academic cohort, Academic conferences, CliFi, conferences, Early Career Reseacher, networking

How to survive academic conference season

 

second globe IMG_1573

I am not the only one to emerge from the intensive academic conference ‘silly season’ wishing I’d never submit another abstract again, yet with my head brimming full of ideas and the warm glow of nascent global friendships an email away.

Back six or eight months ago, when I first saw the call for papers, the reality of the workload and time juggle (not to mention travel) that is conference participation seemed a distant problem.

Conferences are jammed into the European summer (June-July) and teaching breaks, but I reside on the other end of the world, and so many people I met at both conferences in Australia said the same thing: jetlag, exhaustion and time poor. It takes time and money to get across the globe and add onto that presenting…not easy.

oxford skyline 2

Mind you, if you live in Melbourne, June-July is bitter cold and the thought of a conference in somewhere warm is very appealing. However, I have deluded myself more than once into imagining Oxford is warm in July…and turned up for a conference only to be confronted with worse weather than back home (in winter). So I spend the first day or so scurrying around looking for warm clothes as locals assured me they ‘had their summer already’ and it was a very nice – week, which I alas missed. I realised that when you are Australian, you do not go to Europe for the nice summer weather.

After several trips overseas in the past few years for conferences, I was happy to stay closer to home; a conference in Canberra and then one in Melbourne – at RMIT no less – so I really was within my geographical comfort zone!

In fact, at the Motherhood, Feminisms and the Future conference held at RMIT University, when asked, “where are you from” I would reply, “here – right here”. There is something about being on home ground that is very convenient, but then again, the camaraderie that results from everyone being together in a foreign location has its own benefits.

better motherhood brochure flowers

With conferences there are lots of different hurdles and expectations. First, you have to find out what is available and in what area you might like to present. When I was a doctoral student, this seemed very hard to decode. Was it laziness or pure obstruction or the assumption that you ‘just knew’ where to find out about conferences that resulted in those in academia never (and I mean NEVER) passing on useful information such as where to find CFP or what the heck CFP meant in the first place?

I always tell my students that the Call For Papers is where to look, which websites to go to, and how to find out about conference alerts. I am very grateful for the one confident and well published professor who did the same for me. Then it’s a matter of working out strategically where you’ll get the most bang for your buck (literally, if travelling). Again, most academics seem useless at mentoring students in this regard.  And so we stumble on, learning by trial and error.

Ditto the much overlooked topic of how to submit an abstract that will get you noticed. I actually had an academic say to me “no wonder your abstracts are accepted, they have sexy titles, snappy writing and play into the key areas the conference organisers want to promote.” This said with a snide sneer and derision. And I am thinking – “getting noticed and getting your abstract accepted – isn’t that a good thing?”

I have presented at many different types of conferences – interdisciplinary, literary, ecocritical, feminism, bioethical, animal studies – what I have discovered is that, in the humanities at least, there are many ways of spinning your topic so that you can present a different version of your broad research area to a different audience.

moterhood presentation

This I think is not a bad thing, because if we are to use our research in a wide context, to a wide audience and speak to our research as public intellectuals post PhD, then testing out across different disciplines while forming those ideas is certainly a help.

My doctoral research has taken me to conferences where I have presented papers on topics such as animal experimentation, bestiality, geography and monstrosity and post apocalyptic dystopia…and I can feel the pull of cannibalism calling to me (in a speculative fictional context of course!) I am so very excited by cannibalism right now and how it is being explored in Cli-Fi.

Ecocriticism (and Cli-Fi) is one of my academic passions – and the opportunity to put together a panel for the recent Affective Habitus conference (the subject of my last blog post) was too good to pass up. However, a few weeks later, the Motherhood and Feminisms conference at RMIT was also a perfect fit, providing me with an opportunity to present a paper on a book I co-wrote with Dr Caroline van de Pol on high risk pregnancy. I published Handle With Care as a Masters student, and am soon to relaunch it as an ebook, aimed at midwifery students. So the timing was perfect.

handle with care at conference

What I hadn’t anticipated was my level of exhaustion. I thought that with the PhD now completed, I would have so much more time, so back to back conferences would be a breeze. In fact, I did three back to back international conferences as a doctoral student, which makes me wonder how on earth I found the energy. Much like a woman who looks back on surviving raising triplets, I shake my head in amazement. I also wonder what’s wrong with me now that I am drained by my recent conference adventures.

