My First Academic Conference

I recently attended the European Academy of Management (EURAM) Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was a wonderful experience and one I would strongly urge all PhD students to take advantage of. While it is difficult to capture in so many words how presenting at a conference makes a big difference to one’s PhD journey, I will give it a try…

I always thought that an academic’s life was about sitting at the desk drowned in research and ideas but since actually stepping into the academic world I have realised that academics have to be as much connected with the real world of people and processes if not more than those in the corporate world. Success be it getting a great job or getting published in top journals is not just about how good you are academically but also about the people you know who may for example collaborate with you or mentor you or help you position yourself. And ‘conferences’ as I observed are a rich ground for developing those kinds of fruitful relationships.

Many of the things that academics do such as publishing or acting as editors for major journals requires them to not only be good researchers and good editors, but also to have knowledge about the diverse aims and objectives of various journals, what the editors-in-chief of different journals look for, why certain papers get accepted and why some never see the light of the day (even things such as writing a paper with a specific journal in mind—which is recommended—could mean adopting its style, including references to articles within the same journal stable, or any number of things)…and conferences, it seemed to me, are a platform for exchanging this knowledge. The EURAM conference had workshops for writing papers from journal editors, Meet the Editors sessions with editors from major publications in the management field, symposia featuring renowned authors who talked about their own publishing journey, and so on. The discussions and particularly responses to questions from the audience gave an insight that is otherwise difficult to gain simply by reading papers or the guidelines on journal websites.

I feel that as researchers we tend to accept isolation as part of the package. The feeling is compounded when you realise that no one seems to be interested in or doing exactly the thing that you’re interested in and that it is difficult to find people with whom you can discuss ideas if only for the pleasure of discussing them. But the chances of finding such like-minded people at a conference are a thousand fold more. It is also possible that you might make friendships over 3-4 days that last you a long time. I noticed that many people in the conference knew many others very well because they had been meeting up at conferences all the time. I admit that the realisation of being a part of a large real as opposed to virtual community has its own excitement that adds to the motivation to do great work.

On the subject of meeting people with shared interests, you might even find researchers or academics who are engaged in exactly the topic that you’re interested in. As a PhD student it obviously could be worrying if someone were doing exactly the same thing because then that means the area isn’t as new as you think or that someone will reach the finishing line before you…but that would be the case any way whether you know about it or not. At least this way you have a chance to understand how your research differs from theirs or if there are some points that you haven’t critically thought about. I attended a presentation where the topic seemed similar to mine but it really wasn’t and it made me more confident about what I was doing. The presenter happened to be a fellow Indian girl working as an academic in a university in Spain so I even managed to make a connection there.

I also attended many presentations by academics and PhD students that were not directly related to my research topic but were broadly in the same area. It helped me understand how people were approaching similar topics in the field or what interesting methodologies they were using or even what kind of presentation skills made one presentation stand out from another. Rarely does one get a chance to observe this in a formal environment. My own presentation was of course a big learning experience for me because right from presenting in the tight time frame of 15 minutes to answering questions from a global audience to ensuring that I did a professional job…there was much to learn and much to take away. I believe that after joining the PhD course there have been various moments or experiences or interactions that have helped me grow incrementally from who I was before…and this presentation, or maybe the conference as a whole I should say, was one such notable experience.

Last but not the least, if the conference happens to be in a city that you’ve never been to before, as mine was, it could also prove to be an amazing opportunity to broaden your horizons. A short space of time with bursts of new ideas, new insights, new sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new food…and how can I forget ‘new climate’, speaking of Iceland!

Why become an exam invigilator?

As a PhD student, I usually take up non-demanding temporary or part-time jobs to augment my income and to keep financial stress at bay. My favourite place to look for these jobs is Lancaster University’s Employment and Recruitment Service page. One of the work roles that I personally find appealing is that of an ‘exam invigilator’. What better time to share some of the things I enjoy about this role than the exam season…which is well and truly underway.

