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 AAG: Why Did I Sign Up For This?

The Chicago skyline from the top of the Willis Tower, the tallest building  in the Western hemisphere.

The Chicago skyline from the top of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the Western hemisphere (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers, otherwise known as the AAG. Probably the biggest Geography conference in the world, the AAG continues to grow every year and this year over 9000 delegates gathered in Chicago for the 5 day event. It was my first time attending the conference, and although I had a fantastic time I did find the whole thing a little overwhelming at times. Amongst everything, it is easy to forget why you’re there in the first place. I decided to put this post together of what I believe are the 3 main purposes of going to a large international conference like the AAG, so you can reassure yourself when you find yourself asking the question, which you almost certainly will at some point, ‘Why did I sign up for this?’

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A welcome sign at the AAG (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

  1. Present. And/or organising a session. Although you don’t have to present your work when you go to a conference, it seems a bit daft to fly all the way over the Atlantic Ocean and not present. Each presenter at the AAG only gets 20 minutes for their talk, including questions, so it really isn’t a big commitment. Presenting allows you to share your work with, and get feedback from, people outside your normal academic circle, which can be incredibly helpful. Presenting at such a prominent conference also allows you to stake your claim to your research topic, to make sure other people know what your research involves. Plus, it can actually be quite fun- you might actually enjoy yourself!

    Me Presenting at Chicago AAG

    Yours truly presenting a paper on the Battle of Cable Street (Photo: Innes Keighren).

  2. Network. The sheer size of the AAG makes it a unique opportunity for networking, particularly for international contacts. Some really big names in Geography attend the AAG, and it can be a great chance to introduce yourself (I was sat behind David Harvey in one session, although I didn’t say hello!) If you are thinking about publishing your work, many publishers have booths in the exhibition hall, and a lot of journal editors also attend, so there are plenty of people to talk to about your ideas. It is a great chance to meet other PhD students, and catch up with existing friends who you haven’t seen since the last big conference. A PhD can sometimes be a lonely experience, so I like to take every chance I get to socialise with other people in the same boat.

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    My business cards, an invaluable networking tool! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

  3. Learn. My final purpose of going to a large international conference is a bit cheesy I know, but I think it’s a really important one. Conferences are a great chance to find out the latest ideas, theories and concepts in geography and your particular field. As I said, some of the biggest names in Geography attend the AAG, so it’s a great chance to hear them speak, and learn directly from them. Plus, it gives you the chance to ask questions about things you don’t understand, which you can’t do when reading a journal article or book. You can develop your own current projects by listening to others, and perhaps even get some ideas for future projects.

And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you to go along to the next AAG, the 2016 meeting is being held in San Francisco, so if you’ve always wanted to see Alcatraz or the Bay Bridge, then why not squeeze in a massive international conference whilst you’re at it?