Charlotte Herriott is a first year PhD researcher at Anglia Ruskin University, researching the impact of sexual history evidence upon mock jury deliberations in rape trials in England and Wales.
From the first few weeks of enrolling on my PhD, there seemed to be some sort of buzz about academic conference season. My supervisor, the doctoral school and peers alike all spoke of attending academic conferences throughout their academic careers: to present work, hear about other research being undertaken in the field, and to network with other academics.
To me – being shy, kind of awkward and having the most atrocious memory when it comes to anything academic that I have read – academic conferences sounded scary, intimidating and dare I say, a bit boring. I was definitely anxious about the prospect of having to engage in deep, academic discussion and seeming like I didn’t belong in the academic world, and I really didn’t want to stand up in front of a room full of people and get grilled on my research decisions. So academic conferences were something I tried to put to the back of my mind as these were ‘ages away,’ right?
Wrong! I know everyone says it, but three years really isn’t that long to get a PhD done! All of a sudden I appear to be approaching the end of my first year as a PhD student – whilst still sometimes feeling just as lost and confused as I did back in September – and safe to say, it’s flown by.
Anyway, conference season well and truly approached me.
My supervisor recommended that I submit an abstract for the British Society of Criminology conference. So, trying to impress, but secretly hoping that I got rejected, I sent off my abstract and shortly received that bitter sweet email to tell me that my abstract had been accepted.
The next hurdle was funding. Unfortunately my department had no funding available for me to attend the BSC conference and being a student I didn’t exactly have the spare cash lying around to pay for this myself. Thankfully the BSC run a postgraduate bursary programme for students like myself who are struggling to gather the conference fee and I was lucky enough to receive this award meaning that I was funded to attend the whole conference.
Soon enough, the time came around for me to travel to Lincoln, full of trepidation, to attend my first ever academic conference. Turns out – I had nothing to worry about!
First of all, I was expecting masses of people and huge lecture theatres with presenters presenting to hundreds of people at a time. Yes the plenary sessions (keynotes) may have had around a hundred people – but the panel presentations were given in normal classrooms to up to about 25-30 people: much less intimidating!
Not only this, but the gruelling interrogation that I was expecting presenters to get from their clued-up academic audience, was also far from reality. In practice, the atmosphere throughout the conference was thoroughly supportive, friendly and constructive. Questions tended to be helpful and triggered useful and engaging discussion, not only for presenters but definitely for myself and others in the audience of these talks. The discussions had during and after presentations therefore gave me useful insights into different perspectives and enabled me to really reflect on my own research decisions.
Having never previously studied criminology myself (I did law at undergrad and sociology at masters) I was also slightly apprehensive that I would not understand a lot of the presentations or that these would not be applicable to me (researching sexual violence). Again, this was a complete misapprehension as there were so many different panel talks on at once and always something applicable to my field. These talks were consistently engrossing and worthwhile, making me consider and question my research decisions and ultimately helping me to produce a clearer plan of how I undertake my own research and what to examine in my literature review.
I presented my research poster at the postgraduate conference, which turned out to be extremely valuable and beneficial. Lots of people gathered round the various posters and were really engaged and positive about the research being presented. As I’m sure is the case for many PhD students and academics; once you start talking about your research, you can go on for hours! So it was really nice to be in this informal- but expert – environment and discuss my research decisions, background to my research and my own findings with others in the field. And much to my own shock, I managed to win the poster prize of a £75 SAGE voucher, which was an absolute bonus and a real boost for me to realise that others in the field commended my work. I was previously told that a poster presentation is great Viva practice, as you have to explain your research and defend your decisions and conclusions – so it was great to have this kind of experience and receive constructive feedback on my work. Whilst it had been something I was anxious about, I actually really enjoyed it.
Finally – the social side and the dreaded ‘networking.’ This was probably the part of academic conferences that I was most nervous about, but in reality turned out to be the best part of my conference experience. I had been nervous that everyone would be involved in deep, intellectual discussion and that I wouldn’t know what to say or who to talk to. In practice, all those who I met at the conference were completely down to earth and easy to get along with. I met a great bunch of PhD students and made some amazing friends who I will definitely keep in touch with. We are constantly told about mental health during the PhD and the isolating experience of conducting PhD research, so to meet other people going through the process and having the same difficulties, worries and fears was absolutely invaluable. At times, we did chat about our research, feminist theory, and methodological choices etc. but this was always useful and interesting to gain other people’s insights: not scary, intimidating or over my head at all. Also at times, we just chatted about anything and everything and had a great laugh.
So what do I take away from my first academic conference?
- Some amazing friends and a brilliant ‘network’
- Conferences are definitely nothing to fear (and are actually so much fun)
- I have learnt not to be scared to present research at a conference – this experience is invaluable
- To attend the BSC Conference 2020!
Charlotte Herriott, Anglia Ruskin University
Images: courtesy of the author