I am not the only one – so many people at the Motherhood conference were on their third conference in a row, having crammed as much in as possible. First, if you are from Australia (or New Zealand) it’s a long way to go to head to Europe or America to present a paper so you might as well do two – or three conferences. It’s more time and cost effective. Also, if you are a full time academic or sessional, then you’ll need to cram everything into the break in the teaching semesters.

time IMG_1574

I have often written that doing a doctorate is like having a baby. I now think that the conference circus is like maternity as well. How else can I explain that as soon as I finished writing this blog, and vowed never to subject myself to another conference again and instead just ‘concentrate on my writing’ (as if the two are somehow unconnected…) than I discover two conferences in Sydney that have grabbed my attention. One is the Independent Publishers Conference (again, right up my areas of interest) and the other the Gothic Spaces: Boundaries, Mergence, Liminalities conference…both in Sydney, both on at good times for me in the exhibition cycle of the university gallery where I work.

It’s like wanting another baby again…except without the lifelong commitment and childcare issues that go with it.  Dammit! How can I pass up weaving an abstract around ‘Hybridity and trangression’? I mean – this is the stuff of my doctorate. This is what I spent years studying. This is what I dream about.

I have come to realise that once you step through the door marked ‘doctorate’ there is no turning back. Some people get excited by cheap airfares to Bali, others by a shoe sale; for me, it’s those dead/alive dichotomies that do it every time.

As for my exhaustion? My energy levels and enthusiasm? It appears that I didn’t need to give up on conferences – I just needed a good night’s sleep.

oxford bike

Conference tips from a conference junkie

Remember – if you have beginner nerves, the more conferences you do, the easier it is to present your work in front of everyone:

  • Sign up for conference alerts in as many of the areas as you have an interest. Sometimes you won’t feel like trawling for a conference, and that’s when a CFP that pops in your inbox that ignite that spark of interest all over again
  • Audiences are forgiving when you are starting out
  • It is worth the time, money and effort because you will gradually make a name for yourself among the people who will be your academic peers
  • Conferences are about dipping your research toes in the big pool of water that is the latest global thinking on a discipline
  • A good keynote speaker can give your research ideas a jet propelled push into a new direction or confirm you are on the right path
  • You’ll meet interesting people who literally speak your research language
  • Conversations over conference dinners can open up new ideas and directions for you
  • Be generous with your knowledge and helpful and understanding to others. Academic karma is real
  • Don’t eat from the vegetarian/vegan/gluten free platter unless you have specified such food options or someone who won’t or can’t eat certain foods will go without.
  • A conference paper is about 20 minutes so your word limit should be under 3000 words…time yourself!
  • Don’t send your audience to sleep. A conference presentation is a performance. An animation, a taster. It’s not a book chapter.
  • Take along business cards. Get on twitter and have your twitter handle up on your powerpoint.
  • Attend everything, participate, ask questions, say thanks, be appreciative of the organisers, be generous with your comments and praise to others, be nice. Enjoy yourself. Embrace whatever the conference location has to offer.
  • Be open to every conversation, even if it is ‘off topic’. I received an intensive session on a future book that was on the back burner – all because I sat opposite a fascinating lecturer whose area is contemporary German literature. When she said ‘take down these names, read these people – take notes!’ I realised the reason you go to a conference dinner is exactly this. Sometimes, virtual reality just doesn’t cut it. And serendipity is all. I felt the stars align that night, and as a writer and researcher felt incredibly grateful for such an encounter.
  • Last tip – a conference is not just about you presenting your research. It is about sharing, networking, establishing collaborations and global friendships. Be generous with everything you have to offer – and be kind. Otherwise, why bother getting together at all?

 

 

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Academic regalia, Academic rituals, Academic Study, Academic success, Big Love TV Series, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Doctoral completion, Graduation ceremony, parenting and study, The Hero's Journey, Time management

Doctoral graduation: the rite of academic passage at last

Evelyn at RMIT graduation

There are two schools of thought about graduation. One is the “I am too cool for school and never attend any of my graduations” and the other is “I have earned this rite of passage, get me that academic gown stat!” I am in the latter school. I always intended to celebrate getting the doctorate.

Alas, what I hadn’t counted on was getting so sick before the ceremony I thought I might not be able to attend.

I have written about post doctoral malaise, and the lingering, debilitating lethargy that hit me once I had handed in. I expected to jump back from zero to hero once I have officially passed, but no – disturbingly, I had no energy. It was as if my body had said, enough is enough. But surely, I would kick up my heels come graduation night, and celebrate?

