In this post third year Human Geography PhD student Sophie Tindale reflects on the RSG-IBG Postgrad Forum in Newcastle she attended, presenting her work on water resource management.
The RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum mid-term conference took place over two days last week (17th-18th March) at Newcastle University. The conference is an annual event organised by a committee of postgraduates on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)’s Postgraduate Forum aimed at PhD geographers from across the UK. Being just a hop and a skip down the train tracks this year, I thought it was an opportunity not to be missed. And that definitely turned out to be true.
On the first day, we (myself and others from Durham) arrived at the interestingly named conference location, the ‘Research Beehive’, in the centre of Newcastle University campus in good time before the first keynote of the day. Teas and coffees ensued and there was a chance to chat, put up posters and spot any familiar faces. We then sat down in the packed lecture room to listen to the first keynote talk from Anoop Nayak, head of Geography at Newcastle University. He gave an insightful and powerful reflection on his very current work on the geographies of race and encounter in the lives of young Bangladeshi women living in the UK. The talk’s exploratory nature allowed for reflection on the process of making sense of research findings and positioning new thinking in broader themes, a process that everyone in the room could relate to.
Next were the first presentation sessions of the day, in which I was speaking. My session was named ‘Climate and Environmental Change’ and consisted of three speakers besides myself on disparate but equally fascinating topics under the theme. I was particularly interested in the first talk by Anca Serban from Cambridge University as we had met two years before at a summer school in Switzerland and had not been in touch since, so I was intrigued to find out how her project had progressed. She gave an engaging account of her research into land management practices in the Western Gaht Mountains in India showing how she had worked with farmers to develop a role playing game and agent-based model to experiment with different land management techniques. I could see broad parallels with my own research, as well as the training and techniques we had learned in the summer school. The depth and breadth of her work was impressive; a hard act to follow.
I felt fairly well prepared for my talk, having just recently presented something very similar at the third year conference in Durham the week before. However, being only my second conference outside of the department, I was a little apprehensive as to the level of interest it would encourage (as I’m sure everyone is as a fledgling-conference-presenter). I delivered my talk and was pleased to get some engaging questions from the audience. The atmosphere was open and constructive, as it continued to be in all the sessions across the two days. Throughout the conference audiences were engaged and probing with their questions, sparking off discussions and making helpful suggestions. It was an element of the conference I really valued, both in relation to my talk but also when listening to others’. The discussions after the talks were often the most informative and revealing part, especially when the audience members are all at the same career level (no scary professors) and are intellectually curious about the research, and moreover almost always constructive, if still critical. I would encourage anyone who wants an enjoyable introduction to the experience of presenting to take part in the conference next year for this very reason.
Following my talk was a great presentation by Jamie McCauley from Exeter about biosecurity on inland fish farms. His project was in the early stages and his presentation and the questions and discussion that followed offered him a chance to explain the significant importance and interesting future trajectory of his research. The final talk from Jack Longman of Northumbria University was a project nearing completion, and he talked eloquently on his exploration of the history of metal pollution in the Romanian Carpathians using geochemical proxies in peat bogs; a project truly spanning the breadth of the geographical discipline. The historical and political significance of his findings as well as the process and method of coring on peat bogs attracted most questions. The session overall, besides highlighting some great ideas, findings and reflections, showed that at whatever stage of research presenting can be a formative experience.
The talks in my session alone began to demonstrate the variety of issues, projects, methods and motivations covered by Geography, and the conference overall did that brilliantly. Over the two days I went to fantastic talks on water management, disaster resilience, smart cities, decentralisation, flooding and, believe it or not, cheese. And there were many others in parallel sessions on physical environments, migration, finance, education, energy, housing, politics and health to name a few. The poster session was also a great way to start up conversations about a wide variety of research. I wish I’d had more time to read more of the posters, but such is the way with a busy conference schedule.
I found the tea/coffee and lunch breaks really useful, both for winding down after sessions spent listening hard, and for the work related conversations too. I found myself having productive chats about my research on a number of occasions and came away with some new literatures and approaches to look up. The dreaded networking is not so difficult at an event like this where 90% of the delegates are giving a talk, a high proportion of which you will have seen. Equally, everyone has similar experiences of PhD life so there’s plenty of commonality to draw upon to start up a conversation.
As for the rest of the conference there were some great workshops on Thursday afternoon (on interdisciplinarity, impact, publishing, and careers), of which I attended the engaging and critical session on impact run by Cheryl McEwan from Durham. There were also two other great keynote talks: one from Erin McClymont from Durham on her journey through physical geography, a really interesting insight into her inspirations, opportunities and achievements, and one from Peter Hopkins a professor of social geography at Newcastle and editor of Gender, Place and Culture on how to get published. Peter’s talk was encouraging but also refreshingly honest as well as funny and he gave some great insights into the sometimes ruthless world of publishing. During his talk he listed some particularly harsh comments received from reviewers (mined from the internet), my favourite of which was: “this paper has more holes than my grandfather’s string vest”. Let’s hope that one that never makes a reappearance!
Overall the conference was a really enjoyable experience (not least because of the lively conference dinner complete with wedding-style DJ on the Thursday evening, but also) because of the opportunity it afforded to learn about the interesting breadth of geographical PhD research happening across Britain; to experience presenting at a conference with a friendly and constructive atmosphere; and to meet peers and have productive conversations about research and life as a researcher.