ICHG 2018: Some (Nice) Reflections on Academia

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The 17th International Conference of Historical Geography was held in July 2018 in Warsaw, Poland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I recently attended the 17th International Conference of Historical Geography (ICHG) in Warsaw, Poland. I had a brilliant time– it was a week full of exchanging ideas, meeting new people, and catching up with old people. The conference is held once every three years; it was last hosted by London in 2015 and I was there, heading towards the end of the second year of my PhD. Someone commented that the cycles of the ICHG feel like markers in your career, which got me thinking about how far I have come in the last 3 years, between London 2015 and Warsaw 2018.

I have certainly got ‘better’ at big conferences; in 2015 I co-organised one session at the ICHG, in 2018 I organised 2 on my own. I am better at networking, and I have learnt that it is not just about meeting new people, but also about developing relationships with people that I have met before. I’m less afraid to use the opportunity to ask more experienced academics for advice; I have finally convinced myself that they won’t think I’m stupid and/or annoying for asking.

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The speakers in “Historical Geographies of Protest and Dissent.” From left to right: Carl Griffin, Briony McDonagh, me, Nathan Moore, Iain Robertson (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

There are other areas of academic life on which I’m making good progress. Whilst I was in Warsaw I got word that my thesis revisions had been accepted by my examiners. I won’t technically be a Doctor until I graduate, but I will be a Doctor, it’s definitely happening. In 2015, the only geography department I knew was Royal Holloway. It is a fantastic department, but it meant my experience was rather limited. Since then I have also taught and worked at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Central Lancashire. I have learnt to give lectures, run tutorials, and write and mark assessments within a variety of different academic cultures.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, not by a long shot. I had moments during my PhD when I thought I would never finish it, and there were chapters that didn’t come together for months. I’ve had conference papers rejected, and for the jobs I got, there have been many, many more that I did not. I think it is important to acknowledge our failures as well as celebrate our successes in academia; it is all part of the process.

I am only at the beginning of my academic career; I still have a long way to go. By the next ICHG in 2021, I will have published some journal articles, and be on my way to securing a permanent academic job, if I haven’t already. 3 years ago, I would have qualified those goals with ‘hope’ or ‘might.’ Now, I am more confident in myself and my abilities. Of course, I still have my moments of fear, insecurity, and doubt. But they are becoming less common.

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Celebrating making it through the conference with a cocktail and friends (Photo: Ruth Slatter).

This blog post is not meant to be a big old boast (although I do think that female academics in particular could do with being more confident about expressing our achievements). It is meant to be a message of hope. I spoke to a lot of PhD students in Warsaw, and I recognised in many of them the same insecurities I felt back in 2015. There is a lot of discussion about how hard academia is to get into, and it is. But I can also give you loads of examples of people who have succeeded, in all kinds of ways, including outside of academia. So I guess the purpose of this blog post is to say to those PhD students: don’t be too hard on yourself. It might take you longer than you think, and it might not look like you imagined, but you’ll get there.

How to Design a Research Poster: Collected Resources

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My poster and I at the 2018 AAG in New Orleans (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Academic research posters are something most people have to produce at least once or twice during your PhD. They can be a good way to present your research at conferences, particularly if you are nervous about giving a paper. However, they are a quite particular medium, that requires an approach unlike anything else. If you get it right, they can look great, and communicate your research in an effective and concise manner. If you get it wrong, then they look a mess. I recently designed a poster about protest stickers for the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New Orleans. Below are some of the resources I found helpful when putting my poster together. I would also like to acknowledge the input of my Dad, Dr. Graeme Awcock, who is a bit of an expert on academic posters, and taught me how to design them when I was an undergraduate.

I have collected some resources together that I found useful below, but my own key tips would be:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to design the poster. Unlike other academic outputs, it is not the writing, but the design that takes the most time when designing a poster.
  • Detail matters. It can feel petty, and be very frustrating, trying to make sure that all your columns are the same length and the same distance from each other and the poster margins, but it does make a big difference.
  • Produce several versions, experimenting with different layouts and colour schemes. You can then ask family, friends, or colleagues for input about which works best.
  • Proofread your poster carefully. Twice. I have noticed typos in posters before, and it must be an awful feeling to display your poster and notice a mistake.
  • Build time for printing into your schedule. Some printers need several days to print a poster. Make sure you have accounted for that, so that your poster will be ready on time.

