Thursday, 19 March 2009


Well in the last ten days, it's all come together. I've made progress, written about five thousand words on my project, for a variety of reasons, made two different presentations on it, and helped to run a very successful student conference, leaving me completely exhausted and a lot happier with the whole study thing.

Conferences are amazing things. I've been to quite a few, and this is not even the first time I've helped run one, but this time, something just clicked. Usually if the word 'networking' comes up, a tiny muscle in my left eyelid starts twitching uncontrollably. But thinking about the gains from the last two days, the best way to describe them might be just that. Working on the committee has brought me a lot closer to several people I knew vaguely, and some people I'd never even met before. At the conference itself I spent time talking to lots of other doctoral students. The fact that my presentation was scheduled immediately before a plenary featuring lots of important lecturers meant that most of those lecturers were actually at my talk, and they gave some really useful feedback - one of them, a woman whom I hold in great awe, even going so far as to come to talk to me afterwards. Although there were substantive gains, both in terms of ideas and in terms of feedback on presentation style, the best thing was simply feeling part of a community.

It's all too easy as a doctoral student to feel like it's just you and the books (or, in this day and age, just you and the e-journals), stuck in the library fighting a lone battle. This was an opportunity to show that that just isn't so. We're all in this together, and the advantage of being in a relatively small department (although nowhere near as my first academic department, which had less than a hundred people in it total, undergrads, grads and staff combined), is that you can get to know a lot of different friendly faces very well. Going to listen to other people present their studies means an opportunity to offer your help to them, and a chance to make a connection, to feel part of an academic community.

The keynote address was given by Dr Nick Hopwood, a Research Fellow at the Department, who (whisper it) used to be just like us. He currently works on a project investigating what doctoral students are like, and how they work. One of the key findings they've come up with is that the most important people for doctoral students, the key to their survival and academic progress, are their peers. Student conferences are the kind of forum that enables us to make those connections.

One of the advantages of a student conference like ours, which had representatives from every year group presenting, is that you get to see other people at your stage. It brings home the fact that you're not alone in not having everything completely sorted, and that progress can be slow. It's also reassuring to find third years who haven't got the wording of their research questions quite right yet - when you've been agonising that only six months in, they're not sorted!

So on we go - bolstered up and ready to make progress, as part of a community of doctoral students, with friends and advisors, we'll all get through this.

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