The University of Hull PhD Experience Conference began in 2008 and provides a crucial additional platform for supporting students through their doctoral years.
The conference attracts delegates, academics and speakers from all around the world and continues to put Hull at the forefront of creating a supportive environment for doctoral students.
The idea for the conference was developed by two alumni Theresa Mercer and Andrew Kythreotis who (then students) felt the PhD was essentially a lonely process, despite having good support from supervisors and opportunities to meet other post graduate students. This forum was organised by students for students and was the first of its kind in the UK.
Now alumni of the university and academics in their own right; the key players reflect on the thinking, motivations, inspirations, challenges and rewards underlying these transformative events.
The University of Hull Experience Conferences: By students, for students
Theresa Mercer (Cranfield University, UK), Andrew Kythreotis (Cardiff University) Carol Lambert (University of Hull, UK), Gill Hughes (University of Hull, UK)
The PhD process has to now equip students with transferable skills that graduate students can utilize post-PhD, and who better to take the initiative in doing a PhD than the students themselves? Student-led training in the form of organizing PhD experience conferences offer one way for students to reflect and share the emotional experiences of doing a PhD with their peers, in addition to developing both expertise in their chosen discipline and important transferable skills. This blog recounts the experiences of four different co-organisers of the first two conferences at the University of Hull (UoH) and how initiating, organising, leading and attending such events have helped us in our post-PhD careers.
Theresa Mercer (Geography, 2010)
Cranfield Institute for Resilient Futures
I had a very supportive supervisor during my PhD who has remained my mentor and friend. At the UoH there is an accredited research training program but as I mixed with other PhD students from different disciplines across the university, at conferences and workshops, I realised that we all face similar challenges that do not tend to be dealt with in the research process. I clubbed together with Andrew Kythreotis, a social scientist PhD student within my department (then known as Geography) and we set about organising an inaugural conference about the experience of doing a PhD run by PhD students for PhD students. This conference served as a platform where we could come together and deal with some of these wider experiential issues while in our graduate programme.
Organising and leading such an initiative, whilst still being a student myself felt like a huge undertaking. Many of the organising committee learnt our skills on the job. We also felt overwhelmed towards the end when the demand for the event snowballed and it turned from a one-day workshop into a large international conference over two long days. We found ourselves problem solving on a daily basis, adjusting bookings, applying for more money, fielding emails from attendees and dealing with organisational tasks outside our expertise: keeping a budget, contacting key speakers, organising catering and the like. However, the experience was also an emotionally enriching one. I felt that I learnt so much about how to deal with the viva and writing process, not just logistically but also emotionally.
The skills and contacts I picked up during the organisation and running of such a workshop have helped me on my academic career path. As a physical scientist, I feel that organising, leading and attending the conference has equipped me to deal with the emotional aspect of an academic career to better deal with issues that seem to be quite common in academia. Since my PhD I have worked in five different academic institutions both in the UK and Australia and at each institution I have found that students and academics alike seem to come up against similar issues and barriers. I picked up useful skills in organising and chairing the PhD Experience Conference. However, I also gained more informal insights from talking to other students during the course of the event, from academics who gave keynote speeches and students that presented their experiences. These issues include writing up research for grants or publication, organising and leading workshops, balancing working and personal life as well as forming valuable networks. I will give the example of work/life balance and networks (please refer to article links at the end of the document for more information).
I picked up some amazing tips and shared experiences on achieving a work/life balance at our PhD Experience conference. As a stepping stone into the academic world, the PhD process was one of the earlier experiences that researchers had of the difficulties in balancing their personal life with what is essentially a marathon in study. I particularly remember one presentation from an overseas researcher from the University of Durham describing how she managed the research process in a new country with three children under six! Up to a few years ago, I could happily focus solely on research and teaching. Since organising the conference and completing my PhD, I went on to marry my co-organiser and chair (although this is not a prerequisite to organising a PhD Experience Conference!) and have had a beautiful daughter who is now in her toddler years. The wisdom imparted by the student speaker of the pressures, joys and ways to manage a family and academic career certainly opened up my eyes.