Helpful resources:

Buket Gundogan, Kiron Koshy, Langhit Kurar, and Katharine Whitehurst, “How to Make an Academic Poster,” Annals of Medicine and Surgery 11 (2016); p 69-71. This contains some good advice, particularly relating to what to do when you’re actually presenting your poster–the work doesn’t finish when you pin it up.

NYU Libraries: How to Create a Research Paper: Poster Basics does what it says on the tin really, including providing examples of good and bad posters.

The University of Manchester School-University Partnership Initiative: Academic Posters covers most of the basics, and provides a couple of templates.

University of Liverpool Computing Services: Making an Impact with your Poster is a detailed guide on a number of elements, including balance, images, font, and colour.

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’

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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

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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

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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.

RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2017: The Geographies of Everything

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The RGS-IBG Annual Conference is held at the Society’s headquarters in South Kensington two years out of every three (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent most of last week at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of the British Geographers (RGS-IBG). It is one of the biggest events in British academic geography’s calendar; this year there were more than 1600 participants and 380 sessions. This was my third time at the conference (my previous trips were in 2016 and 2014), and as always, I had a brilliant time. One of the things that I love most about geography is that is such a broad and varied subject; you can study the geography of anything and everything. The conference really brought that home. I attended a wide variety of sessions, on topics from digital geography to the geographies of dissent to historical geography.

For the last year, I have been on the committee of the RGS-IBG’s Digital Geographies Working Group. As part of that, I looked after the Group’s Twitter account during the conference, so I went to several digital geography-themed sessions, including really interesting sessions on the role of the digital in commemoration, and the geography of video games. Digital geography relates to a whole range of different elements of academia; it can be a topic of research, a method of research, or a way of communicating research. My interest in digital geography comes from thinking about the ways that social media and the internet is used by protesters.

Because of the topic of my research, the geographies of dissent was also a big part of the conference for me. Conferences are a great way of keeping up to date with new research in your field, and they also allow you to meet the people doing that research. I presented my research in a session called Geographies of Activism and Protest, and a had a brilliant time meeting the other presenters and discussing our research. There was also quite a large audience as well, which was especially nice considering it was the final session on the last day. I also went to some really interesting sessions on the geographies of opposition, political geographies of the event, populism, and anti-colonialism.

When I’m at a conference, I also like to go to some sessions that have nothing to do with my research or any other commitments, but just sound interesting. I went to the second of three New and Emerging Research in Historical Geography, and heard some great papers on Scottish travelling fairgrounds, the property of eighteenth-century widows, and the practice of Victorian monarchy, amongst others. The  conference’s opening plenary, on decolonising geographical knowledge, was brilliant, and I went to a lecture on land titles that was much more interesting than it sounds!

Big international conferences like the RGS-IBG are exhausting, and sometimes a bit bewildering. But they are also great fun, and can be incredibly rewarding. At the RGS-IBG, you can find geographies of all kinds, and I personally think that embracing that variety is a great way to make the most out of the conference.

 

How to Write PhD Acknowledgements: Collected Resources

I have had some feedback that the blog posts I put together on resources for writing thesis Introductions and Conclusions. The latest thing I turned to the internet for help with is my Acknowledgments, and I’m glad I did. Although the Acknowledgements aren’t assessed, they are significant, not only because it’s important to thank the people that have helped and supported you, but also because it says something about you as a researcher.

Doctoral Writing SIG: Writing the Acknowledgements: The Etiquette of Thanking suggests who to thank and what order to thank them in in order to avoid causing offence. Reading and Writing the Thesis Acknowledgment: Support, People and Identity is a guest-authored post by Lila Mantai who conducted an analysis of 79 thesis acknowledgements to explore what kinds of support PhD students value most. It made me think about the purpose of the acknowledgments, and how they might be perceived by others.

Newcastle University Writing Development Centre: Acknowledgements is a short post that provides some useful vocab if you run out of ways of saying “Thank you to…”

For Acknowledgement: Useful Expressions for Acknowledgement: Samples and Examples has a somewhat longer list of possible vocab. What’s Acknowledgment? provides a brief introduction to acknowledgments and what they should include. It is aimed more towards journal articles than PhDs, but it still came in handy.

