REVIEW! Doctoral Discussions: Conferences and Networking

By Cassandra Wiener
The launch of the Sussex Hive Scholars’ new seminar series ‘Doctoral Discussions’ kicked off to a lively start last Friday with the inaugural session focusing on Conferences and Networking. Billed as ‘an exciting new series of peer led discussions on the things you need to succeed with research’ it was, actually, just that…

I arrived not at all sure what to expect – but was grateful to be greeted with a sandwich and some friendly reassurance from Lana Harper, (2nd year English PhD student) Sussex Hive Scholar and our Chair for the session.  She introduced the afternoon’s three speakers: Michael Rowland (3rd year English PhD), speaking on ‘Giving a Conference Paper’; Elena Gorianova (2nd year Politics PhD), speaking on ‘Networking’ and Simon Davies (Postdoctoral Associate Tutor, English) speaking on ‘Organising a Conference’. I will run through the gist of each presentation – but if there are issues you are particularly interesting in, you might decide you would prefer to listen to the live recording of the event, which you can listen to here. If you have any questions, you can message the Research Hive scholars at
Giving a Conference Paper
Conferences are something that we are all aware we need to engage with at some point, but the idea of presenting at one can strike fear into the heart of even the most confident early stage researcher.  Michael began by outlining his own experience – which was extensive – but his unassuming approach put us all immediately at ease. In fact, the best and most useful thing about this presentation, from my perspective, was that he answered all of the questions that I have never dared ask for fear that I should know the answer.  From the ‘standard’ length of a conference paper (twenty minutes), to whether or not you should read aloud (check with the conference organisers as different disciplines have different approaches), to how to ‘pitch’ your language (think about your audience’s background and experience): all of it was helpful.  Michael spoke for about ten minutes and then we had a number of lively debates and discussions; with everyone feeling able to chip in with detail from their own experiences, which gave the topic a helpfully multi-disciplinary dimension.
Elena spoke frankly about some of the difficulties generated by even a discussion on the topic of ‘networking’: clearly it is a necessary skill, and yet we are all – curiously? – ‘squeamish’ about the fact that we need to be able to do it.  At its most basic, ‘networking’ is simply about making the most of the opportunities for building up a helpful network of contacts across our discipline that come our way. Elena’s talk raised some interesting insights nevertheless.  Have you ever thought about whether or not to approach a group of people who are already chatting, for example?  If the group is already made up of four or more participants you could be wasting your time.  Similarly, if the group is ‘closed’ in appearance, key indicators being body language and geographical positioning, your interruption might be disruptive rather than productive.  The question and discussion session after Elena’s presentation brought up some agonising dilemmas – for example, how do you ‘exit’ gracefully if you have been stuck talking to the same person for too long?  Or – how do you mollify anti-social colleagues who view your burgeoning networking skills with suspicion? There were no easy answers but we enjoyed asking the questions…
Organising a Conference
As Lana introduced Simon she warned us that he had agreed to step in at the last moment and might therefore not have had much time to prepare. Her worries turned out to be misplaced as Simon managed to impart an impressive amount of practical information in a short space of time. He talked us through the various stages of conference management, beginning with the conference website and finishing with the all important conference dinner.  Key to the whole process is dealing with things in the right order: website and plenary speakers first (because your Call for Papers needs to direct interested people to an informative site) deal with catering and room arrangements while you wait for papers (they will arrive, but only at the last minute), choose Chairs once you have speakers, and Amazon is good for anything the university can’t supply…
I had to leave promptly and so missed the final part of the discussion – people looked quite happy to settle in to finish the coffee and sandwiches and continue to swap stories and suggestions. The next session is called ‘Doctoral Discussions: Teaching’ and will take place on March 2nd in Silverstone SB325. If you login to Sussex Direct in a different tab then you can sign up for it here. See you there!

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