The conventional route into an academic career is going from the PhD, to a postdoc, to a tenured faculty position. I have not followed this direct route and have held a number of postdocs, research fellowships, lectureships as well as carried out external industrial and consultancy work. What has always been important to me is not just the quality of the research projects I have been involved in but also the experience I have had within the team I work with. Having a supportive, respectful, vibrant and friendly atmosphere amongst colleagues is essential for good, fruitful research. In the PhD Experience conference there were a number of talks from researchers who had come into the PhD process from a variety of backgrounds, some mature, some with previous work experience. Knowing this and seeing how they adjusted to re-entering academia has allowed me to have the courage of convictions to take a more meandering academic journey and to be involved in projects that I truly enjoy. At my current institution I have an amazing line manager and mentors whom have allowed me to work remotely since having my daughter but nevertheless make me feel like a valued member of the research team. This has allowed me to continue in my academic career whilst bringing up my daughter full-time. I am very grateful for this.
The bonds you create at an event designed as a platform to share common experiences are strong. I am still in contact with student speakers from the conference, many who have gone on to academic careers. I am also in contact with some of the members of the organising committees including those that took the idea of the PhD Experience Conference forward to run in subsequent years. We all have a shared interest and passion in researcher development and student-led training and have published on this since our experience of running the conference as students.
Andrew Kythreotis (Geography, 2010)
School of Geography and Planning
From PhD supervisee to PhD supervisor
I was co-organiser and co-chair, along with Theresa Mercer, of the inaugural PhD Experience conference in 2008. But my PhD journey didn’t start at the conference. There was so much groundwork that needed to be laid before our first welcome from our Vice Chancellor at the conference. As a PhD student working in a particular area, I was accustomed to thinking more narrowly in terms of skills application – writing a research proposal, writing a literature review, learning to write critical empirical chapters. Yet the skills I learned as I was co-organising the conference not only benefitted me in terms of transferrable skills as described and discussed by my co-bloggers here. The skills that I acquired also helped me in my PhD writing; understanding and empathising what it is like to do a PhD – those ‘existential’ experiences and skills – as one of our conference presenters described it. It was those very skills that have enabled me to transition to supervising PhD students of my own. As any early career academic would tell you, supervising PhD students is probably one of the most difficult things you do as you build an emerging research profile, trying to establish yourself amongst the cohorts of academics that you cited in your very PhD thesis.
But the difficulties entrenched in supervising PhD students hasn’t really deterred me from trying to develop a PhD research team. In fact, the PhD conference organisation, and in particular the complete life cycle project management skills it had given me, has made me better equipped to deal with PhD student issues as they emerge. Framing the intended research is one such problem that all PhD researchers initially encounter. The specifics of their intended research, what are the research questions/hypotheses? What key debates do they draw from? If organising the conference has taught me anything, it is not to rush the PhD process at the start – the PhD supervisee will only pay the price further down the line, especially when they go out to conferences to discuss their research with their peers.
So with the above in mind, the first thing I try to instil in my students as soon as they commence don’t rush the framing of the research – read, assimilate, write. Take the RAW© approach. This is the first academic rule that I try to discuss with my students, although I do leave it up to them to decide how they want to approach their research in the first year. A didactic approach to the relationship is not good. Getting them to read academic stuff – not just from your home discipline – gives them the widened knowledge base from which to explore their particular research questions. During the organisation of the conference, discussions with the organising committee enlightened me further to actually listen to those around me, even though many of the final decisions on how to progress with the conference organisation was down to my co-chair and myself.
The second rule is more pastoral in scope – it’s based around the emotional support needed when students try to intellectualise their intended research, so is intrinsically linked with the first rule. Our cognitive processes, when we embark upon a PhD are firmly driven by our intellectual curiosity and wanting to further knowledge in a particular and highly specific area. But how we operationalise and develop the knowledge that we absorb around us is also firmly driven by our temporal emotional states. And this is how organising the PhD Experience has stood me in good stead for supervisory duties. I do like to get to know my students over a tea or coffee and talk about life in general. Not from a viewpoint of prying into the personal life of your supervisee; you are about to embark on a mutual academic relationship for the next three years or more. Discussing ‘life’, and sometimes the ‘inane’, is part of doing the PhD process. One thing that I do with one of my supervisees, along with my co-supervisor, is to discuss what to watch on Netflix! The types of pressures that surface as researchers continue through their PhD journey in their second and third years, are very different to those initially felt at the onset of the PhD process. The second and third year are usually characterised by gathering data and analysing and interpreting it, which require different ways of assimilating knowledge into your thesis. So it’s more about synthesising what is relevant to your research questions and objectives. So talking about the world in all its ontological glory forearms PhD students with those skills that will enable them to work more efficiently, and ruthlessly towards the goal of a completed thesis.
