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|By Meg Ison, Gale Ambassador at the University of Portsmouth|
In this blog post I will discuss the impact of the pandemic on the PhD experience, and focus on how and why online conferences and blog posts have become new and extremely effective ways for PhD students to disseminate their research.
The importance of presenting your research during your PhD journey
Any academic will tell you that an extremely important part of a PhD researcher’s career is to present their research. For example, presenting at conferences helps postgraduate students to develop their ideas, to get feedback on their work, and to build their academic networks. In addition to these short-term gains, the long-term ambition is that PhDers will be able to develop their papers into full blown articles that will be published in academic journals. This is a really crucial step because publications also help to secure academic jobs!
Pre-pandemic presentation methods: ‘traditions’ of the academy
I began my PhD in October 2019, in the pre-pandemic world, which meant that I started my research journey by presenting my research in the ‘traditional’ methods of the academy. This meant searching the web for calls for papers, submitting an abstract, then jumping on a plane or train to visit another institution to take part in a big research event that would usually last a few days.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to recall the typical running-order of a conference: the day would normally begin with the organisers standing at the front of a big room of people, firstly welcoming the keynote speakers and paper givers, next explaining the aims of the day, then introducing the themes and running order of the panels. Each panel would be made up of presenters whose papers fit together nicely, in ways that foster academic debate and discussion. When it was their turn to present, each group of presenters would sit closely together with the chair of their panel, discussing their research and taking questions from the audience.
Panel sessions would be broken up with coffee breaks and lunch breaks. Chatting away with new and old colleagues whilst you helped yourself to the open buffet of tea, coffee, sandwiches and cakes was an important social part of the day. Indeed, this is the point when academic connections could be fostered or maintained. Cheek-kissing was also an important feature of events in the field of French and Francophone Studies that I belong to. Social distancing, mask-wearing, and lockdown-learning were completely foreign concepts back then!
New and innovative solutions developed during the pandemic
Of course, the pandemic has changed the world in so many ways. In a previous blog post for The Gale Review, a fellow Gale Ambassador colleague, Ben, describes how the pandemic has changed the working life of PhD students. He explains how Gale Primary Sources can be used in research and teaching very effectively, especially when physical archives are closed. But how about presenting your work? What do you do as a PhD student when travel restrictions are imposed, and all in-person conferences are cancelled?
Online and blended-approach conferences
Like most other aspects of university life in the UK, significant methods of presentation during the PhD experience shifted online too. Indeed, online and blended-approach conferences became an important new mode of dissemination, and they look set to stay. There are many benefits to this new doctorate degree experience of presenting your research from home – less travel means less costs, and less burden on the environment. And the closing of physical borders led to the opening up of the digital space, meaning conferences hosted further afield – on all continents of the world – are now more accessible to PhD students in the UK who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to get this level of global experience in their pre-pandemic lives.
The move towards digital resources
However, the shift to digital also means that the PhD research methods syllabus has had to change dramatically too. Doctorate students are no longer presenting objects, manuscripts, archives or other materials alongside poster presentations delivered in person. Rather, research methods for PhD students have had to shift over towards digital resources at a far quicker rate than could have been anticipated before the pandemic. Gale Primary Sources is a fantastic resource for scholars to use for research, and in teaching more junior scholars. Check out Ben’s blog post for examples on how he uses the Eighteenth Century Collection Online in his teaching and research.
This is a little trickier for me, because I work in the field of Area Studies, which means I take a bottom-up approach to studying the memory and commemoration of World War Two atrocities committed in two French regions. This requires extensive fieldwork on the ground, using French language sources. However, exciting discussions at the digital Gale International Conference that united colleagues and Gale Ambassadors from across the world, generated much optimism about the ways in which digital archives can be used in the future. This included discussions about more bottom-up perspectives to the past, and a decolonial approach to history and politics that decentres English/American language and epistemology.
Blog posts – a newly significant method of presenting PhD research
Another impact of Covid on the significant methods of presentation for PhD students include the renewed relevance of blog posts. For concrete examples on how to write, edit and promote effective blog posts as post graduate students, check out the South Coast Doctorial Training Partnership blog. These posts also provide insight on the PhD experience more generally for prospective students. The Gale Review is also filled with ample evidence of how current students – not just doctoral, but undergraduates and Master’s too – use the blog format to present their research using digital archives in ways easily accessible to a wider public. This is a great skill to develop, especially for those who are interested in pursuing doctoral study.
For example, many research associations have started to use blogs far more frequently during the pandemic – one example is the French History Network Blog, in alliance with the Society for the Study of French History. They promote online webinars that students can watch to enhance their subject knowledge, and spotlight the work of both junior and senior scholars in the field. This is great exposure for the work that PhD students are doing and allows them to build their academic networks during their studies, much like they would have done around the buffet table in the pre-pandemic era – just without the free coffee and sandwiches in this new day and age!
More opportunities than drawbacks
In the grand scheme of things, I feel all this is a small price to pay for all these wonderful new opportunities that the world of digital archives holds for the future. Luckily, being a digital platform puts Gale Primary Sources right at the centre of these changes, and its many innovative features make it very well-placed to help students make the leap from face-to-face to digital! All students at the University of Portsmouth, and other institutions that offer Gale resources, should look into these amazing resources. Check out other blog posts from the Gale Ambassadors to learn more!
If you enjoyed reading about the impact of COVID-19 on the PhD experience, you might like:
If you want to learn more about the impact of the pandemic on undergraduate university students, try:
- Pandemic Perspectives – Interview with Madi, student at National University of Ireland, Galway
- The Impact of the Pandemic on Students at the University of Johannesburg
- The University Experience – Before, During and After the Pandemic by a student at the University of Helsinki
Blog post cover image citation: Image by Miguelangel Miquelena, available on Unsplash.com.
Nb. The images throughout this blog post are intended to embellish the post, as opposed to being primary sources which contribute to the message of the post.