Reflections on a Higher Degree Research Conference

Late last week I was privileged to participate in the QUT HDR conference for 2017. Having been involved in the organising committee for this conference, it was a satisfying culmination to a lot of work and I was very proud to have been a fundamental part of this learning opportunity.

In my previous life, I had organised conferences and professional learning events before. As the Librarian for Brisbane Catholic Education, I was responsible for managing (with a small group of wonderful colleagues) the four professional learning events for the teacher librarians of the Brisbane Archdiocese (over one hundred participants in all) and each year one of these events was a one day conference we called the Teacher Librarian Big Day Out. I had also spent several years heavily involved in the co-ordination of a two day film festival event our resourcing centre, ResourceLink, ran for the entire archdiocese, some 172 schools with associated students and staff. These events had required all of the usual event planning roles; sourcing keynote speakers, locating suitable venues, choosing speakers, juggling budgets, timetabling and running sheets, catering, multimedia, promotion, registration, goody bags (and finding stuff to fill said goody bags on a very tight budget!) and more. It is fair to say I knew what I was putting my hand up for when I agreed to be a part of the HDR Conference organising committee.

Despite this, the HDR Conference was an amazing learning opportunity, and in this post, I would like to share what I learned, in the hopes that others who are swimming (dog-paddling? coasting? drowning?? :-)) in the HDR stream might accept a nomination for such a role, and feel a little more prepared in doing so.

So here we go; things I learnt during the organisation of and participation in the HDR Conference this year.

1. It’s different when you don’t know people.
I had been at Brisbane Catholic Education for twenty years. I had worked at the head office for several years, and while it is not possible to know all of the staff of the Archdiocese (there are over 10 000), I knew quite a few. If I didn’t know them, I knew someone who did. I was also familiar with the culture of the organisation, understood the tone accepted in communications (email, face to face, phone) and having been a teacher, teacher librarian, deputy principal and education officer, I understood the pressures of the roles people were undertaking and what they could (and couldn’t) likely offer me in terms of time and commitment.

At Uni, I am a new little minnow in a very big pond. I didn’t know many of the academic or professional staff beyond my supervisors and the co-ordinators of the HDR course. I certainly knew that as a HDR student I could not know the complexities of the roles of staff. I am beginning to learn the culture of the organisation, but this takes time…much longer than the 18 months I have been studying.

HOWEVER – being involved in the HDR organising committee helped to change this. While I am still small fry, (and I say this in a positive way, recognising that I am at the beginning of a possible new career, and open to learning all I can), I now am familiar with quite a few more academic and professional staff. My role in programming the conference meant that I spoke briefly at an academic research committee meeting, and sent numerous emails to numerous staff, introducing myself, my role in the conference committee and making polite requests for support. I began to see the ‘inside’ of the workings of the university, rather than viewing it from the student perspective. People now have a ‘face’ for my name, and this is wonderful for someone who finds small talk and networking challenging. Having a reason for making contact with so many members of the faculty made it much easier for me to make introductions and connections.

TL;DR – being involved in organising the conference helped me step into the academic world in a new way

2. It feels good to be practical and to achieve something
The HDR process is a long one. At least two years or four, often six and sometimes even more. Writing, researching, writing, researching…thinking, writing, reading, researching. You live in your head a lot of the time, and although you may try to break your work into smaller more manageable tasks, it can sometimes feel like you haven’t actually completed something in a long time. Being a part of the organising committee helped me feel a sense of achievement and let me ‘get my hands dirty’ with practical tasks I could tick off a list. How refreshing! I got to exercise my creativity by coming up with the theme of the conference (Imagine, Inspire, Impact – that was my idea!). I typed up the program. I emailed people. These may sound like boring tasks, but it was really nice to get out of my head and to feel as though I was contributing to something that others would benefit from. As the conference drew closer, and the jobs ramped up, I did at times feel overwhelmed; but it was good to stretch those ‘managerial?’ skills I had developed during my career. They had lain dormant while I had been studying, and ticking off those little tasks and ‘getting things done’ was a nice change from the feeling that I was never going to climb that mountain of a thesis.

TL;DR You have skills from your previous life – it’s good to use them and the sense of achievement boosts your energy

3. Other students are just like you
Some students are naturally confident. Others are able to appear confident even if they are shrinking inside. Some students feel happy to speak up in a full room, and some will tell you of their many achievements prior to and while studying. I admire these students. I try to learn from them, as I work to develop my own confidence in this new environment. As per number one, in my previous (life) I felt that I knew what I was doing. I still sometimes suffered from a crisis of confidence, but on the whole I felt that my knowledge and experience meant that I had something to to offer. As a full time HDR student, I have begun an entirely new role, and it is quite different to anything I have done before. Having only ever worked in one organisation (albeit across many different roles and locations) breaking into a new space is challenging.

Being involved with the HDR conference allowed me a peek into the study of many different HDR students within the faculty, and I began to learn that even those who are very confident are also feeling the challenge of higher degree research study. It is easy to believe that you are the only one experiencing doubts and fears. The dreaded imposter syndrome, that feeling that it has all been a lucky break up until now…these feelings can be isolating at best, debilitating at worst. Yet the conference allowed me to see that many of us get nervous before presenting, lots also question their choice to study at this level, and we all have the occasional dark night of the soul. It is part of the process. Yes, you can read this over and over, but until you actually meet up with others and chat about it, it doesn’t seem real.

TL;DR – Meeting others who are sharing the journey is one of the best ways to see that other students are just like you.

4. Research, teaching and learning are highly intertwined; and have real world impact

This final learning is more personal to my own experience at QUT. I cannot say that this will be the outcome from other university HDR conferences, but I hope it is. What I am speaking about is the reinforcement that we are not in an ivory tower removed from everyday life when we undertake higher degree research, or pursue an academic career. My faculty is education. It is naturally focused on people and learning. However listening to the academic staff speak at our conference, and hearing about the various research projects fellow students are undertaking, I felt reassured that I am in the right place. Any time we desire change, the underpinning driver should be education. If we want to improve health outcomes, we need to educate. If we want to improve the socio-economic standing of a group, we need to educate. If we want peace, if we want equity, if we want acceptance – we need to educate. Each speaker at the conference shared how they are passionately working toward change in their own area. To initiate or improve what is already taking place. To bring education to areas where it is not, or to areas where it is lacking. To skill others to share that education. Readers of my blog will know that I am a believer that knowledge is socially constructed, and that an educator works with a learner to help them construct their own understandings, not to fill them like they are an empty vessel. My colleagues in my cohort are all working to construct knowledge, to find new and better ways of doing things, of making an impact. This is potentially the most important part of being involved in a HDR conference for me, and it was through my role in organisation that I felt I could see this more deeply. I had time to read abstracts, to help plan programs and to ensure the conference ran smoothly so that we could all learn together.

TL;DR – Impact is more than publications; and it is happening every day in the work of the staff and students at QUT

So I have put into words the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head since the conference ended on Saturday evening. This post is a lot more personal than most I share on this blog. However I wanted to share it to encourage others to consider taking part in opportunities like this if they arise. I am not a ‘joiner’ – I’m too much of an introvert for that! It can be challenging to take on ‘one more’ thing when juggling sessional teaching, HDR research, home life, etc etc…but at least in my experience, the hard work was worth it, and I hope that others might gain insight from my sharing.

Postscript: for those wondering, TL;DR stands for ‘too long; didn’t read’. It is a quick way of saying, ‘in summary’ 🙂

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