This first post is inspired by a recent blog by Pat Thomson, talking about the support that should be made available to PhD students to attend conferences. I couldn’t agree more with this, for all the reasons that Pat suggests. Conferences are a fantastic opportunity for PhD students to get words down on a page in the form of a scholarly argument and then to go out and present it to an audience of their peers is really important identity and community building stuff. My own experiences of writing and presenting conference papers was extremely formative in helping me feel like I was becoming a professional writer, with a distinct voice among my peers – which is a feeling you need to attain in order to write a successful PhD. Most of the conference papers I wrote were later either developed into journal articles and published or chapters which ended up in the final thesis.
If there is a problem in some universities with providing funding for PhD students to go to conferences then this is certainly something to be challenged, as it is an essential part of the process. However, in my experience there is even less support available for contract researchers to attend conferences. The only way I have ever been supported to go to a conference as a contract researcher has been the occasions when I am presenting something directly drawn from the project I am employed on. This might not sound like too bad a deal, however, in my experience, the project that one ends up working on is driven as much by the scarcity of research contracts and the need for employment, as it is by the academic content of the project, therefore you do not always end up on a project that reflects your own research interests.
I completed my PhD in a school of education, however, I couldn’t find any research jobs in the education departments where I was looking for work, so I went for a job in a sociology department on a health research project. Since then, health research has provided me with fairly reliable employment, however, I find myself moving further and further away from my core interests; I’m now in a business school, which is not somewhere I ever imagined finding myself. Thus the difficulty with attending conferences that reflect your own interests as a contract researcher opens up many more abiding problems with research contracts and the difficulties of constructing your own academic narrative through them.
The fact that you will probably have to fund your own way there is just one of these problems. Then there is the time that you will need to write the paper and presentation and then to actually attend the conference. You are employed for 35 hours a week to work on a specific project. While some employers are more sensitive than others to the needs of early career researchers to build their own profiles through papers and publications, the project you are employed on will always have to be the priority. So, generally, any writing of your own you want to do is going to be extra work. The way that projects work is also pretty unpredictable. Projects are not neatly bounded in terms of starts and finishes, and you will likely experience peaks and troughs, so what I have realised now is that you really have to be ready to take advantage of the troughs to get some of your own stuff done, because the peaks will have you putting in overtime on the project. Where exactly these highs and lows of demand will occur really depends on the research design, and the point in the project at which you are brought in to work on it. If you are employed as soon as the research funding is agreed for the project then there is a good chance that for the first few weeks of the project you will be involved in accessing research sites and starting the literature review – this will probably be the quietest part of the project. Once you are into data collection the whole thing becomes more demanding and less predictable. Then analysis should have you at your desk a bit more often, so perhaps you can work a bit of time into your own stuff, before the onslaught of the last few weeks and the delivery of whatever report has been promised to the funders.
Writing has to become something that is packed into little spaces. You have to be ready to write at any point, because a cancellation might come along and you might suddenly find yourself with a free afternoon. This is not the way I enjoyed coming to terms with writing through the PhD. The development of a professional, authoritative voice took weeks and months of sitting for days at a time and just trying to write stuff down. It didn’t look much like an argument for a long time. Some days I would write almost nothing and it would be agonising, other days I could sit down and write 2000 words in 2 hours. It’s something I still find very difficult to predict, only now I don’t have the chance to organise the rest of the day around my need to write – now my need to write has to find a space after everything else gets accomplished. The key to my eventual success with the PhD writing was routine. This is something else Pat has written about in her blog. Good, regular writing comes from a good, regular writing routine. A particular time of day in a particular space. Both mine and Pat’s ideal is quite similar – early mornings in our loft offices. However, it is just not always – or even often – possible for me to hold down this routine alongside my contract work.
I realise that I have strayed a little from my initial conference focus. One of the challenges of writing this series is going to be bordering the various struggles, which in reality are all linked and mutually reinforcing. There is one more point though, specifically related to conferences, which is to do with representation and audiences.
As a PhD student you go to conferences to represent yourself. This is pretty scary to begin with, because you might not feel like there is much there to represent – who am I in this field of scholars who have been studying these things for years, some of whom are on my reading list, even some of whom I kind of idolise? Yeah, it is scary, but more often than not – as long as you put forward a thoughtful argument – you will find that they are human beings, not only that but I nearly always found a very receptive audience for my work as a PhD student, it’s like they are rooting for you a bit, they know that this might be your first time out and they want you to do well, they are also interested in your fresh, new, distinct ideas and the contribution that you might be making to their field.
Ok, this is a pretty rosy picture, but more often than not this was the academic audience I encountered as a PhD student. Not so as a contract researcher. First of all, you are not any longer representing just, or even primarily, yourself. You are representing the project, which means the more senior people on the project. This means you have less freedom over what you can say – if the paper was a collaborative piece with your other colleagues then you might have already had a few of those struggles over authorisation, who’s argument it is, what exactly the argument looks like etc. if you are really unlucky you might end up presenting something you don’t really agree with, or are not particularly interested in. My lowest feeling of all has been shame – I was representing a project that had gone wrong and we were just trying to pick up the pieces and get something out of it, and frankly it was embarrassing, there’s a whole community of scholars out there that I now feel a certain reticence about presenting work to as a result. Of course, it can work the other way as well. You could be representing a really good project for people that you really admire and you are then under pressure to do the whole thing justice. You can also find yourself in the middle of some power plays between senior academics – hopefully you can drag one of your own project team along with you to field these kind of challenges.
Overall, conferences feel much more competitive and much less nurturing as a result of being the other side of the PhD.