Category Archives: Networking

Re-thinking the Conference Presentation

Conference season is now upon us. Travel. Networking. One dull, poorly-constructed, over-time PowerPoint presentation after another.

I suspect that less than a quarter of the presentations I attended last week at a major, international conference remained within the allotted amount of time. 10 minutes is, quite simply, not long enough  to fully (or even briefly!) discuss research questions, theory, methodology and results. The almost inevitable outcome, it seems, is a sequence of PowerPoint slides full of text too small to read, and that distract the audience rather than enhance the presentation.

I have no idea where the standard conference presentation format came from. If a 10-15 minute presentation followed by 5 minutes of questions pre-dates the invention and widespread adoption of PowerPoint or rose to dominance alongside it. Regardless of how or when this tradition developed, the fact of the matter remains that it is ineffective.

As PhD candidates (and early career researchers), we’re hardly in a position to overhaul the academic conference system. I think that we can, however, adopt innovative approaches to presenting our work that might eventually and collectively shift expectations for what a good conference presentation should be. Rather than conform to the status quo, we can choose to focus in on one aspect of our research (research questions, theory, methodology or results) in our presentations, and remind the audience that the other dimensions of the project are discussed in the accompanying paper. More focused presentations will require fewer slides, less text.

More focused presentations might also lend themselves to a diverse range of presentation tools. Why not illustrate your main points with images (photos, icons, clip art, drawings, diagrams, graphs, etc.). Your presentation then becomes an explanation of the graphics rather than oral repetition of projected text. Similarly, new presentation tools like Prezi are better able to visually demonstrate connections and relationships between complex ideas than linear ppt. slideshows. That said, learning to use these tools well takes time. An effective, memorable presentation is not created the night before.

Practice is also essential. Rehearsing is the only way of knowing how long your intended presentation will take. If reciting your notes takes 20 minutes in your hotel room, you’ve got more work to do. But better to find this out when you still have time to fix it than by being caught out on stage. It might seem like common sense, but I suspect that very few scholars actually bother to run through their conference presentations in advance.

Professional conferences provide excellent opportunities for networking. They also give you a chance to draw attention to the originality of your work as well as your promise as a young researcher. A bad PowerPoint presentation will only undermine your efforts to make a good first impression.

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Reasons For Starting A PhD

The other day I overheard someone say that he was planning to start a PhD because he thought he’d ‘make a good academic’. Fair enough, I suppose. There are any number of reasons why you might be thinking of (or already) pursuing a PhD, and when I overheard this particular comment I didn’t give it much thought. However, reasons why – or why not – to pursue a PhD became a recurrent theme last week, so I decided it was probably a topic worth writing about.

Good reasons for embarking on this particular brand of marathon could include:

  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You love research
  • You love writing
  • You are looking for a new challenge
  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You want to try your hand at fieldwork
  • You want to try your hand at teaching
  • You want to research and write a book

There are, no doubt, many others. But if you’re in the social sciences or humanities, ‘getting a job’ (or, indeed, that you think you might make a good academic) is not one of them.* It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But there it is just the same.

I don’t have any hard data on this, but the circumstantial evidence seems to strongly suggest that universities are producing far more PhD graduates than academic jobs. Meanwhile, tenure track positions are going the way of the British hedgehog: they’re still out there but fewer and farther between. You don’t have to take my word for it. These two articles about the plight of junior academics landed on my desk just this past week:

Meet your new professor: Transient, poorly paid

Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor 

If you are still determined to have a go at carving out an academic career, there are some things that you can do to improve your chances of landing that first adjunct or postdoc position.

First, seek out early career academics in your field and ask them about their strategy for landing a job. They almost certainly got lucky somewhere along the way, but at least some of that luck will have been the product of a lot of hard work. Also ask them about what they do in a typical week, and how that relates to their career-building strategy. The answers may surprise you.

