One of the papers we’ll be discussing at the unconference talks about seeing the PhD as an apprenticeship rather than just a thesis to be written. I think I’ve always instinctively leaned towards this way of thinking about it and so when I started the PhD I had a series of things in mind that I wanted to do in addition to writing the thesis. One of these things was to run a conference – to test and, in CV terms, prove my organisational skills. At the start of the PhD I had this fantasy of a landscape studies conference, featuring formal panels and at least one or two big names in the field.
Then I attended a university workshop on the subject of ‘impact’. I left feeling as though many of the examples of ‘impact-ful’ research, inspiring though they were, didn’t really help to explain how a historian, particularly an early-career one, could practically set about to cause impact. This was partly, I felt, the result of external guidelines which didn’t fully appreciate the distinctions between different fields of research, the ways they operated, and the different types of impact they could reasonable be expected to produce. I expressed something along these lines to a fellow humanities PhD student at the workshop, and they shrugged and said that there was no point complaining about it, because we couldn’t change anything – we would just have to deal with it.
And so, the idea for the unconference was born. I definitely don’t want it to be about complaining about the state of the academic world today – although there are certainly things to be concerned about. Rather, I want it to be a space where postgraduates can say – that aspect of things doesn’t quite work, but here’s my idea for how it could be improved. After all, some people attending the unconference, at least, are going to be the heads of department and academic policy-makers of the future. And even if others aren’t, I think it’s important that the people at the bottom of the ladder don’t just shrug and say “there’s nothing we can do, so there’s no point talking about it”.
Regardless of where we all end up in the future, right now every person attending the unconference is a postgraduate or early career researcher, and they’re in that position because they have good ideas and an ability to work through data and draw out interpretations and conclusions. I can’t wait, for just a few days next week, to see that imagination and energy applied not to the problems of historical sources, but to some of the questions facing the historical profession itself. What should a PhD look like? Can research be communicated in new, different, and better ways? How can we develop the relationship between researchers and the general public? What are the positive steps that can be taken to improve the intellectual and personal experiences of an individual undertaking a PhD?
Essentially, for me, the unconference boils down to a single belief: that we should never think there is ‘no point’ in talking about things that affect us, because if we never voice our ideas for change then change will never happen.