This guest post is written by Dorothy Lawrenson, a 2nd year AHRC-funded PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. She tweets @djlawrenson.
Helping to host a conference may feature among the competing demands on your time as a PhD student. The job, which is unlikely to be compulsory, involves a commitment of time and energy with no financial compensation. So why should you take on this responsibility? This is a question I found myself pondering after the first meeting of the organising committee for the SGSAH Summer Symposium, a one-day conference for funded doctoral researchers which took place in Glasgow last month.
I had volunteered at the end of the 2nd Year Residential when, lulled into a state of zen-like compassion by three relaxing days of yoga and mindfulness, I decided my name should be first on the sign-up sheet. But as I looked down the list of tasks we now had to complete, I began to question my altruistic instincts. Sure, somebody had to volunteer for all this, but why should it be me?
I’m pleased to report that the process of working together with four other committee members over the past few months has given me several good answers to this question. So if you’re wondering whether to get involved in organising a similar event, I’d urge you to consider the rewards you’ll receive in exchange for contributing your time and talents. Leaving aside the larger benefits to the academic community of holding a conference, here are five things that might motivate you specifically to volunteer as an organiser.
1. It’s a challenge, and a learning experience
If you’ve already presented at one or more conferences, why not take the next step by becoming an organiser? You’ll get to see the bigger picture, and understand the work that goes on behind the scenes. I found the job of reviewing abstracts and organising panels sharpened my critical skills at the same time as allowing me to see how my own research area could fit into the broader field of arts and humanities. Obviously, this experience is good for your CV: whether you end up highlighting your committee work as academic service, or as project-management experience for non-academic jobs, it’s a chance to demonstrate how your PhD allowed you to develop teamwork and organisational skills.
2. Committee work is academic service
Along with research and teaching, service is the third element in the ‘academic triad’. If your academic CV is looking a little thin under this heading, conference organising is a great way to start demonstrating a track record. Of course in a larger sense, service represents a chance to contribute to the academic community above and beyond your own specialism. Researchers with AHRC funding are in a particularly privileged position; personally, it felt right to take this opportunity to give something back to the institution that supports me.
3. Organising offers a chance to collaborate
Meeting regularly with colleagues and administrative staff means you can take a break from your solo research activity, and experience collaborative working – something that is commonplace in many non-academic careers and in STEM, but often rare in the humanities. Collaboration can be really fun and satisfying, and it also allows you to pool skills and resources, and to learn from your co-organisers. I now feel much more up-to-speed with online document-sharing and collaborative editing, which I had not previously had much experience with.
4. It’s an opportunity to strengthen networks
As well as cultivating dynamic working relationships with other committee members and with SGSAH staff, I also strengthened my connections across disciplines within the SGSAH cohort. The experience of having curated all the abstracts enabled me to put names to faces, and connect each researcher with their specific paper. So when I found myself sitting next to someone during a break, even though I’d been unable to attend their session, I was still able to have a friendly conversation about their work.
5. You can put your own stamp on the event
It’s your conference so you make the decisions, which can include innovative ideas. This might mean incorporating public engagement activities, encouraging use of social media or other technologies, or allowing for formats which combine creative and academic practice. For the Symposium, we decided to encourage poster submissions, exhibitions and performances in addition to traditional papers. We also combined the obligatory feedback-writing task with a fun ‘wind-down’ creative session involving coloured pens, stickers and postcards, which provided a relaxed transition between the presentations and the drinks reception.
Having been part of the Symposium committee, I feel I’ve developed my organisational and interpersonal skills in really meaningful ways. Reflecting on conference organising has made me realise that, more than simply being a line on my CV, it promises a more wide-ranging impact on my life as a researcher and my academic career. Finally, an additional bonus on the day was the knock-on effect on my presentational style: organising kept me so busy that I had no time to get nervous about my own paper!
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