Second, start taking on additional academic responsibilities. In addition to chipping away at your thesis research, a full time job in itself, consider:

  • Teaching undergraduate courses
  • Giving guest lectures
  • Enrolling in teaching training courses
  • Working as a research assistant
  • Helping senior academics with grant writing and development
  • Presenting at major international conferences
  • Organizing a regional or post-graduate conference
  • Enrolling in advanced methodology or analytical software courses
  • Serving on School or Departmental committees
  • Developing your ideas for your next research project
  • Publishing journal articles

All of these opportunities exist, and pursuing them shows that you are serious about an academic career. Being able to list these accomplishments on your CV will also set you apart from other applicants who focused solely on their thesis for the past however-many years.

That said, gaining this experience will require that you take a risk in putting yourself out there. Not all of your conference abstracts or journal articles will be accepted. Many of the opportunities listed above aren’t advertised, and securing them will require knocking on (perhaps more than) a few doors. Time management skills are also critical. None of this ‘extra’ experience will help you in your quest for an academic job if you don’t actually finish your PhD.

The road to full employment is no less precarious for social science and humanities PhDs looking for work in the private sector. And there is even less advice available. A good place to start, though, is So What Are You Going To Do With That: Finding careers outside academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Also try finding a mentor outside of the academic bubble who can help you construct a resume that hiring managers might actually read.

There are plenty of good reasons for starting – and finishing – a PhD. Top among them, that we are creative, determined, hard-working, curious people who love research and are passionate about what we do. On one hand a PhD is a remarkable achievement, and on the other it is just another degree. Your PhD probably won’t land you a job. But there are other reasons to still pursue it.

*NOTE: This post primarily applies to people who will be looking for academic jobs in the United States and Europe. My experience of tertiary education systems in other parts of the world is severely limited, but I have heard that there are indeed places where the sector is growing. Your prospects might be better, for instance, if you’re willing to move to Asia.

 

Call for Papers – IVSA Annual Conference

Lisa Petheram and I will be co-chairing the panel Who, when & why: Critical perspectives on (new) visual methods at the 2013 International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) Annual Conference in London from 8 – 10 July 2013.

The full call for papers and details about the conference are available on the conference website

Abstracts are due 31 March 2013

Who, when & why: Critical perspectives on (new) visual methods

Visual methods are now accepted across a range of disciplines and seem to be attracting the interest of a growing number of researchers. Reflecting on these developments, Pauwels[1] has recently suggested that there “should definitely be room for more experimentation” in visual research, further specifying that “audacious” experimentation must always be accompanied by an explanation of what the audience is looking at.

We welcome this invitation to explore the validity and potential of innovations in visual methodology. When writing up their use of visual techniques, however, researchers commonly prioritise the what (i.e. type of visual material) and how (i.e. approach) of their work. As new visual methods emerge and existing methods are adapted, the whowhen, and why of visual research demand critical reflection. Is it appropriate, for instance, to use visual methods with all potential research participants?  How might contextual factors influence the ultimate success or failure of a visual research project? Researchers adopting visual methods could also be more open about the limitations of their approaches and the potential dangers of implementing existing visual methods in new contexts. This panel will critically reflect on these less-discussed aspects of new visual methods and practice.

We are particularly interested in papers that:

  • Explore the limitations of new visual methods or innovations on established visual techniques;
  • Challenge established parameters of visual research;
  • Problematize the process of integrating visual materials and methods with other research techniques;
  • Investigate the replicability of visual methods with different types of participants, in new contexts or for novel research purposes;
  • Emphasise the importance of (researcher and participant) reflexivity in the development and implementation of new visual methods;
  • Reflect on the production and use of visual products as a way of representing findings (derived from visual research) to stakeholders, decision-makers and other audiences.

Paper proposals can be sent to l.hinthorne [at] uq.edu.au and Lisa.Petheram [at] anu.edu.au


[1] Pauwels L (2012) Contemplating the State of Visual Research: An Assessment of Obstacles and Opportunities. In: Pink, S. (ed) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 248-264.

Thinking Beyond your PhD – What Next?

Not everyone who completes a PhD will go on to an academic or research career. But if this is a path you think you’d like to pursue, there are some things you can do to improve your chances of snagging that first, highly competitive early career researcher post.

Monica and I originally started this blog after submitting our PhDs because there were things we’d learned along the way that we wished we’d known earlier. As our readership has grown, I’ve started to realize that it can also be a platform for sharing resources (like the 1-pager on how to survive a PhD by David Gauntlett).