  • To start with, an exam invigilator role is only available to postgraduate research students. As a large pool of invigilators is required to support the huge number of exams being administered at the university, you are almost always guaranteed a spot.
  • You have complete flexibility over what days of the week and hours (morning/evening) you would like to invigilate. This means that you can schedule the work when you’re least expecting to be busy and not have to worry about juggling tasks.
  • I personally find it relaxing to be mentally unoccupied for some periods of time which is usually what one is while invigilating. Sure, you’re vigilant to your surroundings and to any irregular goings-on (hopefully not) but for the most part you’re also free to think your own thoughts. I notice that it is when my mind is thus free that I am struck with ideas. In fact, the thought of writing about invigilating for my next blog struck me in one of these mental meanderings!
  • As a PhD student, it is easy to get stuck in your own hole for days and weeks on end without meeting a single soul. Invigilation presents an opportunity to meet new people and hear new stories—almost climb out of your everyday life for a brief while and see the world from a different perspective. In the past few weeks alone, I have met a girl from the Physics department doing a PhD for the second time…we got talking about what made her venture onto this path a second time when many can’t handle it the first time around, and she said she must have forgotten what it was like! We got chatting a bit more and I felt like we were kindred spirits. Then I met this person who was into theatre, then into academia, now again into theatre…and he spoke of how Manchester was turning into a mini London, and how theatre people and actors were finding it unaffordable now just like London. In his view, when a place becomes too sanitised, it leaves no room for people who are a bit ‘rough around the edges’ and for their art. Apparently that was his research topic back in the day. I argued that such cities might actually draw the kind of audience that appreciate art and have the money to spend toward art. It was an interesting discussion that got cut short too soon in my opinion.
  • Being amongst eager fresh-faced students all nervous and anxious but also hoping to give their best might make for something refreshing in your otherwise routine day. I am usually reminded of a younger version of me and for a moment I am transported in time. Today I happened to notice that a student had kept a small transparent pouch full of sea shells on his exam table. Apparently it was for ‘good luck’. I remembered how I used to have a blue coloured ‘lucky top’ that I reserved for maths exams. I don’t know if there was anything to it but I did manage to get good marks.
  • If none of these reasons have convinced you, this last one just might. As an invigilator, you are encouraged to patrol and move around the room to keep tabs on what’s happening and to check if a student needs anything…walking around a room while not the same as a walk or run in the park is still a bit of exercise, which, if you happen to be too lazy to get out of the house like me may be counted as a not-so-bad side-effect (all in all, you gain a few pounds in your wallet and lose some in not so desirable places…).

Well, so next time, when you look up the recruitment page, I would recommend hitting apply on ‘Invigilation’. And if our paths happen to cross in some or the other invigilation session, don’t forget to thank me…and tell me how you’re getting on!

Why procrastination is good for me

This time when I was back home in Mumbai, I decided to bring with me my art painting paraphernalia (which I have never used) including acrylic paint, paint brushes, palette and the like gathering dust in a corner. I could never find the time to get around to using them before.

The idea to get the painting tools struck me when I came across this store called The Works in Lancaster city centre. I am fascinated with all the variety of art and craft material they have there and enjoy looking through their stuff. Now that I had my materials with me, the next question was what I should create with them. At first I thought of making something like an art poster that I could hang near the dining table to create a homely feel. But then I realised that making something that only I and hardly anybody else would ever see would probably not add to my motivation. While browsing through canvases and art paper in The Works, I chanced upon blank greeting card packs. It struck me that greeting cards might be the perfect object upon which to conduct my art experiments because I could employ my creativity as on anything else, have a bit of purpose to it (how can a researcher forget the purpose), and I was guaranteed at least one person who would be smitten with my work.

Here is the first card that I made for my cousin in Mangalore, India. The fact that he actually asked me if I made it was flattering, though I won’t put it past him to pull my leg.

birthday card

 

The truth is that I wasn’t really bothered about having a fantastic output because I am not even an amateur artist (only one who loves to have fun with colours and loves seeing the beauty in art), but the process was an absolute joy. Sitting alone at my desk with the sun blazing through the window (yes, it’s been pretty sunny lately!), visualising and finding inspiration for a theme, concentrating intently on choosing harmonious colours, mixing them and seeing them come alive on the card…sometimes beautifully and sometimes rather jarringly… scratching my head to make the imperfections less imperfect…the whole event offered a heavenly sort of relaxation. I would probably compare it to meditation though a bit better than that for me because I can never quite still my thoughts and focus on nothing when I’m meditating…whereas in this process it was as if the real world had melted away and it was just myself lost in a sea of colours splashing on the card.

