Organising a PGR conference. Twice..

This post is dedicated to my involvement with organising the Annual PGR Conference at my School. I took part in the organising activities in 2013 and 2014 with different teams and wanted to share some of my reasons and learning from organising such a big event. I will not focus on the content of the conference as much, as some of it is available searching #pgrconfseed and Storify.

Now, there is an important point to add here – my former School underwent a complete transformation into a brand new institute in September 2013. In the light of this transformation the 2013 PGR Conference was organised jointly by students in both schools ‘to become one’. Add to that 5 different disciplines and you get my idea about the mix we had… Then the 2014 PGR Conference was formally the first SEED conference. It still involved the same 5 disciplines and a number of PhD students but this time as part of one structure.

 Why I did what I did…

Some might compare organising big academic events to a chaos of admin, egos and personal interests, but I found unexplainable pleasure in being involved with the nitty-gritty. This meant setting up meeting – lot of them, talking to my team- many times; writing emails – without count, making sure everything was up and running and to plan – sounds easier than it is! I enjoyed all of this and I organised this joy thematically so bear with me.

  • Take a break, organise a #pgrconfseed…

Although I wouldn’t describe the experience as a break per se, there was an element of putting the PhD to the side while dealing with some admin for a change. I find this experience of doing something else liberation. Previously I’ve written about brain-strain while doing the PhD and a conference seems like a great opportunity to put the ‘writing-up’ on a slower speed while occupying my brain with organisational responsibilities.

  • Team working

The PhD is a solitary experience as we work on our own most of the time. Organising the conference was an opportunity to work with other people towards a common goal. And these were not people with research interests in common. The 5 of us were all from different disciplines so what we had in common was doing a PhD. all at different stages that it. While I was actively trying to escape from writing-up, others were still enjoying the first year and happily dreaming what the rest will look like. I admit, for a moment I wish I was again in my first year because in the last months the final deadline has been more pressing than ever. So back to team working… Well, I enjoyed sharing the responsibility with others for once. I could delegate, I could monitor, I could contribute my thought. How rare do we get that in out regular office activities? I also treated this experience as a little prep for the real life out there where there are teams and shared activities.

  • Gaining trust

I read somewhere that PhD students should make friends with the administrators on their programmes. Volunteering to do the extra bits is appreciated but also provides new skills and insight into the workings behind the event. It’s all to easy to criticise without thinking that an event was organised by someone like you, sitting on a desk, replying to emails and maintaining spreadsheets of communications and participants… The experience in two consequtive years allowed me to become friendly with our administrators, gain their trust and effectively have more responsibility and ownership of the conference.

  • Practice makes perfect

In 2014 I thought I didn’t want to be involved again. With a submission date looming later in the year. Initially I suggested to share my knowledge and experience to the 2014 team but hey, when do things work out the way you expect them? Before I knew it I was happily organising for the second time. This was a good thing as I could put in practice some of the things I learned the previous year but also support new members of the team. Part of the reasoning behind this decision to join again was to ensure consistency.

 What I learned…

  • It’s tough and it’s hard work, there are competing priorities… but then it all comes together… This is called satisfaction!
  • The PhD and these transferable skills… I’ll name a few: project management, organisation, interpersonal skills, presentation skills, negotiation skills… The list goes on. I like thinking about my PhD as a springboard rather than means to an end. As one of the alumni presenters at the conference said ‘The PhD only needs to be good enough to pass’, I loved the simplicity and importance of this statement. Although the thesis is done at the end of our programmes, the gains are bigger than that and they are all transferable to a variety of contexts.
  • Communication is key! Reading carefully, writing clearly, responding quickly, talking and talking… Mastered.
  • Inviting speakers, testing appetite: During the first year the conference was much more structured around past events in some of the disciplines. This mean less flexibility in terms of inviting guest speakers or opening the event to other universities. As a result of the trust point and some enquiries from former students, in 2014 we ran a session of alumni presentations – a great way to engage current students with the experiences adn career pathways of early career researcher, academic and administrators. And what’s more this was only a test of appetite as it seems next year the conference will incorporate more of these sessions and some surprises I hope!
  • The art of letting go and moving on: As I said, I will be finishing my PhD in 2014 so this was my last #pgrconfseed organising spree. No more changing mind at the last minute!

So these are my thoughts and ramblings. I’m on to the next thing so I guess I’m now past the last gulp of adrenaline of organising. may organise something else in the future though 🙂

 

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