Nichola Tonks: The Newbie in the Corner

Nichola Tonks

Nichola Tonks

Nichola Tonks recently received a First Class undergraduate degree at the University of Derby, she will be starting an MA programme in September 2015.


Go to academic conferences over the summer, they said. It will give you an idea of what life could be like as a post-graduate student and as an academic, they said. They said, so I did. Every year of my undergraduate degree, I tasked myself with attending an academic conference. I thought it would acclimatise me, get me used to the working world of academia before plunging headlong into a career. Therefore, even though I have only just graduated, I’d been to a couple of conferences before. During my second year as an undergraduate student, I had even taken part in a module which required us to co-research and collaboratively write, then deliver a conference paper. I knew a little of conferences, didn’t I?

I thought I did. Everyone there thought that they did; from my fellow master’s applicants to the most seasoned academic. Most delegates thought they knew what to expect. Yes, it was a large conference the like of which I’d not been to before, yet there was more than just the size of the Modern British Studies conference that was different to other conferences I’d been to. I thought that was just me. It felt different, but I couldn’t put my finger on why, or how. I spent the whole conference in a bubble. Driving, conferencing, driving, sleeping. It was exhausting. I thought it was just me. It wasn’t. Through talking to others at the conference, I learned that I was not alone in feeling tired from the schedule, but also from the level of stimulus. Papers were engaging, the keynotes were rousing, but moreover, the atmosphere was electric (forgive the cliché). To quote James Vernon: “If MBS2015 is Glastonbury for historians, the Catherine Hall is THE headliner.” He encapsulated exactly how it felt. There was a buzz, a hype – something was happening here, between these people, in this moment. I wasn’t the only one to notice that ‘festival’ feeling.

I’ve always been a little awkward in the presence of academics, you could say a little star-struck even (ask David Gange, he’ll testify to that one!), used to retiring to a corner during breaks and just hearing wafts of conversations that I’d wonder if I’d ever actually join in with. Yet, at MBS those conversations were happening all around me and I didn’t feel the need to run off as I had in the past, but don’t ask me why, it just felt different. An air of inclusivity, rather than exclusivity. I even asked a question. Something which I was determined I couldn’t yet put myself ‘out there’ to do just yet. People are suggesting that the postgrad workshop at the beginning of the day set the tone for the whole conference, and conversations that had been started there carried on throughout the three-day experience. Not only are they right, but those conversations opened other doors, broke other barriers. It felt different, easier somehow to say “hello, I’m Nichola”, rather than to run. I met people, I talked with people. I came home bouncing on day two and I struggled to explain how it felt to my mother (who was babysitting for me), how exhilarating it had been, how things could change. She actually laughed at me a little and probably thought I’d been drinking. I thought that feeling might just be the conference buzz, but days later given time to process, I don’t feel any different. It still feels like a change is coming due to happenings at MBS and whether it’s just a change in me, or something bigger than that, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. I’ve never written a blog before, but then I’ve not been in an environment like the MBS conference before either. Hopefully, it won’t be the first and last for either of those experiences. So, even though this particular post contains scant reflection of the academic content of the conference that I had hoped to write when I opened the blank page, it goes some way to expressing my experience of MBS. No longer am I the newbie in the corner.

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