I loved doing the first card so much that I was already looking forward to my second. I have done this one for my sister-in-law’s birthday in early June. She doesn’t know about my blogs so I can take the risk of sharing it with you.

Birthday card

 

I would never have imagined that I would take up a long romanticised hobby while doing my PhD. I felt like getting my art tools to have something interesting to do when I had the itch to procrastinate, which as other PhD students may corroborate, is fairly often! I believe in this instance though that the tendency to procrastinate has helped rather than hindered me… come to think of it, maybe procrastination tends to be a blessing in devil’s disguise because while you are doing something you enjoy such as baking or fishing or painting, your brain is silently working in the background weighing in on your ideas and coming up with solutions. If your mental focus wasn’t diverted into a completely different direction every now and then, a part of your brain would probably be overworked or stressed out and not exactly operating at full steam… at least I tend to be more productive because of my procrastinations rather than for lack of them. What is your experience? Would be great to hear your thoughts.

Teaching a man to fish…

People are supposed to be good at a few things and relatively decent at others (I can’t bring myself to say ‘bad’ even though that’s how I would characterise myself at, say, dancing). If you’re doing a PhD, it may not be farfetched to assume that you might be a specialist sort of person—someone who knows what you are good at and who keeps chipping away at the same block. At least, that’s how I am.

When I started on my PhD journey, I was looking forward to the prospect of doing research, of discovering patterns and insights, of uncovering something new, of maybe making a difference in the realm of ideas. I didn’t really take into account that in reality there are many other things that an academic, and by that logic a doctoral student, is expected to do. One of the important things happens to be teaching. Something I had never done in a formal capacity so far and certainly not within the higher education context. I had delivered one-off presentations and training sessions in my previous work roles, but those were a miniscule percentage of my portfolio. The real issue for me, however, was the suspicion that teaching might be one of the things I would be decent at rather than great or excellent. It’s not the being able to do it that I was worried about so much as to be able to do it to a very high standard.

Luckily for me, I was introduced to SLP (Lancaster University’s Supporting Learning Programme, now ATP). All new doctoral students who are also going to work as Graduate Teaching Assistants are asked to undergo this programme. I must say that it is through this programme that I was able to more deeply explore the meaning and practice of teaching essentially as a means to support learning rather than as an ability to ‘perform’ teaching. The self-reflection that I did … who would have thought my own journey as a learner shaped how I approached teaching? …and the knowledge that I gained from the pedagogical material and discussions with fellow researchers transformed the way I thought about teaching as well as learning. It also opened my eyes to the complexities inherent in both. Take, for example, learning approaches. Students may have a ‘deep’ learning style or a ‘surface’ learning style or a ‘strategic’ style that is a bit of both. I wondered how students come to have a style (which might be a topic for a separate blog!).

The questions that I found relevant to think about from this newly informed perspective were of a very different variety: how could I create the right kind of environment for learning, how could I support students with different learning needs better, what did I need to do to develop students’ learning style, how could I connect with different students with different learning backgrounds and levels of knowledge in the same class, what strategies could I use to motivate students in the class, and so on. I noticed that the emphasis in my mind had shifted to learners and helping them with their challenges, away from teaching and blowing my own challenges out of proportion. It seemed to me that to be a great teacher, all I needed was a genuine concern for the intellectual development of my student learners… and if I had that the rest would eventually fall in place.

From reflecting on my own successes as a learner, and indeed as an individual, I have come to realise that as a teacher the best I can do is to help my students cultivate intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and openness to ideas so that their learning is secured for a lifetime. To put it another way, to teach them to fish rather than to give them a fish. In this sense, I feel teaching is far more challenging than research because it is arguably more challenging to transfer ideas to person than to paper. The paper simply absorbs my ideas but the receptivity of the ideas and their assimilation depends to a large extent on the person’s pre-existing knowledge and beliefs, without even considering the cultural complexity.

