Held over four days in late August, the aim of this conference was to bring together PhD researchers for thought-provoking workshops, presentations and activities, exploring the value of doctoral research, both inside and outside of academia.
The diversity of the programme meant that there was something for everyone, whilst keeping us all very busy. Underpinning each of the activities was the Cumberland Lodge ethos of inclusivity, and insightful, interdisciplinary discussion. Dr Rachel Smillie (Education Officer) introduced the conference with a rousing reminder of the value of PhDs and the many positive attributes that doctoral study can engender, whilst reminding us all that we are not alone in our worries and fears on our PhD journeys.
The sheer range of disciplines studied by delegates provided a plentiful supply of conversation over the course of the week and, in true Cumberland Lodge style, there were plenty of debates and discussions. This diversity was also illustrated through the research presentations, where each of us was tasked with condensing the entirety of our PhD research into a mere five-minute presentation. Having a non-specialist audience meant that delegates had to think carefully about how to present their research in an accessible and interesting way, without sacrificing accuracy.
The values of interdisciplinary collaboration and of breaking down silo thinking in academia and beyond were key themes of the conference. In the research proposal session, delegates were tasked with designing an interdisciplinary project to address a key social issue facing society before presenting it to a mock funding panel. Groups had to use the research expertise of at least four group members in their proposals, with subject areas covering everything from economics or modern history to robotics or medical sociology. This session highlighted the skills required for innovative, collaborative working and the challenges it can bring, but also the inherent value of this kind of interdisciplinary work.
During a St Catharine’s Session on Wednesday 30th, Dr Aref Kyyaly, a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Southampton, and a Fellow of the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), spoke with great humility about his academic journey to date and the impact of the Syrian conflict on his career and personal life. Dr Kyyaly effectively had to re-start his career due to cultural differences between academia in the Middle East and Western Europe. He spoke highly and passionately about Cara, which offers a lifeline to academics at risk of persecution, violence or discrimination in their home countries, by offering sanctuary in higher education and research institutions in the UK and helping to rebuild the lives and careers of those who cannot return home. Dr Kyyaly reminded of us the role academia can play in rebuilding war-torn countries. He said, ‘It is with an open mind and courage that we achieve great things’.
Variety of avenues
Looking ahead to life beyond the PhD, the ‘Inside and Outside Academia: Views from the Recent Past’ sessions provided insights into alternative career paths and options. They highlighted the variety of avenues open to PhD researchers, and provided practical advice on how to maximise our chances of success.
Then, in the ‘Viva Tips’ session on Friday 1 September, three successful PhD scholars provided a candid and honest account of surviving the viva process. Their insights filled many pages of notes, as most of us in the audience frantically scribbled down the wealth of advice on offer, including, ‘You can do this!’, ‘Make sure you know and actually like your examiners’, and, ‘Remember that life will happen, and there will never be as much time to plan and prepare for your viva as you think’.
Overall, the conference provided a much-needed space for us to step back and consider the value of our PhDs, how best to tackle the process of completing them, and what could come next.