Postgraduate Day, TASA Conference 2016

Ashleigh Watson, Griffith University: 

The 2016 Postgraduate Day was a big, busy and delicious way to kick off the annual TASA Conference. In Melbourne, a real hub for sociology PhDs, our biggest cohort yet convened at ACU in Fitzroy. Bright eyed and bushy tailed (and freezing! Or was this just me, coming from sweltering Brisbane?) we were registered and ready for 9am.

Postgraduate days are a big part of academic conferences around the world, and not just in sociology. The aim of these days is to help introduce postgraduates to their future world of work – the themes, debates, and perhaps most crucially the people who work in their field. It is not just a day for information delivery. Senior researchers speak about publishing, teaching, navigating the grant scheme and the postdoctoral world, and get us to share our work and ourselves with others doing postgraduate study. The PhD process can be isolating but I personally love all the big and small events I have attended. The best ones give you a real sense of cohort and community, and alleviate some of the stresses of this work or at least make you realise you’re not doing it alone.

Our 2016 Day kicked off doing just that. Brady Robards and Luke Gahan got us up and dancing early after a slick slideshow on getting the most out of conferences. Networking 101 turned the strangers in the room into new friends and forced us to articulate quickly what our research was about. We had to move quickly from methods to theories and thematic groups, and with some early morning Haddaway (Baby don’t hurt me…), Brady and Luke loosened us up for the day. Key take home messages from this session: find your tribe, have fun, prepare for your paper!

After a sweet morning tea on the rooftop garden, we headed back in for some honesty about work–life balance in academia. Dr Christy Newman and Associate Professor Deb King were honest in telling us that the research road isn’t easy but you do not have to sacrifice your ‘real life’ to get ahead in work. Christy and Deb spoke about having children, the importance of family and friends, navigating at times turbulent and temporary contracts while reminding us to never forget the privilege that academia is. The issue of early career research work (forget about work–life balance) is stressful one for PhDs. We are regularly told as we near submission about the difficulties of finding work. I’ve heard more than once that ‘expecting’ employment upon graduation is unrealistic and frankly impossible. Deb and Christy took a positive approach to this much discussed and under-solved problem. It was a nice turn on a predominantly pessimistic conversation. They managed to bring us together as a cohort rather than set up apart as competitors, unlike so many discussions about this issue.

It was back to the rooftop garden for lunch, then we split into small groups for a mentoring session. The postgrads who joined in this session were particularly thrilled with it. Senior academics joined us and we were able to discuss a whole range of issues and speak to a senior researcher in a way we rarely get the opportunity to outside (and even in!) our own university. Groups got into the nitty gritty of supervision, publishing, writing the thesis, ethics of research, time management, what to do after the PhD, and the realities of research work. This session was a hit!

We moved into a publishing session after mentoring, hearing from Natalie Davall from Routledge/Taylor & Francis. Natalie spoke about how to aim for the right journals, how to get published, how to respond to reviewers and what the whole metric impact system currently means. We heard that collaboration is a rising trend in sociology, although we are far behind other disciplines in our collaborative efforts for a variety of reasons. Interestingly, there is currently a 3% increase in article publications each year. Natalie said we should ask ourselves when submitting to journals: what’s the readership? Is it international? Is it peer reviewed? What are the sharing policies? It is also important to watch out for predatory publishers, those who appear to be from reputable peer-reviewed journals but who are not. This session gave us lots of practical advice to take in.

The second-last session of the day was on working outside sociology departments, run by Professor Lisa Bourke and our 2015–2016 Postgraduate Portfolio Leader Dr Christina Malatzky. Lisa and Christina opened our eyes to research in other areas of the university and outside of universities. Affirmed again for us was the importance of having mentors who can support you as a person but also help you out with practical knowledge, like planning for grants and navigating non-traditional working spaces.

Our last session of the day was a great practical one. Dr Peta Cook and Dr Kristen Maclean chaired a teaching session with Professor James Arvanitakis and Dr Sara James presenting. James’ explosive energy quickly reinvigorated us after an engaging day, getting us to participate in his interactive lecture space as though we were his first-year sociology students. We also heard some important tips about managing staff–student relationships which can be especially tricky for postgraduates. The afternoon wrapped up with some great examples of tutorial activities – all in all a lively and very applicable session.

Thanks to all our presenters and participants on the day, and a special thanks to our 2015–2016 Postgraduate Portfolio Leader, Dr Christina Malatzky, for organising this important conference day.

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