But that should not deter one, should it? The future of the world would seem to rest as much on the shoulders of eager teachers as researchers…

Shifting spaces

I have been in Mumbai for the past two months collecting data for my research. I am living with my family and, knowing I must leave soon once my work is done, I am soaking in every moment of it. All the stuff I took for granted earlier, even the mundane little facts of everyday life, strike me as something worthy of note… such as how do we dispose of the garbage? I find myself reflecting on things that I never gave much thought to before. And I owe that to my life at Lancaster.

One such thing struck me the first time I arrived at Lancaster. The number of choices I had for a place to study. I have a computer-equipped PhD office where I could study and do my research or I could study in my own campus accommodation which was fairly quiet or I could find a spot in the very spacious library or I could go to the Storey building in the city centre where PhD students have a space of their own or I could study in the post graduate space in Graduate College… I might have even missed a few options here. The point is that I could decide where I wanted to study depending on my mood or depending on where I felt most productive. I remember thinking then that I had never given any thought to my choices for a ‘study space’ or lack thereof before Lancaster happened to me.

My home was the only place available to me for study at an undergrad as well as Masters level even though it was frequently noisy, full of interruptions and temptations, and a thousand distractions such as something interesting going on on the television. I never thought about it as a ‘study space’ because I didn’t really have any other. It was only upon arriving at Lancaster and being exposed to the world of university in the UK that I realised the difference the space made to the quality of learning and output. At first I wondered why there was so much emphasis on the varieties of study spaces but then it occurred to me that by providing the right space the university was simply showing me a commitment to my learning, intellectual development, and growth. It wasn’t investing in space so much as investing in me and investing in wherever my potential may be best realised.

Now that I am at home in Mumbai, I am missing the ‘space’ I have at Lancaster that both physically and mentally puts me in the mood for study. I almost catch myself thinking that I need to ‘go somewhere’ to reflect on my observations on the research interviews but then recall that I don’t have anywhere to go to to get my mental juices flowing. For now, I am resigning myself to playing with my niece when she pops into the room. I smile at her fondly when she pushes down my laptop cover announcing ‘Over’ in that cute little voice of hers. Of course, I would like to finish whatever train of thought I am pursuing at that moment while typing out notes from the day’s field work but it will have to wait a bit. Till I am back at Lancaster…my makeshift spaces will have to do. I am not complaining as they sure have joys of their own!

When the going gets tough…

Most people seem to think that if you are pursuing a PhD you must be super intelligent. Which they also assume means you must have ample confidence in yourself. It is no use telling them that you suffer from as many insecurities about your talents and capabilities as the next person, because in their opinion if you have set yourself such a huge mountain to climb, you must know you have it in you.

The truth is that I find myself low on self-confidence a lot of the time. And I have come to realise that this feeling is fairly common among PhD students. Apparently we tend to suffer from what is called the ‘impostor syndrome’: The feeling that you are inadequate or incapable despite evidence to the contrary.

My confidence level also has a way of yo-yoing so that at one point I am on top of a mountain, soaring high and marvelling how I have at long last found my true calling, and another time I am down in the dumps, wondering what got into me to take on such a herculean project. I start questioning everything from the validity of my research topic to my thoroughness in doing the literature review to my experience in the academic jungle to the possibility of ever seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It can be a pretty quick downward tumble from there, luckily for me stopping short of actually calling it quits, but I have heard stories of people who take the exit route.

