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 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.

Highs and Lows of the AAG: Perspective of a Lone Travelling PhD Researcher

Who Am I?

My name is Llinos Brown and I am a final year EPSRC CASE award PhD student at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Preston. My PhD research explores energy cultures in a workplace case study environment. I am particularly interested in exploring how energy cultures differ between manufacturing and office environments within the same workplace. If you are interested in hearing more about my research please get in touch – Lbrown5@uclan.ac.uk or follow me on twitter @LlinosBrownGeog


The AAG this year was held in Chicago, the city that invented the skyscraper.

The AAG this year was held in Chicago, the city that invented the skyscraper. The main conference venue was the Hyatt Regency hotel, to the left of this image (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Like the majority of conferences, the AAG is a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues/friends, build up relationships, meet new people and network…..what you would expect from any conference. But the AAG is a bit different to any conference I had attended. It is extremely big – over 9000 geographers attending, with over 1700 sessions submitted – split over two main venues and two smaller venues, with over 90 parallel sessions. It has a conference app and there are lots of very well-known geographers in attendance (someone should create a Geographer Bingo).

Something that I struggled with and something that overwhelmed me was – how do you systematically go through which session to attend? My approach was first look at the speciality groups, the main one for me– energy, and highlight them. Then look for some key words – for me energy, workplace, and behaviour, and highlight them. Finally if there are any gaps (and I had time to look in more detail) look through particular session slots and highlight anything that you think was a bit different. I spent around 20 minutes each evening going through what I had highlighted for the next day and working out what I really wanted to see. Each day I also popped in something a little bit different into my schedule. I would definitely recommend this, some of the most thought provoking sessions that I attended were sessions that had nothing to do with my sub-discipline of energy geographies. The AAG has a bit of everything, embrace the amazing discipline of Geography and the variety of sessions that are on offer.

The printed program for the AAG is the size of a telephone book!

The printed program for the AAG is the size of a telephone book! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

One of the highs of the conference for me that I did not realise until I was on the plane home, was how embracing geography for a week helped me formulated new ideas. It’s not just about presenting your paper, networking, or handing out business cards. The conference has helped me develop empirical chapters for my thesis and it has made it much clearer to me how all the bits of my future thesis will link together. Maybe this wasn’t the AAG and it was just having time away from my desk and not directly thinking about my PhD but it was very extremely beneficial all the same.

One of the lows of the conference for me was its size. It is extremely big and it can be a lonely experience. Lunch and refreshments are not provided by the organisers so you can easily end up on your own at lunchtime. There are not the opportunities to chat to the person in front of you or sit next to someone while eating dinner and get chatting to them – which I’ve done at the RGS Annual Conference.  One thing I noticed at the AAG is that there are a lot of British geographers in attendance but they often stay in their university groups which mean if you’re the sole representative from your university it can mean you’re on your own for an evening or two. I was lucky enough to gate crash the Royal Holloway ‘crew’ so most evenings I joined them for food and drink – Thanks guys!

Llinos doing a bit of networking.

Llinos doing a bit of networking (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The N word – ‘Networking’ – we all know the benefits of it and how beneficial it can be but sometimes it can make you reflect on your experience as a researcher and make you wish you were in the person you are speaking to shoe’s. Yes, there is the saying ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ and this might link to me being the only person from UCLan attending the AAG but some evenings when I was back in my hotel room and had time to reflect on the day, I was a bit jealous of the additional support networks, the variety of supervision and the diversity of PhD research communities at other universities. This can be a bit of a low but there are also some positives such as realising you’ve got better resources than other PhD students – such as a permanent desk.

So to round up some top tips from me:

  • Don’t attend every session, there is a lot going on and you need time to digest the information you’ve obtained;
  • Get in contact with people you have met at previous conferences and see if they are attending, buddy up with them, exchange details and go for a drink.
  • Follow the twitter hashtag, if you’re ever not sure what session to attend check out twitter and see if something exciting is happening.
  • Head to a random session not related to your discipline – embrace Geography

Llinos Brown, University of Central Lancashire.