I recently attended the 17th International Conference of Historical Geography (ICHG) in Warsaw, Poland. I had a brilliant time– it was a week full of exchanging ideas, meeting new people, and catching up with old people. The conference is held once every three years; it was last hosted by London in 2015 and I was there, heading towards the end of the second year of my PhD. Someone commented that the cycles of the ICHG feel like markers in your career, which got me thinking about how far I have come in the last 3 years, between London 2015 and Warsaw 2018.
I have certainly got ‘better’ at big conferences; in 2015 I co-organised one session at the ICHG, in 2018 I organised 2 on my own. I am better at networking, and I have learnt that it is not just about meeting new people, but also about developing relationships with people that I have met before. I’m less afraid to use the opportunity to ask more experienced academics for advice; I have finally convinced myself that they won’t think I’m stupid and/or annoying for asking.
There are other areas of academic life on which I’m making good progress. Whilst I was in Warsaw I got word that my thesis revisions had been accepted by my examiners. I won’t technically be a Doctor until I graduate, but I will be a Doctor, it’s definitely happening. In 2015, the only geography department I knew was Royal Holloway. It is a fantastic department, but it meant my experience was rather limited. Since then I have also taught and worked at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Central Lancashire. I have learnt to give lectures, run tutorials, and write and mark assessments within a variety of different academic cultures.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, not by a long shot. I had moments during my PhD when I thought I would never finish it, and there were chapters that didn’t come together for months. I’ve had conference papers rejected, and for the jobs I got, there have been many, many more that I did not. I think it is important to acknowledge our failures as well as celebrate our successes in academia; it is all part of the process.
I am only at the beginning of my academic career; I still have a long way to go. By the next ICHG in 2021, I will have published some journal articles, and be on my way to securing a permanent academic job, if I haven’t already. 3 years ago, I would have qualified those goals with ‘hope’ or ‘might.’ Now, I am more confident in myself and my abilities. Of course, I still have my moments of fear, insecurity, and doubt. But they are becoming less common.
This blog post is not meant to be a big old boast (although I do think that female academics in particular could do with being more confident about expressing our achievements). It is meant to be a message of hope. I spoke to a lot of PhD students in Warsaw, and I recognised in many of them the same insecurities I felt back in 2015. There is a lot of discussion about how hard academia is to get into, and it is. But I can also give you loads of examples of people who have succeeded, in all kinds of ways, including outside of academia. So I guess the purpose of this blog post is to say to those PhD students: don’t be too hard on yourself. It might take you longer than you think, and it might not look like you imagined, but you’ll get there.