Here second year Human Geography PhD student Andrew Telford talks about his experience of speaking at his first large conference, the Royal Geographic Society conference in Exeter at the beginning of September.


The RGS-IBG Annual International Conference is a signature event in the diaries of many geographers. Considering this, I was especially anxious about going: not only was this my first RGS in attendance, but also my first time as a presenter. I attended an international conference in Munich in 2014 – a smaller, more intimate gathering with fewer delegates and a very specialized theme (postcolonial theory and meteorology) – and really enjoyed it. As an observer, it was fantastic to meet scholars in an interdisciplinary environment and hear a range of fascinating talks. I’ve also presented in the Geography Department and Ustinov College, but never to an academic audience outside of Durham. With these experiences in mind, the RGS loomed as a particularly daunting prospect. However, despite these initial trepidations, I found it to be a highly stimulating and constructive few days. This entry provides a few basic, waffling reflections on that experience from the perspective of geography postgraduate.


Before setting off, I was full of questions. How do you decide which sessions to go to; is it best to attend those that cater to your research interests, or those that look most interesting on the Conference programme? How important is this ‘mingling’ or ‘networking’ thing that academics rave about? Should you attend the lunchtime plenaries or use this time to chat with other researchers? What is the appropriate dress for these gatherings: will an ironed shirt, jeans and smart shoes suffice, or is a suit necessary? Accommodation too? Some of my friends are staying in University Halls, others at the Premier Inn, and others in Airbnb residences? What about the presentation? How many people should I rehearse it with? What if it’s too long?


All of these concerns – each guarded by imposing exclamation marks (!) – were floating around my head on the train to Exeter. In what must be a first, I heard other people in the carriage discussing the Conference (‘European geography’ this or ‘political geography’ that…); the RGS exhibits a special buzz that manages to be both nerve-wracking and exciting simultaneously! After arriving in Exeter – a lovely, historic town – and checking in at the Premier Inn, I hastily ironed some shirts and unpacked. Again, this probably speaks to over-exaggerated personal insecurities, but I’d brought a voluminous, backpacker-style rucksack with me. For a swish academic conference, this appeared out of place. Even though I know nobody cares about what type of luggage I bring, these crazy niggles and nitpicking habits still persist.


Later that evening, after touching ground with other Durham geographers at the hotel, we headed to the opening plenary and drinks reception. Normally, I dislike these events and feel very out-of-place in a context where ‘networking’ is an expected practice. By far the toughest part was building up the courage to approach people and engage in conversation. This was presaged by a significant well of nervous apprehension in my stomach. But, once past this initial angst, it was great to chat to researchers from other universities about conferences, research interests, and their perceptions of (and gossip from) academic geography. Whilst I totally understand the reticence postgrads have about attending these receptions – I still struggle going to the Manley Room for tea sometimes – they’re definitely worth it and can be a good source of advice and future contacts.


After commencing on Tuesday, the main Conference took place on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The variety of the RGS became immediately apparent. Some participants opted for formal dress, others for more casual-wear. All fitted in with the general vibe comfortably. The atmosphere was very relaxed and the sheer diversity of different options overwhelming. I decided to go for a mix of sessions (some about methods, some on specific empirical topics, and others on theoretical approaches), plenaries and keynotes. An important part of these decisions was finding a balance between attending friends’ sessions and giving them support, attending sessions proximate to my research interests, and attending sessions out of curiosity. It meant trade-offs in some instances and I was disappointed to miss sessions where timetables clashed. Inevitably, this process will depend on each attendee and differ according to their respective preferences.


After each day of presentations, we headed to the pub. In ‘The Imperial’, a grand mansion described by several of us as ‘the best Wetherspoons I’ve ever seen’, we continued to socialize and discuss the Conference. Although a group of Durham geographers were ever-present, the pub provided a friendly, relaxed atmosphere and I managed to meet new delegates during each visit. Sessions, plenaries, discussion groups and pub trips made for a very intensive, draining four days. But, in an environment where you’re supported by friends, listening to exciting and interesting research and meeting new people, this also made for a fun four days!


On the final day of Conference I presented in a morning session. In Durham beforehand and in the bar of Exeter’s Premier Inn, I’d practiced and amended the presentation endlessly. The session was entitled the ‘Geographies of Islamophobia’ and each presentation was both fascinating and informative: this ranged from studies of Islamophobic prejudice in rural Wales, to religious discrimination in Poland, and practices of charitable giving by Muslim communities in the UK.


I spoke about debates on climate change and security in the US and how Muslim populations are naturalized in these debates. Questions in the presentation included: how are potential Muslim climate migrants portrayed in climate security? Are there any racial underpinnings to these portrayals? Why are they cast as a security threat? And how would host societies – e.g. Western European countries – react to an influx of climate change-induced migrants from Africa? The presentation seemed to flow quite well and I was asked three very instructive questions about the use of visual imagery in climate security reports, climate security in relation to the current movements of refugees in the Mediterranean, and covariance amongst causal factors behind migration.


It probably sounds obvious, but being well prepared (reading through notes, checking grammar on Powerpoint slides, remembering a memory stick, and rehearsing the presentation) is the best advice I can give for the process. Also, I always find post-presentation questions to be just as useful – if not more useful – than the actual presentation itself. They raised challenging issues for the project and offered a range of new perspectives for how it could proceed. Finally, it was great to meet researchers working in the same field as me; in this sense, I found the session to be an excellent opportunity to discuss the politics of anti-Muslim prejudice and see some of the faces behind the academic papers I’ve been reading over the last few years!


Overall, I left the RGS with a groundswell of emotions. I found it to be a very welcoming, supportive experience and a great chance to meet early-career and established academic geographers. I’d definitely recommend it to postgraduates at any stage of their studies!

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