By the time I actually got to the massive Etihad stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands on 18 December 2013 to receive my formal doctoral degree at RMIT university’s massive evening graduation ceremony, I was so ill I could barely stand.

roof rmit graduation

I mean this literally – I came down with horrendous gastro only five days before the ceremony, and for days I couldn’t get out of my bed except to vomit. I felt this was a fitting visceral metaphor for purging all those years of doctoral study, for those long, long nights and early morning starts of burning the candle at both ends as a mature age student, worker and mother.

In the worst of those days of illness, I honestly thought I’d be a no-show at graduation. It was bizarre how hard and fast the illness hit me. I have blogged that the key to academic success is brutal self focus, determination and time management – in short, it’s all about organization. So in true form, I organized my parents and children to join me the weekend before the graduation ceremony for the official photographs. And just as well I did. At least I have photos where I am smiling and actually look healthy!

At that point, it all felt exciting – graduation was finally feeling real. When I successfully wrangled my parents and kids into the city to pose for the group photo, it was the first time I had slipped on the doctoral regalia – the gown, the hat (velvet) and the scarlet hood. And it was the first time the “special status” of the doctoral graduate was made apparent.

I needed my gown ironed – someone nearly knocked over a lowly masters graduate to do so. I was suited up, the hood placed correctly, the velvet hat arranged, while undergraduates looked on, possibly queasy with the thought of how many years it would take them to earn the right to wear such academic dress.

I’d like to say I took a moment to savour the end of the journey that began about five years ago, but in honesty I was preoccupied with whether I could get my sons to brush their hair, stop fighting and fidgeting and look up from their mobile devices – and to stop the impressive doctoral hat from falling into my eyes. I should have tried it on when I hired it and picked it up on collection day. Oh well.

At some point, as the kids stood next to me, smiling happily that mummy was no longer doing doctoral study, I must have telegraphed some element of smugness to the fates. Because I was about to be taken down a peg. Big time.

In what seemed to be a sign from the universe about being too proud of my achievements, I promptly came down with crippling gastro that very evening. Thankfully, I had already bought my graduation dress, and the dazzling electric blue patent pumps to match, and had been given the most amazing necklace to wear from my parents as a graduation gift – I was set.

Sick I might have been, but I was also determined and on the big day I staggered out to the pharmacy for over the counter tablets that would make me functional for the event. And just as well, because if the doctoral journey required stamina, so too did the graduation.

The special position of the doctoral graduate was apparent from the minute I was ushered into the VIP room before the ceremony. Separated from the herd, I got to mingle with the other Chosen People – the same academics from the university who previously looked through me as a mere student, were now greeting me warmly as One Of Them. This is part of the doctoral rite of passage – your initiation into the group of academics with whom you are now on equal footing.

There was copious amounts of sparkling wine, yummy catering and much hugging and clinking of glasses. Dr Tsitas! Dr Tsitas! I was greeted by academics I worked with on exhibitions at RMIT Gallery, and those I knew from my sessional teaching. It was a cross between a speed networking event (“Send me your CV!”) to a love-in (“I am so happy for you! This is fabulous!”)

It was reminiscent of that penultimate scene in Ira Levin’s SF novel This Perfect Day, where protagonist Chip storms the bastions of Uni (an all encompassing computer system that controls the utopian world and all its citizens) only to be greeted  as a newly anointed peer by those scientists and leaders who program Uni – and who used to program his life . Chip was smart enough to evade capture, and find his way through the maze to grab the holy grail in an attempt to end the dictatorship. He passed the test. He was allowed into the inner sanctum. The punchline is, of course, that he now gets to program the masses, having proved himself worthy of the task. Someone has to rule, right?

This is what the doctoral celebrations are all about – you, the student, have found your way out of the doctoral maze, and returned triumphant with the prize.  Joseph Campbell would approve. The masks are taken off (them and us) and you are one with the power of the academy. Your doctoral journey is a hero’s journey, after all.

One thing I noticed at this pre-ceremony event is that academic dress is very diverse, something American geologist Evelyn Mervine discusses about in her blog. She writes, “I think it’s wonderful to celebrate academic dress. In these days when students and professors are more likely to wear jeans than a tie, I find the academic dress a fascinating throwback to times when dress was much more elaborate. Today, academic dress looks delightfully ridiculous… as if all the students and professors are dressed up for a Harry Potter movie, perhaps.”

Here is a photo of me with my Handle With Care co-author Dr Caroline van de Pol, who graduated from the University of Wollongong with a doctorate in creative writing, but is wearing different style academic gown (I think it is from an American university). Caroline lectures in public relations at RMIT and had to stand in for a colleague at the ceremony.

