Monday, 1 November 2010

Thoughts from a conference

Went to the QUT post-grad student conference, Ignite, held at the Kelvin Grove campus in Brisbane last Friday. It was a two-day conference but working full-time at the moment I could only fit in the one day.

I had a 10-minute paper to deliver first up in the morning, along with 4 other first year PhD students, which was interesting. I've spoken at conferences before for work-related stuff, but this was my first academic style conference. The audience was small and consisted of everyone's supervisors, family and friends but at least that meant it was a supportive group. Pretty much everyone used bigger words than me, though maybe my few mentions of neuroconstructivism put me up there. And the short reading I did from my creative work resulted in stunned silence (still not sure if this meant they were spellbound or shocked).

Over the rest of the day I attended a couple of sessions of PhD and Masters students delivering 20 minute papers. A couple of things I learnt from attending those:
  • you can talk the academic talk and be entertaining
  • interesting discussions can come out of the question and answer sessions
  • keep on track with your topic
  • be prepared and be professional
  • somewhere along the way doing your PhD, the chances are high you will lost the plot
One of the most interesting papers was by a candidate who had just submitted her thesis for examination. About two thirds of the way through her PhD, she realised that all the assumptions she'd made about her topic were wrong. All the data she had collected was telling her something that she didn't want to see. So she had to take a step back, pull all the data apart and look at it again from a fresh perspective. After having a minor (or possibly close to major) meltdown, she got through it all and came out the other side with a thesis that was much more original than her initial work. She had some great advice to give to new PhD students, including:
  • don't make assumptions about what you think your data is telling you
  • don't give up - take a step back and work through the issues
  • don't be afraid of letting your research taking you in unexpected directions
One of the worst papers was from a candidate who was clearly unprepared. She may have been a last minute replacement, which would explain why she was all over the place, but she made some major mistakes that could have been overcome with even a few hours preparation:
  • she sat on a table swinging her legs, instead of standing
  • she didn't use any visuals to help maintain audience interest and focus
  • she rambled, lost her place, and jumped from idea to idea with no coherent thread
  • despite getting several time warnings from the facilitator, she kept rambling on
I thought the facilitator was going to have to stand up and put her hand over her mouth to shut her up!

The final session of the day was a 'debate' about the relationship between student and supervisor during the PhD process. It was more entertaining than informative and ended up, as many discussions in Australia seem to do, deciding that what was needed was more alcohol. Sigh.

But all in all it was a good day. Met some interesting people, learnt some useful stuff and had a few laughs. It was a nice, laid-back intro to the academic conference.