Patter: I’d Like to Thank…The Important Work of Acknowledgments is a brief reflection on what the author of acknowledgments gets out of them. It points out that acknowledgements can situate a researcher in academic networks, showing the reader the author’s scholarly context. This is something I hadn’t thought about before.

Times Higher Education: The Best Academic Acknowledgments Ever is perhaps a better indication of what not to do rather than good practice, unless you want to passive-agressively criticise someone, or propose to your partner. It may be a reminder that it’s all been done before, so it’s probably not worth trying to be original or witty, unless you’re very good at it.

5 Reasons Why I Love My PhD

Some bits of your PhD are tough, and some bits are damn hard. I have been going through a particularly difficult stretch recently; I am coming into the last few months, and everything is taking about twice as long as I need it to. On some days, it is difficult to remember why I signed up for this in the first place. But I do love my PhD, and I want to hold on to that, so I made a list of all the things about my PhD that I enjoy:

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I have always enjoyed spending time in libraries, and I’ve certainly been able to do a lot of that during my PhD! (Photo: Tony Evans).

1. My topic. I have always loved history and geography, and protest is a topic I’ve been interested in since the Student Tuition Fee Protests in 2010. I was an undergraduate, and it was the first time I got involved in protest. The connections between my experiences and my studies in Geography were obvious. London is a fantastic city to research as well, I love being able to spend my days finding out more about the people and events that have shaped the history of one of my favourite cities in the world.

2. Working in the archives. Whilst I was conducting research on the Gordon Riots, I spent quite a bit of time in the Rare Books and Manuscripts room at the British Library. I consulted the diary of John Wilkes, radical politician and perpetual pain in the neck of the government in the middle of the eighteenth century. I got a little thrill knowing I was touching pages that he had written. I also just enjoy spending time in libraries and archive reading rooms, surrounded by books, in peace and quiet. The Bishopsgate Institute Library in London is a particular favourite of mine, it is exactly what a good library should look like!

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I loved exploring Chicago during time out from the AAG (Photo: Llinos Brown).

3. Going to conferences. Conferences are long and tiring, but I really enjoy them. They are great opportunities for finding out about the latest ideas and research, and for meeting new people, and catching up with others that you met at previous conferences. Doing a PhD can be a lonely experience, and conferences are an enjoyable social respite. They can also be an excuse to travel; last year I was lucky enough to go to Chicago for the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers, and I had a fantastic time exploring the city.

4. Teaching. I have been lucky enough to get plenty of teaching opportunities during my PhD. I’ve had a go at marking, demonstrating, lecturing, and running seminars, and I’ve enjoyed most of them. I’ve also helped on the undergraduate field trip to New York.

5. Writing this blog. There have been several occasions over the last few months when I have considered taking a hiatus from Turbulent London, or at least decreasing the frequency of posts in order to concentrate on my thesis. Every time I have decided not too, because I enjoy it too much. The writing style comes to me more easily than the formal academic style, and it feels great when someone responds to a post. So I’m going to try and keep it going for as long as I can.

So there you have it; 5 reasons why I love my PhD. I think it’s really important to be open about the negative elements of postgraduate study and academia, but sometimes you just need to stop and take stock of all the good things.

The Postgraduate Forum: When Human and Physical Geographers Meet

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Last week I began my eighth year of study at Royal Holloway (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week was my eighth Welcome Week at Royal Holloway (although it was still called Fresher’s Week in my day!), and my fifth as a postgraduate. Every year, as part of the Welcome Week programme in the Geography Department, two PhD students organise the Postgraduate Forum, a one-day conference in which current PhD students present their work. It gives current PhD students the chance to present in a friendly environment, and introduces new Masters and PhD students to the breadth of postgraduate research going on in the department.

The research community at Royal Holloway is split into three research groups: the Centre for Quaternary Research (which is where you’ll find the physical geographers), the Politics, Development and Sustainability group, and the Social, Cultural, and Historical Geography group (which is where you’ll find me!) For most of the year, these three groups operate quite separately, although there is quite a lot of overlap between the PDS and SCHG groups. On just one day a year, at the Postgraduate Forum, these three groups come together to share their research with each other, and I think it’s great.