Applying RAW and developing a pastoral relationship with PhD supervisees are just two areas that I have tried to apply in my PhD supervision as an early career academic – and I feel that the organisation of the PhD Experience conference certainly put me ahead of the curve in understanding the nuances of PhD supervision. Having a PhD is an academic prerequisite to supervising PhD students – ü as Carol writes. But also experiencing the relationships between people and the negotiation experiences that are part and parcel of those relationships – the emotional ups and downs – when we found as conference organisers that we were not going to get that extra funding we applied for, or that conference room at a lower concessional charge. It’s those emotional adaptations that have enabled me to start to develop a team of PhD researchers, and learning such adaptations certainly have their provenance in when I co-organised the first PhD Experience conference with Theresa nearly a decade ago. Long may conferences of this ilk continue.
Carol Lambert (Midwifery, 2013)
School of Health and Social Work
University of Hull
I was co-organiser of the 2011 PhD Experiences conference. For me this journey began whilst I was undertaking one of the Post Graduate Training Scheme modules. Though early in my PhD journey I was already considering employability and I asked the Professor “what will make me stand out from the crowd? …. “Organise a conference and achieve a Diploma in Research” was his response. I never considered at that point how huge these tasks ‘alongside doing my PhD’ would be. Of course it wasn’t alongside, it was part of the whole PhD experience. To say that I utilised my Project Management Skills during this time was an understatement.
Project Management: Utilising the skills you have and seeing yourself as part of the whole process.
Everything I did within my PhD journey, including the year it took to organise the conference, was a springboard for something else. Instead of doing different activities, a PhD, credits for a diploma in research and organise a conference , all of these meant developing a skill set I needed to manage all these different projects all at once. For example, undertaking a qualitative module for my diploma meant that I took what I had achieved in this assignment as a springboard to go on and publish on this qualitative methodological aspect. Not only was this further credits towards my research diploma, but was fundamental to understanding being in the process and understanding how I was changing in this scholarly role. I believed in myself and my abilities to be able to project manage all that I needed to but without Gill my co-organiser and our small organising committee, it wouldn’t have come to fruition. Determination and meeting things head on were my personal driving forces. We were following in the footsteps of our trail blazers Theresa and Andrew and our conference had been designed following feedback from the 2008 conference delegates and therefore remained completely student led. This was our starting point.
Being resourceful in whatever we do is important in life not just in organising a conference. We are all unique and have something to offer and this was something we wanted to grow for our conference. I could tell you about the skills I learned of spreadsheets; designing a conference booklet and logo; designing delegate reflective evaluation forms; keeping awareness of the broader roles of the committee, whilst trusting them to ‘know what to do’ and to ‘let them get on with it’; but for me conference organising gave me a buzz that cannot be captured by meeting minutes or Gantt charts. These skills were most certainly achieved through my PhD journey in developing my own research methods, for example, meeting with stake holders and designing study information sheets and keeping to deadlines but organising the conference had a direct impact on my own PhD. We had a conference poster presentation and in fear of no one outside of our committee submitting a poster, we each submitted (yes you guessed it more diploma credits). The reflections through the process of my PhD journey: ‘Doing a PhD is like having a baby’ gave me an opportunity to critically examine my position in the research process. As a midwife and mother, my own contextual representations explored here: Self as novice researcher and Self as novice pregnant being’ brought together two very different experiences and understood by the application of Shiva’s Circle of Constructivist Inquiry. Like my birthing experiences and my PhD experience, co-organising the PhD Experiences conference also sits within this circle and became a journey of self-discovery and rite of passage.
The success of our conference in 2011 meant that this three-day event was shared by 140 students, representing 25 universities from 7 countries and 3 continents. Don’t underestimate the positive influence we have on our own and others’ experience and together we can influence each other and situations we and others face.
Gill Hughes (Education, 2016)
School of Education and Social Sciences
University of Hull
“This was the best £10 I have invested in my life!” – PhD Experience Conference 2011, University of Hull.
