th of November 2017, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk at the Historical Geography Research Group’s (HGRG) annual postgraduate conference, Practising Historical Geography. I talked about my experience of academic communities, because of how important they have been to me during my PhD. I have decided to turn my talk into three blog posts, which I will publish here over the next few weeks.

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Myself with some of my Royal Holloway peers and my PhD supervisor at the 2016 RGS-IBG Annual Conference. From left to right: Ben Newman, Dr. Rachael Squire, Dr. Innes Keighren, myself (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A PhD can be a lonely experience. I have spent many days sat on my own in the archives or in front of my computer. As such, I have always embraced opportunities to work or interact with other PhD students and academics. There are a number of reasons why it’s a good idea to actively participate in the academic community, ranging from the strategic to the emotional. It can lead to opportunities that are helpful for career progression, it provides access to a wealth of advice and experience, and it can be a source of support when you’re struggling. Talking to others who know what I’m going through has been one of the key strategies I have developed to deal with the stress of doing a PhD. Every PhD is different, and as such, it seems likely that every PhD student’s academic communities are also different. Because of this, I thought I should explain what I consider my academic community to be.

PhD Supervisors

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This is the only photo I could find of myself and both of my PhD supervisors. Professor David Gilbert is on the far left in the back row, and Dr. Innes Keighren is on the far right in the back row (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

In many ways, your PhD supervisors are your first point of contact with the academic world, so your relationship with them is an important one. My supervisors have been incredible, helping me through all aspects of academic life as well as the thesis itself. My department runs an annual training session on called Managing Your Supervisor, which always gets a bit of a giggle, but it is actually important to think about. What do you want or need from your supervisor? What do you expect from them? What do they expect from you? The relationship between postgraduates and supervisors varies a lot depending on the individuals involved, but it’s worth investing some time thinking about what works best for you. I have two supervisors: Professor David Gilbert and Dr. Innes Keighren. I almost always met with both of them, which I think is quite unusual from what I’ve gathered talking to others. I guess my key piece of advice is be honest with them, especially when things aren’t going well. It can be embarrassing to admit you’re struggling, but how are they supposed to help you if they don’t know what’s really going on? Your supervisors are probably your most valuable source of advice, support, and feedback: don’t waste it. However, you also have to be wary of being over reliant. At the end of the day your PhD is your project, and at some point you have to take ownership of it.

Peers

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My Masters class on a trip to the Royal Geographical Society archives in December 2012 (Photo: Innes Keighren).

There isn’t really a concise way of saying ‘people who are doing a PhD at roughly the same time as you,’ so I’ve settled for peers. There are quite a few PhD students in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, and I have also met PhD students from other departments along the way. My peers have been really important to me, because they understand what I’m going through. It can be hard for those outside of academia to grasp a PhD; I have had to field quite a few questions over the years about what I’m going to do in my summer holiday, when my next exams are, and what I actually do with my time. Other PhD students get all that though, and more. They know it feels to get stuck writing a chapter, or hit a dead end in the archive, or have a frustrating supervision meeting. Equally, they know how it feels to have an abstract accepted for a conference, or to find that perfect source in the archive, or to get some great feedback from your supervisors. My peers understand it all–the triumphs and the tragedies. Peers are a wonderful source of advice, and if they can’t help, they can at least sympathise.

Established Academics

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Past and present committee members of the Historical Geography Research Group in 2013. (Photo: HGRG).

Another endless source of wisdom is academics who are further along their career path. I have found them to be unceasingly generous with their time and advice. Although it was a while ago for some of them, they know what it’s like to go through a PhD too, and I have been the grateful recipient of many pearls of wisdom over the years. I know it can be intimidating to talk to a high-flying professor when you are just a lowly postgraduate, but they don’t bite, honestly!

Over the course of a PhD, you get the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people, who you will probably have a lot in common with. In Part 2 of The Value of Academic Communities, I will talk about the various opportunities that I have made the most of to establish and maintain myself in academic communities.

Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Revolt, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City

Revolting New York cover

Revolting New York will be published early next year.

On my trips to New York City (in 2015 and 2016), I have scoured bookshops looking for a history of protest in the city, assuming that there must be one. After all, there are at least two books about London’s turbulent past. Whilst there is lots of great research about dissent in New York, there has not been an overarching survey–until now. Next year, a book will be published not just about the history of protest in New York, but about the historical geography of protest in the city. Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Revolt, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City began as a project by Neil Smith with some of his post-graduate students at the City University of New York. When he passed away in 2012, Professor Don Mitchell took over the task of editing the collection, and it is finally being published next year. As you can imagine, I’m quite excited about it, whilst also being a bit frustrated that I didn’t get there first!

Last week, Professor Mitchell gave a lecture about the project at Queen Mary, University of London. I went along to find about more about the project. Mitchell used various examples to demonstrate the strength of the relationship between dissent and the material landscape. We tend to view demonstrations, riots, and other expressions of dissent as unusual events, but they are actually very common, particularly in large cities like London and New York. It is actually more uncommon to have a peaceful period.

Mitchell started the lecture with an in-depth look at a decade of bombings in New York, culminating in anarchist Mario Buda’s attack on Wall Street on the 16th of September 1920 (I have written a review of Mike Davis’ excellent book about this bombing’s part in the early history of the car bomb here.) The bombings contributed to the deindustrialization of New York, as the small-scale manufacturing and transport networks that produced and planted the bombs were driven out of the city. Finance, insurance, and real estate came to dominate the city’s economy. In attempting to strike a devastating blow against the bankers of Wall Street, Buda inadvertently helped them tighten their grip on New York.

Mitchell used this narrative, and others, to argue that “landscape is power materialised.” Whilst this is not a new argument, Revolting New York applies it in a new context. Space is produced through social struggle, the result of constant negotiation and conflict between groups with different visions for that space. Protest is just one form that this process takes. As such, protest shapes and reshapes the city you see when you look out the window (apologies to those of you who are not currently in a city!)

The lecture was an introduction to the Revolting New York project, outlining it’s history, structure, and key arguments. It is particularly exciting for me because of its parallels with my own work on London. The book will be affordable too, less than £25 for the paperback, so hopefully it will help bring historical geography to a wider audience. I for one can’t wait to read it!