Finding your researcher voice at academic conferences

This is a guest blogpost from Rachel Lehner-Mear, a first-year doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. 

‘Go to a conference!’, they said. ‘Do some networking!’, they said. ‘Get your voice heard!’, they said.

Well, actually, they didn’t say that last bit. I did. And when I reflect on my first conference experience, I realise that this was, indeed, what my initial foray into the world of academic conferencing was all about: getting your voice heard. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Having finished my Masters and riding high on the euphoria of successfully completing this higher degree (through the somewhat unorthodox means of doubling it up with childbirth), I heard of a doctoral conference at the School of Education at the University of Birmingham, another Universitas 21 member institution. Rashly, perhaps, and certainly without analysing my motivation, I applied.

There are many possible positive outcomes for conference participation at doctoral level. My supervisor, for example, advised gaining feedback on my research before writing a first journal article. Equally, those without prior teaching experience might want to rehearse their presentation skills in front of a live, but supportive, audience. There is also the opportunity to identify like-minded researchers and exchange contact details, which might result in later collaborative work.

For me, though, I sought an extension from the close, one-to-one relationship with a supervisor that the PhD process brings. Your supervisor is steeped in your research project. S/he is the only other person who understands what you are doing.

Your friends? They don’t. Though they might smile supportively when you mention it over coffee. Your family? They are aware you are striving for greater things, but probably have little appreciation of what or how. Your partner? He/she is no doubt exasperated at the time your PhD takes up and more conscious of riding the highs and lows with you, than of listening to the detail of what exactly you are investigating.

So, your supervisor is the sole other individual, at this point, who is aware of the (to you) exciting conclusions you are drawing from those hours of in-depth reading, data-gathering and analysis. This might be supportive, but it’s also entirely insular, parochial and self-protective. And I was ready to break out and take a chance on finding out what other people might think.

Attending a conference, albeit one aimed at other doctoral researchers, is an opportunity to stand up. To raise your voice. To share your work with a visible audience. To have others listen. Because that’s what we do our painstaking research for, ultimately: we have something to say. And a conference is one place in which we can say it. As a blog post on the The Thesis Whisperer website reminds us, ‘if you don’t present anything, no one knows who you are or what you do’.

As a teacher of twenty years, in both primary and then further education, I was comfortable with standing up in front of others and speaking. In my previous career, interaction with the listener was key: did they understand, did I need to expand, should my approach be adapted to listener requirements, would I need extra time to ensure their confidence, or could I move on more quickly?

What I was less used to was the concept of being timed to talk and the distinction which occurs between delivery of the message and questions from the audience. At a conference, I realised, the speaker prepares their paper and presentation slides in a vacuum which precludes understanding of the audience’s existing knowledge. It also inhibits audience response until the end of the presentation. This is both nerve-wracking and professionally challenging and caused me to spend considerable time ensuring both clarity of argument and that my points were all of pinpoint relevance to the overall conclusions. That interesting little detail? I deleted it if it was not of absolute relevance to the story I would tell.

Yet, although prepared and, to a degree, conveyed in a vacuum, the conference presentation proved to be, for me, a valuable and exhilarating experience. As I gave my talk, with the slides adding illustration both visually and textually, I was reminded that a researcher does indeed need their work to be heard and that, as a teacher, engagement with an interested audience is second-to-none. Those nods, smiles and occasional laughs which accompanied my delivery, the appreciative applause at the end, gave a buzz of interaction which is reward for the hard slog of research.

And as the icing on a very positive cake, to my surprise, the part I enjoyed most was the audience question-and-answer. This proof that my doctoral researcher peers had listened and were engaged enough to formulate thoughtful questions was a moment of validity that my research is relevant.

Yes – raising a voice in the education debate is important. Stepping outside that protective supervisor-student relationship is significant and, perhaps, even fundamental to the process of growth into a real academic researcher. So, go and get your voice heard!

Image source: Video University

For reasons to attend academic conferences, see the following websites:

The Thesis Whisperer https://thesiswhisperer.com/2016/03/02/your-first-conference/

Global Academic Institute website http://www.globalacademicinstitute.com/8-reasons-to-attend-international-academic-conferences/

For how to prepare for a conference presentation, see:

Patter https://patthomson.net/category/conference-presentation/

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