Evelyn  & Caro RMIT graduation

The pain of the past four years – those doctoral hurdles, deadlines, papers and most of all, the gruelling paperwork and administration – fell away. I was now part of The Club. Fittingly, this took place in the glass walled VIP room overlooking the stadium – all the hoi poli – the great majority of those without a doctorate, the location seemed to be implying – are below. Here you are, with the Chosen Few. It was so highly ritualized, I was reminded of the HBO TV drama Big Love and the controversial scene where Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) goes into the Mormon Temple’s Celestial Room so she can undergo the endowment ceremony. Just as those in the Temple are dressed in ritual garments, the academics in the VIP room were fitted out in their ritual gowns. No outsiders, please.  Like Barb, you must pass the ultimate test before you are allowed in.

Let us pause for a minute to reflect on my use of the phrase “chosen few” for doctoral graduates, because it isn’t exactly true, is it?  According to Dr Les Rymer (University World News 26 January 2014) “one issue stimulating debate about PhD education is the view that, at least in some disciplines, universities are producing too many PhD graduates and the huge increase in doctoral candidates means there is now a much more diverse PhD graduate population than in even the recent past.”

But, on this night – my own doctoral graduation – we can ignore the facts, and concentrate instead on the fantasy. I sipped on sparkling water, well aware I had to be on stage, in the middle of the stadium, for several hours, so alas, no champagne for me. More to the point, I was gleefully informed by all the academics that I would be sitting for hours on a stage that would rotate, like a giant gyros, basting me and the other doctoral graduates in the sunny glory of success. And overhead lighting. And roaming video cameras. I could not afford to pass out.

I have to hand it to RMIT University – more than 6,600 students gathered at Docklands Stadium to collect their certificates in front of more than 27,000 family and friends in the spectacular ceremony. And, cliche time, everything went like clockwork. At every turn I was marshalled into this line or that line, told when to sit, stand, move to the right or left, and march. Oh yes, there was an entire Magellan like circumnavigation of the oval at Etihad Stadium, which put my new heels – and my somewhat wobbly post gastro gait – to the test. I am pleased to report I made the circuit with no incidents.

During the long, long haul of sitting on the stage while every other single student graduated from the university at the same time (the doctoral students were first, of course), we were supplied with bottles of water and bowls of sweets to keep up our energy levels. Finally, at the conclusion of events, there was another glass of champagne. This time, I took one cautious sip. I felt I earned it.

champagne RMIT graduation

My 12 year old bided the time by opening a Twitter account and sending me a congratulatory message and by the time I located my kids and parents after the ceremony, they were full to the gills with the sandwiches and snacks wheeled onto the oval for the crowd to feast upon. It was nearing midnight as we finally took the last of our informal photos, collected my framed doctoral degree, and headed home.

Like Cinderella, I didn’t get to keep the academic finery. I had to dump the carefully pressed gown and hat in one of the large bins placed around the stadium – squashed in along with all the other gowns.

disgarded gowns rmit graudation

It seemed a sad but appropriate farewell to the fantasy night of graduation – what lies ahead is now up to you, after all. No more university holding your hand.

How odd, after 12 years of university study.

What I know now about doctoral graduation

Go to the graduation –Thank your support team. Honour the moment and dress up and get photos taken. Everyone around you wants to celebrate – and they want closure too. Make sure you organize ahead for seats for family. If you have children, they really, really want closure.

  • Yes, it is more special graduating with a doctorate – you do get ushered into the door of those who have stayed the distance, and it’s all champagne and accolades. Enjoy it while it lasts. You are now one of them – the group of people with PhDs. Share a glass of champagne with these guys who are now your peer group. Smile. In the “real” world, no one actually cares… 
  • You don’t have to know what you will do next. From this point on, you will be asked “what now?” In truth, I don’t think we can ever know just how much higher education changes everything. It’s not the final research or project that you produce, either. It’s the way you approach information, assess and amass knowledge, cast a critical eye over information and learn to think, analyse and argue.
  • Be grateful: You stayed the distance, you passed the test. Take a moment to congratulate yourself and be grateful you had the opportunity to do post graduate study in the first place. Finally…

Do not listen to old applause: Once the graduation ceremony is over, you actually have to start again. A doctorate isn’t an end it’s just a beginning. Maybe you don’t know what it is the beginning of – that’s okay. Just don’t rest on your laurels.