As an early career researcher myself, I feel like I’m still finding my way. I consider myself an ‘accidental academic’ and, as such, am in no place to give advice on how you might intentionally go about creating your academic career or securing your first post-PhD academic post. I do, however, occasionally come across resources that would probably have been quite useful had I known about them earlier.

With that in mind, I thought I’d flag the BiggerBrains website created by Elsevier. It is a veritable cache of career development resources (e.g. written guides, videos) for early career researchers. Topics covered include networking, publishing and finding funding. There are also some very practical insights on things like what to include on an academic CV and how to find a suitable mentor.

Writing a PhD can be all consuming, but there is life after your thesis. It’s never too early to start thinking about the future…

PhD Supervision – A reality check…and some good news

In an ideal world, your PhD supervisor would:

  •  be an expert in (all of) the area(s) of your research;
  • give you as much of his/her time as you need;
  • provide detailed – and legible – feedback on a draft chapter (…or two…or three…) the following day;
  • calm your anxieties;
  • think you’re brilliant, and tell you so;
  • invite you to co-author papers;
  • make sure you know about important conferences in your field;
  • take a personal interest in your future career prospects;
  • care as much about your project as you do.

Reality check:

  1. It is unlikely that your supervisor is an expert in every aspect of your research.
  2. Your supervisor has a demanding job and supervising your PhD, while important, is only one (small?) aspect of it; time is likely at a premium.
  3. Your supervisor is not your therapist or your life coach.
  4. Your supervisor is not your publicist.
  5. No one else will (or should) care as much about your research as you do.

I had what I suspect was a particularly turbulent supervisory experience. Neither the primary nor back-up supervisor that I started with was still supervising me when I submitted my thesis four years later. The reasons for these changes aren’t particularly important. Now that I’m supervising PhD candidates myself, however, I’ve gained new perspective on my own expectations.

A PhD is a scary thing. We all have different reasons for starting on the journey, but I often wonder how many people would take even the first step down that road if they knew about all of the blind corners up ahead. When we start out, I don’t think it is uncommon to expect that it is a supervisor’s responsibility to help guide the way. And that is a reasonable expectation. Up to a point. While your supervisor probably has a reasonably good understanding of your project, it is unlikely (particularly in the social sciences) that he or she will be an expert on every particular detail of what you’re researching. That’s the bad news – and can come as a bit of a shock. The good news is that you can – and should – find guidance elsewhere. If, for example, your supervisor doesn’t know very much about the particular methodology you’re interested in using, find someone who is and ask for technical support.

Which leads me to point two – supervisors are very, very busy people. Time is one of their most valuable resources. And time they allocate to you is time they can’t spend preparing lectures, writing papers, or working on their own (perhaps neglected) research. This is true of the people you call on for ‘tech support’ as well. The good news is that you can often earn ‘brownie points’ by demonstrating that you respect the various demands on your supervisor’s time. If you expect too much from your supervisor or ‘tech support’, the relationship is likely to deteriorate. If, on the other hand, you keep your requests short and to the point, your supervisor will likely be able to find the time you need and may even welcome the distraction. This is particularly true of ‘tech support’. In my experience, even very busy people are generally happy to find an hour or two to answer a few specific questions.

Your supervisor is not your therapist, your life coach or your publicist. Hopefully your supervisor is a nice person and will offer encouragement when you need it most. Hopefully he or she will think of your research when an email about a relevant conference passes briefly before their eyes. But…sometimes these things just don’t happen. At the end of the day, it is your own responsibility to find out about how to start publishing, seek out the most relevant conferences, and manage your own expectations. The good news is that there are many places you can find support. Other PhD students are an excellent place to start. Next, investigate your university’s post-graduate training opportunities and sign up to the mailing lists of relevant professional organizations.

In the end, no one else cares as much about your research as you do. It is up to you – and you alone – to make sure that you get the academic/psychological/ methodological/technical/professional support you need. Sometimes this support will come from your supervisor. Often it will come from elsewhere. The good news is that once you take responsibility for your own research, you start to realize that the real world isn’t quite so bad after all.