This quotation from one participant in 2011 was perhaps, the best compliment we could have been paid, that their precious £10 was so rewarding, meant we achieved what we set out to do. There is little for me to add to what the previous contributors have offered especially Carol Lambert, as we worked very closely together. I was volunteered to co-chair the 2011 conference by my supervisor, who influenced Carol to take up the challenge. We worked well together ably assisted by our Committee: Janine Hatter, Ellie Cope (Faculty of Arts and Social Science) and Andrew Cressey (The Business School). Taking account of the feedback and the needs identified from the successful two-day 2008 model piloted by Theresa and Andrew, we produced a three-day international conference.
We coined the phrase ‘By students for students’ to cement the ethos developed by Theresa and Andrew, who generously offered time and support throughout the planning of the event –they were at the next stage on in their journey – thus they both presented at the 2011 conference. Carol and I then offered support to the next generation of students led by Kay Brown, who took the conference further in 2012. This approach was encapsulated by an attendee:
“I have learnt a lot about doing a PhD. As a prospective student this has been of immense value for me. I hope in years to come I can give back by attending one of your conferences and sharing my experience.” PhD Experience Conference 2011, University of Hull
This cascading of support and knowledge is vital for PhD students who often feel isolated and invisible with their heads enveloped in research or writing:
Doing a doctorate can be a lonely journey. Unlike taught postgraduate degrees, research degrees do not tend to follow a structured programme. While you take modules with other students, generally in small classes, most of your time is spent in the lab, in your office or in the field doing research by yourself. Being alone so much can sometimes lead to people feeling sad, isolated, neglected or alienated. (Matthiesen and Binder, 2009, p. 35).
The feedback from the participants at the conference was overwhelmingly positive and the key thing for many had been the networking opportunity. However, I would suggest that the most important aspect – certainly for me – was the recognition that students were not alone in their feelings – indeed most students across disciplines experienced similar emotions, which included self-doubt:
“Knowing that everyone goes through this has helped me realise that it [the PhD process] will not last forever. There is a way through it.” – PhD Experience Conference 2011, University of Hull.
Established academics, who led the sessions, gave permission to students to be confused and to not always be sure of their focus. It was a relief to know that the end result may deviate from early plans. This was important and provided a feeling of emancipation for the participants – the sense of freedom that change was legitimately allowed was a revelation for most present. Perhaps the most significant phrase that I took away was ‘undulating trajectory’ – the road to completion has most certainly undulated for me – but because the phrase came from a Professor, (Julie Jomeen Faculty of Health and Social Care at Hull), the relief was palpable.
In terms of doing a PhD – my advice to anyone contemplating, or in the midst of study, enjoy the time you have to do it – you might not wholly appreciate it when experiencing the much used phrase; the tyranny of the blank page, but you won’t often have the luxury of time to think, read, debate, research, theorise, interpret and write in the same way as when you are engaged in your doctorate – enjoy – you will reflect fondly in hindsight!
As organisers, our learning – documented by the other three contributors – was exceptionally useful. We experienced feelings of exhausted exhilaration at the end of the conferences, but longer term our learning reverberates in terms of confidence developed, the knowledge and ability to manage projects and recognition through the article we co-wrote to share with others (Mercer et al 2011). However, it should be noted that without the University of Hull supporting the initiatives, especially the Graduate School, Commercial Services and our Faculties, our journey through the complexity of the University Bureaucracy, systems and processes would have been all the more complex.
If the opportunity to co-organise a conference presents itself – you will not regret the opportunities it offers, the skills and knowledge you gain and the networks you will build.
OTHER USEFUL ARTICLE LINKS
Lightfoot, L. (2008). How to make a success of your doctorate. The Independent, [online] 4th December. Available at:
Matthiesen, J. and Binder, M. (2009), How to Survive Your Doctorate: What Others Don’t Tell You, McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, Maidenhead.
Mercer, T. (2017). By students, for students. Nature, 541 (7635), 125–126. (05 January 2017). doi:10.1038/nj7635-125a. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v541/n7635/full/nj7635-125a.html
Costello, R., Waehning, N., Reed, K.A. & Shaw, N. (2014). Researcher-led Training: the PhD Experience Conference 2013 – Supporting the Student in Higher Education. Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences, 1-9.
Mercer, T., Kythreotis, A., Lambert, C., Hughes, G. (2011). Student-led research training within the PhD: “PhD experience” conferences. International Journal for Researcher Development, 2 (2), 152 – 166. DOI: 10.1108/17597511111212736
Shiva’s Circle of Constructivist Inquiry in: Crabtree B.F. & Miller, W.L. (1992) Doing Qualitative Research. London. Sage.