PGF-ACTS 2015 – Reflections…

PGF-ACTS or the Postgraduate Forum Annual Training Symposium provides training to postgraduate delegates of the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference and was held on the 1st September 2015 at Exeter University. The event organised by the Postgraduate Forum attracted over 50 delegates from UK and international institutions, to network and receive valuable training in a supportive environment before the start of the conference. The event featured three engaging sessions that have been captured by delegates below.

Session 1: Getting the most out of the conference – Dr Nicola Thomas

By Phillip Emmerson – University of Birmingham

Dr Nicola Thomas provided the first workshop of the day – and what a way to start! The session aimed to provide a means of getting the most out of conferences, which was a great topic as many people at PGF-ACTS (including myself) were first time conference attenders. The main focus of the session was on the different emotional states that people go through during the conference itself and Nicola talked about the highs and lows of the week which she likened to being on a carousel (which came accompanied by a great picture of Nicola Sturgeon riding a carousel and looking slightly uneasy). Nicola (Thomas, not Sturgeon) explained that it was perfectly natural to go through highs and lows, to be nervous or uneasy at some points and to feel great at others, and that everyone would be going through the same thing – even established academics and veteran conference goers. After the brief introductory talk, we were introduced to the activity for the session, in which we were going to be making Top Trumps…

If anyone isn’t aware of Top Trumps, it’s a game in which packs of cards are created from different scenarios or characters (think of Harry Potter or different kinds of cars) with a number of attributes given to each. The cards are then split up and attributes compared with whoever has the best attribute winning the round and so on until you have a winner. We were going to be making Top Trumps out of different scenarios that could happen at conferences.

We were split into small groups and began discussing the different scenarios that could occur. This was great because not only did you get to meet a couple of new people in a smaller group, it was also a really informal way to have a chat and a bit of a laugh about different stories and worries (they mostly seemed to be worries) that people had. At the end we came together to discuss the Top Trumps that we had created (see below).


This session was a great introduction to the conference and it showed that as postgrads we all had very similar feelings about what might happen at the conference which made me feel much more confident. It also showed that actually these worries were mostly unfounded or at least unlikely. At the end of the session Nicola rushed off to the printers with our Top Trumps and by the end of the day we each had a pack to take home with us. This session was a great reminder that conferences involve a number of different emotions, but in the end they are great places to be and meet new people.

Session 2: Public engagement, communicating geographical research and developing a research profile – Dr Fiona Nash and Professor Peter Kraftl

 By Jonathan Duckett and Natalie Tebbett – Loughborough University

 With the guidance and expertise of Fiona Nash (Managing Editor: Academic Publications at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)) and Peter Kraftl (Editor of Area), this interactive workshop provided delegates the necessary tools to effectively communicate their research to academic and non-academic audiences through a variety of dissemination platforms: notably, academic journals; social media and conferences. Fiona and Peter shared their Top Tips on how to identify relevant journals for publication, how to write an effective abstract and the importance of using appropriate journal key words.


The session was divided into two parts. The first involved delegates being divided into groups and asked to evaluate abstracts from journal articles and to consider what made them effective. So what are some of the things that make a journal abstract effective?

  • Short, snappy titles
  • A sense of the article that entices the reader
  • The appropriate use of keywords that may include the location of research and the methods applied

The RGS-IBG has its own handy publishing guide online available for more information:

The second part of the session focused on the use of social media to effectively communicate academic research and to develop an online research profile. Peter highlighted how we all now have some form of online identity. He discussed the importance of having an online presence and the need to manage this regularly, so that it remains current and up-to-date. This provoked discussion in groups about how social media has great potential (and pitfalls!) to assist in the communication and dissemination of academic research.

Overall the session allowed us to share our own experiences of using social media to present our research and engage with the public. While also considering the continued importance and ways of publishing our work to academic audiences.

Session 3: Planning outputs vs generating impact – Professor Nina Laurie

By Will Andrews – Aberystwyth University

Nina’s workshop drew on her personal experiences of academia in terms of research, job hunting and managing a work life balance. One of the main take home messages from this workshop was the need to balance research output with research impact and how to manage the two.


Nina discussed the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that measures research impact. Personally, my understanding of the REF process prior to Nina’s talk was not brilliant. However, Nina explained in detail the way in which papers are submitted, while also detailing the processes of evaluating impact case studies in order to give the starred ratings that the REF produces. Examples given from Nina’s own research and experiences really helped me to understand the REF. Through this I was able to see how my own research may fit into the REF framework. Nina suggested using the ESRC Impact Toolkit (link below) and searching the REF database (link below) to further understand the evaluation process of the REF.

ESRC Impact Toolkit:
REF Database:

Nina also offered a series of key points to keep in mind as you start to think about post-PhD pathways. As a research student, she suggested that it is important to get to know the job market and begin to understand the range of roles from Research Associate positions, to teaching only pathways. First, advice for applying for jobs, you need to have a realistic five year plan which balances research, impact and publications. Second, if you have publications put the impact factor of the journal on your application, this is beneficial when applying for positions beyond your discipline to illustrate a quantifiable score of the potential impact of your work. Third, in an interview situation when asked if you have any questions enquire about the support provided for early career researchers to aid your research trajectory.

In addition, Nina provided advice particularly pertinent to postgraduates nearing the end of their research and the beginning of their careers. Once you have submitted the PhD it is important to keep time dedicated to your own work and to writing. This is particularly salient advice if you get a job working on a larger project but still want to get out articles from your PhD, Nina suggested getting into a habit of 15-20 minutes writing each day in order to keep on top of this.

Drawing on her personal experience, Nina gave accounts of academia which were refreshingly welcome and particularly beneficial to postgraduates in that they highlighted that everyone faces challenges and limitations. It is important to keep things in perspective and to make use of university support systems – these are not just for undergraduates. Furthermore, Nina talked about her own experience of becoming a member of a research group, and the academic and personal support network that this provided. The Postgraduate Forum offers this very service, a friendly environment to share and discuss your research as well as the challenges and innovations of being a postgraduate researcher. Nina also suggested finding an academic mentor who you “admire as a human being, not just as an academic”, as somebody to help you chart the waters of academic experiences you are yet to approach. Again this was important and implies the necessity of developing your own networks within academia, be this for personal support or as a space to share ideas about research as these networks will remain with you regardless of position or affiliation.