Because not many of you will, that’s why.
One of the goals of this blog is to discuss what you can do at University to actively incorporate slow principles. As we all know, careers services are often full of useful talks about post- degree life (our favorite is ‘But I dont want to work in the city’).
A huge debate revolves around the value of a postgraduate degree. It's expensive. It doesn't guarantee a job. You're friends will earn more money in graduate employment. If you enjoy it, how might you fund a PhD?
There are however, many rewarding reasons for continuing with higher education, especially if you’re passionate and interested in your subject area. It’s definitely a good idea to know something about the informal workings of the field you might want to dedicate another year of your life to, and maybe even more at the doctoral level.
The idea of this post is to suggest two things. Firstly, if you want to see what the worklife of academics is really like, then you head to academic conferences. Secondly, and more importantly, that if you head to the conferences of subjects/areas of employment you’re interested in working for or learning more about, you show passion for your subject which will probably startle people in a very positive way.
We know it won’t be the most popular idea we suggest, but there is a real incentive to go to these conferences. They’re expensive. And because they are expensive, there are often bursaries, prizes and chances for undergraduates to attend. And because not many undergraduate students go to academic conferences, the bursaries/ opportunities for undergraduates to attend are often woefully noncompetitive, which is good news for you.
For example, the Higher Education Research Group (HERG) have an undergraduate and postgraduate research essay competition which supports the cost of the RGS-IBG annual conference happening in September, with free registration (registration is often above £100, more if you stay for more than one day) and £100 towards travel and accommodation. They extended the deadline this year, and that’s usually a sign that people aren’t applying. I sent the message around to his students this year, and not a single one of the replied suggesting they were going to apply. We can’t be certain until they reveal the winners, but it looks like the opportunity might have gone begging. Sadly, the deadline expired on April 25th, So no joy for you there.
Don’t think that is the only way to gain access though. Some conferences also recruit undergraduates to volunteer on the day. You’ll do simple things like direct delegates to registration or sessions, but after everyone has orientated themselves, you can be rewarded with free entry to the sessions. This, we think, is a golden ticket that is often not used enough. Academics will pay upwards of £200 to attend a conference, and its not often undergraduates can feel smug in front of their lecturers.
If you’re not comfortable with the idea of rubbing shoulders with crusty old professors, then you don’t have to. The British Conference of Undergraduate Research is a well-established nationwide event solely for undergrads. It’s exactly like other conferences, with panels, sessions, calls for papers, keynote speakers, dinners, lunches, etc, just aimed at undergraduates. It has lists of undergraduate journals where you can publish your work. It’s a great way of promoting the value of undergraduate research, and stops that dissertation gathering dust on a shelf. Having published work of the back of your undergraduate is something that looks incredibly impressive if you want a career in academia, but is also useful if you don’t. Why? Because you have created something, deemed worthy enough that other people will want to read it. There is something about being published, (published anywhere in anything) that sounds impressive. Creating publishable content is a unique skill that is underrated by undergraduates because there is an assumption is that unless you’re going into journalism, blogging, or some form of media training, your future employer will be disinterested in your ability to independently create stuff. Sure you will end up producing documents, but the ability to produce original content that is appealing to more than the immediate interests of your colleagues and employers is not often seen as an Unstoppable Student Power (our take on USPs or Unique Selling Points).
So let’s assume you’ve managed to get yourself to a conference. What’s the big deal when you are actually there?
Academic conferences can be a real boon to your time at university. If you’ve ever wondered what lecturers do, besides walking from their offices to the lecture theater, then going to a conference will be illuminating. And just like all good career advice should tell you, it’s who you know that becomes important, and conferences are where academic networking thrives like organised speed-dating. Everyone is trying to introduce themselves to everyone else, find out who’s working on what, which positions are opening up at what universities, which grant applications are being funded. The conference bar at around 8pm is really the place to be. Even if you have no plans for a career in academia, it’s networking 101. The Association of American Geographers Annual Conference this year had some 8,000 delegates swarm Chicago. That’s a lot of people to get to know, and lots of potential opportunities. No one expects you to fly across the pond to network, but we do think it’s an important skill to nail down, and conferences are very keen to encourage it.
Don’t believe us? The RGS-IBG (Royal Geographical Society with Institute of British Geographers) has a yearly conference, and the Postgraduate Forum has a session there dedicated towards networking skills. You can attend careers sessions on the value of networking at most universities, with tips and skills on how to introduce, meet and greet people. Target Jobs have a page on the value of networking and we can discuss first-hand how being able to say hello at a conference has helped at least one of us.
The story? Well once I was at the RGS-IBG conference and noticed that one of the research groups (small bodies of academics working on similar themes) I was interested in was holding its AGM. Research groups, other interested societies and groups often all meet at conferences, and their committee’s seize the opportunity to hold their AGM and elect new members while everyone is in one place. The AGM’s are usually open for all to attend, so I did. They needed to elect a postgraduate representative and I was able to stand up (somewhat nervously) and make my case. I was lucky enough to get elected and I’ve since been at the heart of the academic community I’m hoping to work with in the future.
Now this research group doesn’t even have an undergraduate representative position, and it may not even want one. The last time I checked, however, nobody had asked them. The point is simple: You have to stick your head above the parapet to get noticed. It’s risky and unnerving, but can yield dividends. Meeting people, showing your interest early on, maybe even having the cheek to ask if you can get involved are all useful networking skills that show initiative. This of course, is not limited to academic conferences. Conferences, roadshows, symposiums, workshops are important parts of working life in many careers. They don’t all break the bank either. ESRI, the GIS leviathan, recently held its annual conference. That was free to attend. If you can find yourself, as a young plucky undergraduate, chatting with the professionals you might one day aspire to be working with, then people will take notice.
One warning though. These events are expensive. Some conferences are lousy as well, and you’ll gain next to nothing from them. Part of the trick is choosing the right one, and it’s a real trade off if you can’t take advantage of the cheaper or subsidised registration fees, so think carefully before parting with £200 for a 3-day conference without asking around to see who is willing to pay for you to go.