SRHE International Conference on Research into Higher Education is an annual event, organised in Newport, South Wales every December. Before the main conference, which takes place from Wednesday to Friday, there is a Newer and Early Career Researchers Conference organised on the day before. This is an excellent arena for early career researchers to present their work in a relaxed atmosphere, and to meet peers from all over the world. In this year’s Newer Researchers’ Conference there were about 70 participants and in the main conference about 350 participants. The majority of them were UK based but there were a fair number of participants from other countries as well.
My supervisors have encouraged me to attend conferences from the point where I had anything to present myself. I’ve tried to listen to their advice in this and gone to about two or three national or international conferences, symposia, or seminars each year since the start of my PhD. Even if there hasn’t always been a lot of people listening to my presentations, having to make them and presenting them – despite my fear of public speaking – has always advanced my doctoral work in one way or another. And what’s best, I always feel incredibly motivated after conferences. If only SRHE wasn’t followed by the holiday season almost immediately…
This was my second year to attend SRHE, having been at both the newer researchers and the main conference already last year. I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, but in the last year’s newer researchers conference I was stereotypically Finnish – very antisocial, not really caring about small talk or networking. I even skipped the evening event and ordered dinner from the room service! In the main conference I had a safety net formed by a senior colleague from my university and a couple of other Finnish researchers who I bumped into. The familiar company tightly kept me in my comfort zone of not having to talk to anyone I didn’t know.
This year it was a different story: When arriving at the conference venue on Monday evening, I knew no one, either in the newer researchers or the main conference. On Tuesday, with a full day of programme from morning until evening, I thus had to switch myself to a full-on small talk and networking mode. Again, for someone who grew up in a country where small talk doesn’t basically exist, this wasn’t an easy task. To my surprise, however, I had already talked to a number of people by lunch time, and didn’t feel lonely for the rest of the day either. This was made easier with the help of the organisers who did their everything to create a relaxed and encouraging atmosphere from the very start of the day.
An example of such support was the mentoring conversations, where a more senior researcher (normally a professor) discussed a specific topic with a group of about 10 newer researchers. I participated in a session led by Professor Didi Griffioen. In this session she told us about her own experiences regarding networking and how to form connections which might lead to different types of collaboration opportunities, or just provide a chance for her to go and work abroad for a short period of time. We could also ask questions. As many of us were trying to figure out how to start with the networking, Professor Griffioen emphasised that nothing happens overnight or in one conference. Instead, you need to be persistent, be brave to talk to people or to email them and tell them who you are and what you do, and eventually your actions will bear fruit.
This was quite important for myself to hear, as I also had had this feeling that meeting someone and talking to them once in a conference doesn’t really make a difference, that it’s just “networking”. And perhaps this is partly true: many of the people you meet and talk to you will only see once in your entire life. But gradually you may also start noticing that you keep seeing the same faces over and over again in different conferences and saying “hello, how are you?” to a growing number of fellow higher education researchers. This I noticed in the main conference where I remembered several people from last year – and they remembered me (or at least they claimed to do so)! Luckily also many of the participants of the newer researchers’ day attend the main conference, so there is at least a few who you recognise. In fact, it’s probably them who you should talk to anyway since they’re also the ones you might end up collaborating with in the future, as you’re all at the same career stage.
So, before you know it, by attending certain conferences every year you might create a wide international network of colleagues by accident. And as nice as it is to have friends in the same conference, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t. That just means you can try making new ones.
For choosing a conference for which to write a killer abstract next year, you might want to check Daniel Kontowski’s post on the events for higher education researchers in 2019.
Melina Aarnikoivu (MA) is a doctoral student at the Centre for Applied Language Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her dissertation is a nexus analysis of becoming a scholar. Her work can be found at ResearchGate.