Sophie Greenway is a PhD student at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick. Her research title is ‘Growing well; Dirt, health and the home gardener in Britain, 1930-1960’.
I tend to approach academic conferences with a sense of optimism and possibility, excited at conversations to be had. MBS 2015 exceeded all expectations. But having listened to the discussions both during the conference and afterwards on twitter and blogs, I wonder whether I would have felt so optimistic, so confident, if I had been 23 instead of 43. Before beginning my PhD this year at Warwick, I taught History to secondary school children, curated a museum and had three children. I am immeasurably more confident now than when I first graduated. On top of that I have a huge sense of pleasure and privilege at having the opportunity to do historical work at this stage in my life. I feel genuine excitement at the prospect of telling people about my research, and enjoy getting that same sense from others, whether chatting over tea or listening to their papers.
Two issues which came up a lot at the conference, and particularly at the postgraduate session, were solidarity and working with the situation in which we find ourselves. It would be easy to throw up our hands and say that solidarity is impossible to achieve in a sector predicated on individual performance. Yet the major projects that I see around me in the History Department at Warwick are built around collaboration. So if we do forge a career in the academy, the future workplace that we are training for is not one in which we are likely to work alone. The more those starting out can feel comfortable in communicating with others, the better their future working relationships will be.
So how can young PhD students and ECRs be encouraged to feel confident in their work, to enjoy sharing their ideas with others, without anxieties getting in the way? I’m by no means the first to say it, but MBS 2015 does seem to have opened up a space in which these issues can be aired.
There were suggestions that conference etiquette be adjusted, so that chairs of panels did not use first names when taking questions, and that there might be a specific point in proceedings for postgraduates to have a chance to ask their questions. I’m not sure that either of these suggestions is workable- it would seem rather awkward for the chair not to use someone’s name if they knew it. Perhaps there just needs to be greater awareness of not prioritising acceptance of questions from people known to the chair. A specific section for postgraduate questions also seems rather rigid- I would argue that greater support to boost the confidence of students to get involved is what is needed. Postgraduate sessions dedicated to the skill of framing a good conference question could be provided by history departments. I would also point out the difference that can be made by established academics at conference break times. It’s really noticeable that some make a great effort to introduce themselves to PhDs and ECRS, to really listen and make suggestions and connections. These conversations are hugely valuable to us as new researchers, and can enhance our confidence when going back into a new session, with new possibilities for asking a question.
The last thing to say is that nerves never go away. I’ve led an assembly in front of 500 teenagers but still get stage fright before giving an academic paper, or asking a question.