Week in Review: Symposium Edition

Overview

I did not go to yoga, or practice meditation, at all last week. I spent 41 minutes sitting on my exercise ball, demonstrated for 6 hours, finished 2 books, forgot to keep track of how long I spent writing, drank 12 cups of coffee and 9 cups of tea (during working hours).

I found a great blog post, Literature Review for Beginners on Doctoral Writing SIG, which describes how to get an effective start on a literature review, even when the direction of your project is still uncertain. I found it very helpful, as I’ve been a bit shaky on how to start my lit review.

Susan suggests thinking critically about how literature can be used to support the overall argument of your thesis, beginning with two sections:

  1. The problem – the gap in knowledge that your thesis will fill and why it is important. This is the beginning of the introduction.
  2. The methods – details from previous approaches, including benefits and limitations, to develop/defend your own method.

In addition, one can note good writing – a clear description of a complex theory, or well articulated analysis – and learn from it. I hadn’t considered this before, I think it’s great advice!

After changing reference managers (Mendeley to PaperPile),  I spent a long time tagging my papers. The tagging feature is the reason I switched to PaperPile; it makes a hierarchical file structure redundant, which I think is an improvement.

I completed the Fear and Curiosity modules in Surviving the PhD MOOC, which I continue to find helpful and, to be honest, a great mood-booster. Although I found out about it too late to participate in the course in real-time, reading the discussions and watching the live chat videos even after the fact make me feel the sense of community on the course.

Symposium Edition

The 3rd CID Interdisciplinary Symposium, created and organised entirely by students on my program, was held yesterday. That means a large chunk of last week was spent on final preparations, and some unnecessary hand-wringing on my part. We were in fact very well-prepared and the event ran beautifully. While I’m glad it’s over, I also enjoyed the day very much.

I participated in the symposium in three ways: as an organiser, as a session chair, and by giving a flash poster presentation. Presenting and chairing in front of a large audience were good presentation practice, which I absolutely need. I love hearing the eloquent, confident speakers, and am determined to be one of them someday. But where I gained the most, personally, was being on the organising committee.

Fortunately, we were able to learn from the experience of the previous two years, and to build further on their foundation. Based on advice from previous organisers, we began by very clearly defining roles for everybody, including an official chair. Having the right person in charge is so important – they need to be able to see the big picture, delegate, and be organised. If done right, it is a lot of work, but the chair shouldn’t be doing other people’s jobs for them. Our chair organised meetings, took detailed notes at each one, and sent out minutes along with individual to-do lists afterwards. At the beginning of each meeting, we would address every point on every to-d0 list before we got on to new business. That sounds almost authoritarian, but it really kept everyone on top of things and let us do our own work without worrying whether other people were pulling their weight.

We were lucky that everyone on the committee was enthusiastic and did their job. I know many people have had terrible experiences with “group” projects, but working in a team doesn’t have to be so difficult. Knowing exactly who is responsible for doing what really helps prevent any tensions.

Because of the hard work done in previous years, we were able to focus more on getting external poster submissions, and even an external PhD speaker. Since it was a one-day symposium, it makes sense that a lot of the participants were from our institution, but the hope is to broaden attendance in future years, and increase PhD student participation. This year we focussed on inviting students from other Wellcome Trust funded programs, and had mild success. I hope that next year we can do even better.

It was my job to invite the external speakers and organise logistics with them. I volunteered for it because the thought of writing an email to an academic I’ve never met was absolutely terrifying, so I thought I should do it and get over the fear. We contacted them about 6 months in advance, because timing had been an issue in previous years. We were extremely lucky that all of our first choices accepted the invitation, and none of them dropped out. Communicating with them was also very pleasant – they were approachable and friendly, so  I’m glad I faced that fear.

If you’re thinking about starting your own symposium, do it! It’s hard work, but so rewarding – like a boot camp for well-rounded skill development.

Photo Credit: Leo Caves

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