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Ashley Abrook very helpfully adapted his presentation to suit his audience, and included an explanation of what the Quaternary period is (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Geography is a a very broad academic discipline which encompasses a wide range of topics, methodologies  and theoretical approaches. For example, the Forum was organised this year by Rachael Squire and Rachel Devine (who did a fantastic job, by the way). Rachael Squire’s PhD is about the geopolitics of the ocean, focusing on the US Navy’s Sealab projects during the Cold War. Rachel Devine’s PhD is about trying to find evidence to support a new theory about what caused a period of cooling during the last interglacial transition (apologies in advance if I haven’t summarised the projects well!) You couldn’t get much more different than that, and because the different areas of geography can be so diverse, you don’t often get human and physical geographers in the same room discussing each other’s research. Which is why  the Postgraduate Forum is such a good event. In the space of just one day we heard about: using the size of fossil teeth to investigate past climates; a radical eco-squat in Camden; the response of vegetation to centennial-scale climate variations; the tensions involved in being a black Christian rapper from Ealing; using rocks to reconstruct the movement of glaciers;  and whether or not the Estonian government’s use of digital technologies are creating a more transparent and accountable form of government.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the RGS-IBG Annual Conference acting as a social nexus. I was kind of joking, but the analogy actually works quite well here too. The Postgraduate Forum brings PhD students together who otherwise might never interact. At the Postgraduate Forum, I met second- and third-year PhD students who are studying in the same department as me, but who I have never met before, because we’re not in the same research group. In one respect, it’s a shame that I haven’t had the chance to get to know them until now, but on the other hand I’m really pleased that we get this chance every year.

So whilst I hope, for the sake of my sanity and my bank balance, that this is the last Postgraduate Forum I will attend at Royal Holloway (as a student anyway- I’ll gladly stick around if they’d pay me!), I hope that it carries on for many more Welcome Weeks.

The RGS-IBG Annual Conference: A Social Nexus

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The Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference took place this year at the RGS-IBG in Kensington (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent most of last week at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (more commonly known as the RGS-IBG to save time!) Annual Conference in South Kensington. It is the fourth big international conference I have attended since I started my PhD, and apart from being more familiar with big conferences and how they work, I noticed one big difference from my previous conference experiences: I know people now. During the tea breaks, lunch breaks, and drinks receptions, I could be fairly confident that I would find someone I know to talk to. Not that there’s anything wrong starting a conversation with a stranger; I did a little of that too. But knowing that I could probably find someone I already knew to talk to make the prospect of networking less intimidating.

The overarching theme of the conference this year was Nexus Thinking. One of the latest buzzwords in geography, a nexus is a space of connections, of junctures, and of interaction. It got me thinking about the way in which conferences bring people together from a wide range of geographical locations and subject areas- they function as social nexuses (see what I did there?).

I saw lots of people that I know at the RGS-IBG, many that I haven’t seen in quite a while. There were previous Royal Holloway students who have now moved on to further study at other universities; current Hollowegians who I haven’t seen since the end of the summer term, or who I don’t normally get to talk to in the day-to-day life of my PhD; and people that I only really see at conferences.

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Myself with some fellow Hollowegians during a lunch break. From left to right: Ben Newman, Rachel Squire, Innes Keighren, Hannah Awcock (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many of them were fellow PhD students, whose PhDs I have followed via conference papers and chats over tea and biscuits, lunch, or a drink in the pub at the end of the day. I have watching from afar as their research has developed and progressed, and it was really nice to see them last week, as we all come in to the final stretch.

The RGS-IBG Historical Geography Research Group too, have been an intermittent presence throughout my PhD, particularly at the annual Practising Historical Geography conferences. The more established members are so supportive and generous with their time, never seeming to get tired of the incessant questioning from postgraduate students.

Sometimes when I am sat at home at my desk staring at a computer screen for hours on end, a PhD can feel quite lonely. Last week I was reminded that I have become part of a community; a group of people who know and understand what I’m going through, and that feels really nice. It might be a largely long-distance community, that requires a social nexus like the RGS-IBG Annual Conference to bring us together, but it is one that means a lot to me. And I am now confident that I will always be able to find someone to eat with during the conference lunch breaks.