PGF-ACTS 2016 – Reflections…

Also at the 2016 RGS-IBG Annual International Conference in London, PGF-ACTS or the Postgraduate Forum Annual Training Symposium provided training to postgraduate delegates. The pre-conference event gathered delegates based all over the UK and from a variety of backgrounds, all to receive relevant training and engage in networking in a supportive environment. The event featured three distinct training sessions with experienced academics explaining how to deal with a conference, getting the most out of the PhD experience, and discussing the post-PhD stage. Keep reading for a summary of the sessions, as reported by our delegates.

1. Getting the most out of the conference – Dr. Nicola Thomas 

By Greg Thomas – Aberystwyth University 

The first session entitled getting the most out of the conference was given by Dr Nicola Thomas (University of Exeter) and did not disappoint! The session, primarily aimed at those who had not been to a conference before, gave a fun, and highly interactive guide to what to expect at a conference and how to make the most of the experience.

Using the analogy of a carousel, Nicola discussed the highs and lows that everyone experiences throughout the conference journey. Personally I found it very reassuring to know that these perfectly natural, and are to be expected, and that even the most experienced of academics go through the same as those of us who are experiencing our first conferences. After this short introductory discussion came the return of arguably one of the biggest talking points of the 2015 Annual Conference, Top Trumps. The packs designed by delegates at the 2015 event were handed out and we split into groups and began to play. Using the 2015 Top Trumps facilitated further discussions around the good and the not so good aspects of our own conference journeys, as well as possible ways to overcome these.

This year’s activity was then revealed. We were tasked with designing our own nexus thinking board games, based around the highs and lows of the conference experience. When a high was hit you got to collect a piece of gold from the middle of the game; if a low was experienced you had to go back on the board. The person to get fifteen pieces of gold first won. Once the game was designed, we swapped boards, and we gave them a go!
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The session was a fantastic icebreaker for the conference and got the whole room talking and interacting, and showed to delegates that we were all in the same boat sharing the same hopes and fears of the conference.

2. Making the most of the PhD experience – Prof. Klaus Dodds, Dr. Sarah Mills and Dr. Tara Woodyer 

By Amber Wilson – University of Sheffield 

The second workshop of PGF-ACTS was based around the theme of “making the most out of the PhD experience”. In advance of the workshop attendees were asked to book onto one out of three breakout sessions, in anticipation of stimulating a more detailed conversation on how to navigate potential opportunities which may arise whilst undertaking a PhD. These three breakout sessions consisted of: “engaging with the public and disseminating research to a wider audience”, led by Dr. Tara Woodyer (University of Portsmouth); “publications”, led by Prof. Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway, University of London); and “developing your personal profile” led by Dr. Sarah Mills (Loughborough University).

On the day, the workshop began with all attendees of PGF-ACTS listening to a short overview of each of the three breakout sessions, giving the option to swap sessions if necessary. The overriding message from all of the session leaders was the importance of choosing opportunities which would add value to your own, individual PhD experience but not at the detriment of writing the actual PhD thesis. It was also highlighted, that in order to make the most out of each experience it was necessary to evaluate what impact each activity may have on future career development; be it academic or non-academic. After the brief introduction, the attendees split off (almost evenly) into the “three breakout sessions” making way for a more relaxed and appropriate environment to proper discuss the each topic.

After a good thirty minutes of discussion (although this could have easily been extended to an hour’s worth), everyone returned back to the Ondaatje Theatre for the final part of the session. A volunteer from each of the breakout sessions was given five minutes to summarise the key findings, with prompting from each of the session’s leaders. This then led to a more general discussion from the panel leading the workshop including their own “top-tips” and PhD experiences as well as some of the pitfalls of engaging with activities that are beyond the basic requirements of the PhD. All three of the session leaders gave a balanced and honest account of a whole host of “PhD related activities”, which included: teaching experiences; journal reviewer comments; unpaid “jobs”; volunteering in the community; conference presentations; organising workshops and other un-related events that enhanced their overall PhD experience and their on-going careers today. In particular, it was quite refreshing to hear that, it was acceptable to be selfish in some instances (e.g. saying “yes” to a ten minute slot in your PhD supervisor’s 2nd year methods module, but also saying “no” to ten hours of unpaid seminar facilitation).

Overall, this particular workshop seemed to be well received by all attendees and was deemed particularly useful for new PhD students. Furthermore, it was clearly stated that each PhD experience is unique and that there is no “right or wrong way” of undertaking extra-curricular activities of a PhD (as the main take away point of the overall workshop). Subsequently, this workshop seemed to drive the greatest amount of discussion at PGF-ACTS from the general audience, as they required very little prompting when volunteers were sought for and when questions were asked.

3. Post-PhD: What next? – Dr. Ellie Miles, Dr. Virginia Panizzo and Dr. Matthew Rech 

By Maddy Thompson – Newcastle University 

The final session of the day brought three early-career geographers – Dr. Ellie Miles, Dr. Ginnie Panizzo, and Dr. Matthew Rech – into PGF-ACTS, to share their experiences and advice for the dreaded post-PhD stage in a panel setting. Ellie began by recounting her ‘lucky’ experiences of finding work at various prestigious museums and galleries. Despite her claims of luck Ellie’s unwavering perseverance was clear as she adhered to her father’s advice: ‘if you hang around long enough, they’ll eventually have to pay you’. For those looking to work beyond (yet not fully apart from) the academy, Ellie’s story, advice, and resulting success should serve as a motivator. Her interesting take on short term contracts was also a breath of fresh air – while they can be stressful, it also guarantees variety in your working life.

Ginnie followed, offering a perspective of a physical geographer. Similarly to Ellie, she claimed luck had contributed to her gaining her current position, yet again, it was clear that in fact hard work and flexibility were also at play. Ginnie stressed the importance in searching in less obvious places for jobs, the importance of creating and maintaining (international) networks, and the benefits that can emerge when willing to be geographically mobile and flexible.

Finally, Matthew recounted his numerous short-term contracts. While Ginnie and Ellie may be able to claim luck had helped them, Matthew’s story seemed instead to be plagued by a distinct lack of luck. Despite an impressive CV filled with post-docs and teaching fellowships, Matthew struggled to find the elusive lectureship for several years. Finally, an opening on the other side of the country gave him the chance to gain permanent employment, and a place to put his teaching and research skills to use. The resulting discussion gave our postgraduates the opportunity to question the three presenters on their regrets, challenges, and opportunities. A lively discussion was had, but perhaps the most important conclusion was that the post-PhD stage is stressful, uncertain, and precarious. It is not the light at the end of the PhD-tunnel that we may imagine. Yet with hard work and perseverance, combined with a clear idea of what your non-negotiables are, it was shown that success is possible, in a variety of post-PhD avenues.