On Monday 9th April 2018, the BSA PG Forum hosted its annual pre-conference day event, this year on the theme ‘Personal and Practical Challenges: Becoming a Member of the Academic Community’. In this blog, delegate and panel discussant Lauren O’Connell reflects on the day.
I attended the BSA Postgraduate pre-conference event looking forward to meeting new people and having the opportunity to take part in a panel discussion for the first time. The event centred around personal and professional challenges involved in being a PhD student and early career academic, managing the pressures of academic life and the meaning and role of solidarity within this. These issues felt especially pertinent given the current political climate in academia and collective strength of feeling around the (ongoing) industrial action.
I was struck by how much I immediately felt as though I belonged at the conference. A sense of ‘togetherness’ emerged right from the outset, and attendees got chatting straight away. I don’t always find it quite so easy to ‘slot in’ and get talking at events – at least not right from the outset anyway – and so this was quite unique.
The first talk by Peter Hopkins was about ‘getting published’. This was an informative and candid presentation detailing the stages of submitting to a journal for publication. The presentation was humorous (always helps!), honest and gave some great advice. Peter drew on examples from his own experiences of applying to journals and this included sharing details about the criticisms and rejections he has experienced. As a second-year student I have come a long way in learning not to take criticism personally, but still have some way to go with this. I find it very useful to hear examples such as Peter’s because it helps to put criticism into perspective and is a reminder of how it is integral to academic processes – even for successful academics. After the presentation I felt better prepared for the publishing obstacles that are (hopefully!) just a little way ahead for me.
Yvette Taylor’s paper ‘Personal and practical challenges: becoming a member of the academic community’ was a poignant exploration of the ongoing experience of becoming an academic, ‘fitting in’, and the various intersecting elements of one’s personal identity within these processes. Again, I was grateful for the honesty and the insight the paper provided into very personal, internal struggles in academic life. Many aspects of the paper resonated with me personally, especially for example the notion that “even feminist successes can be recast as failures”.
After lunch was the postgraduate panel, in which four post graduate students shared their unique experiences of PhD life and accompanying challenges. Issues discussed included aspects of personal identity, commitments outside of the PhD, finances, funding and self-care. I was on the panel and focused on the practical and personal challenges I have faced doing a PhD as a single parent living away from campus. Other panel members discussed, for example, the complexities of navigating their personal identities (including ethnic identity and pregnancy) in the context of their own research topics and being positioned as both insider and outsider. The panel considered how researcher identities are cast by others, and the personal and professional challenges that result from this. Prior to the panel I felt somewhat nervous about taking part, but as soon as the discussion got going I eased into it and the conversation was both relaxed and extremely productive – discussion centred around finding ways forward, becoming more inclusive, and acting in solidarity.
Kim Allen’s paper about “Surviving or thriving in academia” was a critical discussion of navigating academic life and the pressures to become an ideal academic subject. I really enjoyed Kim’s discussion of Dave Beer’s ‘punk sociology’ (what a wonderful concept!) and how this might play out for a PhD student. Kim also discussed the importance of the Res-Sisters to her own experiences and in doing so showed the value of collective action. In addition, she highlighted the importance of self -care and saying ‘no’; I especially appreciated this because it is something that I struggle with.
Unfortunately I had to leave the event early so I missed the talk from the editors of The Sheffield Student Journal for Sociology, but other attendees have said that the group shared their experiences of setting up a student journal, and how this helped them in their own researching/writing practices. They gave a detailed account of how they took the journal from idea to print, and gave tips for other students with similar ideas. A student journal also offers an interesting alternative for those wanting a less scary introduction to having their work published!
I took from the day a sense of relief at having what are usually very personal and internal struggles ‘opened up’. I felt as though this transformed the personal work involved in these struggles into a shared experience, so that it now feels less of a burden. In short, the event itself was an act of solidarity. I am grateful that sociology is by nature a very reflexive discipline, and that it is therefore possible for us to create these spaces for reflexive discussions.
Thank you to the postgraduate forum convenors for putting on such a valuable event, and to all of the speakers for their honest insights.
Lauren O’Connell is a second-year PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. Her PhD explores experiences of being diagnosed with treated for anorexia and how these events interact with and shape identity