Over time, I have learnt a few ways to deal with these blows to my confidence:

  • Remember why you started a PhD. Chances are that if you are on this very tough journey, you have thought long and hard about it. You may have also made certain difficult choices in life or career because you wanted this so badly. Had you not put all of yourself into making this happen, you wouldn’t have earned a place at such a prestigious university. If you could get yourself this far, it is only up to you to take yourself further.
  • Think of the last time you felt a rush of confidence. It may have been a small accomplishment or a big one, but if you had reason to feel great about how you were doing then, the reasons are most likely still valid and solid. This low phase will pass soon enough if you focus on doing what you have been doing.
  • Think about how far you have come. You probably remember how daunting everything seemed when you first started, and how you never really expected to make it at almost every step. Not only did you make it, you did remarkably well too, be it acclimatising yourself to the new environment or developing a good relationship with your supervisors or taking all those difficult training modules or digging through tons of literature.
  • Stop comparing yourself with others. You might be tempted to compare yourself with others who started at the same time as you. Very often it will seem like they have a far better hold on what they’re doing while you haven’t the faintest clue. They may have started collecting data or completed writing a conference paper while you’re still putting together a proposal for your upgrade panel. Remember that this is your PhD and your journey… and you are its sole architect. How you approach it and how much time you take to build it depends entirely on what you’re fashioning.
  • Talk to family and friends. Talk to people who believe in you. Knowing that they believe in you more than you do can be motivating (though a bit annoying too because your feelings of inadequacy and incompetency are invalidated). It would also help to have someone with whom you can share your research and progress. Many a time I have found solutions to problems simply by talking to a friend who merely listened to me go on about it.
  • Take mini breaks. When you are really feeling like it, take a few days off all thoughts of research and writing and deadlines and do whatever it is you feel like doing or do nothing if that’s what you feel like. Think of it as some sort of reward for working so hard. I don’t know about you but at the end of that period, I bounce back with more energy and feeling a lot more positive. Quite strangely, I also tend to come up with better ideas almost out of the blue. You know what they say about the subconscious mind being at work…
  • Visualise a wonderful future. The PhD may be your stepping stone to a fulfilling career or it may be an end in itself. Try visualising what it would be like to be at the end of that road, having fulfilled your dream or goal. Imagine how you would feel, how the people in your life would feel, and how much you would like to be there. These bumps along the way are speed breakers but they can’t stop you from getting where you want to be.

Well, these are a few techniques that seem to help me bounce back. What about you? What do you do when the going gets tough?

The Great Indian Breakfast

“What should I have for breakfast?” I don’t know about the last thoughts people have before going to bed, but this is fairly commonly the one that I tend to sleep on. You might think as a PhD student I would have far more serious thoughts whirling in my mind as I finally lay it to rest after a long day, but… no, this one overrides them all.

Breakfasts in India, where I come from, tend to be elaborate. I love the simplicity and lack of fuss demanded by bread, butter, jam, eggs—I can quite see why it’s so popular everywhere and I won’t deny that I fall back on this option time and again when I wake up not having made any clear decisions. But being away from home, there is nothing that offers the soothing comfort and smell and feel of home as a warm breakfast made as it would be made at home.

For many of you wondering what these breakfast options might look like, here is a sample:

  1. Idli Chutney/Sambar: This counts as a number 1 on my list and it also probably takes the most time and effort. Steamed rice cakes with a flavourful and spicy coconut chutney and something like a tangy lentil gravy to go along. (recipe: https://indianhealthyrecipes.com/idli-sambar-recipe-tiffin-sambar/)
  2. Poha: Beaten or flattened rice mixed with potatoes, peanuts, and some spices (recipe: http://www.vegrecipesofindia.com/kanda-poha-or-onion-poha/)
  3. Upma: Much simpler and quicker to make. Semolina cooked almost like porridge with or without vegetables such as peas, carrots, and so on. (recipe: http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/05/sooji-upma-indian-semolina-breakfast-recipe.html)
  4. Aloo Paratha: May be enjoyed for lunch as well as dinner but it makes for a rather scrumptious breakfast option in my opinion. Spicy mashed potatoes stuffed inside a whole wheat flat bread best had with curd or pickle (recipe: http://www.vegrecipesofindia.com/aloo-paratha-indian-bread-stuffed-with-potato-filling/)

These are just the tip of the Indian breakfast menu iceberg, if I may use the expression. The one thing that is needed to make the effort of making these delicacies worth it would be some good company. I can’t say I have that on most days unless I count my articles and books in that category, but there is always the second best thing that never fails me: a hot cup of tea!