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Finding answers to the two most difficult questions of the PhD-life

What is your PhD about, and what are you going to do afterwards? Those two dreaded questions were at the centre of the PhD-Pre-Conference that took place on the 6th of June 2018 in Aarhus.

Pitching Workshop with Trine Syvertsen

The morning was dedicated to dreaded question number one: So, tell me, what is your PhD about? The expert there to help us answer the question was Trine Syvertsen, Professor at the Department for Media and Communication at the University of Oslo. To introduce what the idea of “pitching” is all about Trine Syvertsen shared one of her own experiences with the participants: When working on her latest book Media Resistance she found that instead of explaining what she meant by “media resistance”, it was more effective to tell people, that she was trying to find out why people hate television. This way of presenting her research question immediately opened further conversation, because it allows the counterpart to share their own ‘reasons’. Also, she reminded the participants that we have much less time than we think, when we are asked to speak about our research in informal situations. Rather than minutes, it is seconds!

During a 15-minute coffee break the participants then practiced conveying their research in one of the ‘natural’ environments in which the “what are you working on” occurs. Before beginning the networking game, Trine Syvertsen urged the participants to think about what it is they want to convey about themselves in the short amount of time they have. This exercise was not only about practicing what to say, but also a practice for listening to other people’s answers. Following the participants had to present their fellow participants and what they are working on. Most of the PhD-students were happy with the summary the others gave of their research, but of course, this exercise would have been much harder if we were not all working in the field of transnational television. Often, what ‘bounced back’ from the conversations was surprising to the students who would not have thought that details like the context of the Scandinavian welfare state for the analysis of the way mothers are presented on Danish television would be what the counterparts picked up on. An experience many of the participants shared was how difficult it is to create reciprocity in the conversations if you know you are pressed for time and want to speak with as many people in the room as possible. Trine Syvertsen reassured the participants that sometimes one or two long and detailed conversations in the coffee break can be just as fruitful for establishing your network.

While the first exercise focused on talking about your research to other academics, the group explored pitching in ‘the real life’ during the second session. Small groups recreated scenes and situations in which one of them is asked to speak about their research to friends or strangers. What became obvious in the exercise was that many more factors than just conveying your research topic come into play. One group, for example, showed a scene in which friends quiz the PhD student about their workday and what doing a PhD was all about. Also, we found that we have all been in situations before where people ask us to recommend TV series or when they want to speak about what they saw lately. While these interjections feel like a nuisance sometimes, the group agreed that speaking about concrete TV series often opens an easy way into the conversation about our concrete research. Susanne Eichner, Associate Professor at the University of Aarhus, who co-organized the workshop reminded the participants that we should be grateful for working on a topic that non-academics are mostly happy to speak about, namely television, whereas researchers in the natural sciences often have a much harder time getting people interested in their research.

After having pitched their research to different audiences, the task for the participants in the third session of the morning workshop was pitching their research in a different format, namely in a short video teaser. Speaking about your research on camera becomes increasingly important, Trine Syvertsen explained. She herself now regularly makes short videos for her lectures, where she explains to her students what will happen in the upcoming session. These videos, she explained are not necessarily improved by perfectionism. Her students enjoy and informal presentation as well. So, in order to stop the participants from over-planning, the task was: Filming at least one video teaser in 15 minutes. The teaser, Trine Syvertsen explained, is something different from the pitch: It is even shorter, in our cases just 20 seconds, and its purpose is getting people interested to hear more. So, she proposed to the students to make teasers about the conference papers they will give at the main transnational TV conference. Interestingly, the question “why should I come to your conference presentation?” proved much easier to answer than “what is your research about”, even though 20 seconds really only allow for a few short sentences. The results we then watched on screen were impressive, and showed how excited we all were to present at the conference.

Career advice and coaching from mentors

The afternoon part of the pre-conference was dedicated to the second dreaded question: What are you doing after the PhD? There to help us find answers were: Lothar Mikos (Professor for TV Studies at the Film University Babelsberg), Pei Sze Chow (Marie Curie Fellow at Aarhus University), Susanne Eichner (Associate Professor at Aarhus University) and Cathrin Bengesser (PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London). In three inputs the mentors presented several key questions and strategies for planning a career post-PhD.

Lothar Mikos emphasized the importance of joining academic associations for fostering one’s network at home and abroad. Important associations for media scholars are, for example, ECREA (the European Communication Research and Education Association), IAMCR (the International Association for Media and Communication Research) or NECS (the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies). Lothar Mikos furthermore emphasized that the PhD students should think about the countries they could see themselves working in after the PhD and then join national academic associations there, in order to build a local network in addition to the international one.

Pei Sze Chow recently started her post-doc research at the University of Aarhus, funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship. She had tips for the participants where to look for post-doc funding, e.g. on www.findapostdoc.com. She also shared some of her experience as a career advisor at UCL London, urging the students to also think beyond an academic career. Moreover, Pei Sze Chow reminded the students of the differences in the academic systems and application procedures in different countries.

Susanne Eichner presented the three pillars of academic qualification, which the PhD students should build during their doctoral work: Publications, Teaching and Funding. She emphasized that it is important to have experiences in all three fields when finishing the PhD. At the same time, she encouraged the students that even failure, for example an unsuccessful funding application, counts towards this experience. Following, Cathrin Bengesser presented some ideas for publications beyond the standard academic formats, which help to become visible beyond academia and to demonstrate the impact of one’s research. Being a guest on an academic blog, for example, is an easy way to get new ideas out quickly. Blogs like Critical Studies in Television Online or the Women’s Film & Television History Network are looking for guest bloggers to report on conferences, new developments in the media world or new television shows from an academic perspective. Moreover, Cathrin Bengesser presented some ideas for visualizing your research in novel ways, e.g. as Info-Graphics or Timelines, which can now easily be created with online tools like Piktochart and Timeline JS. The results can then be shared on social media.

After the inputs, the students received coaching on CV-writing and job-applications by the mentors in smaller groups. In the sessions, the participants of the Pre-Conference certainly gained confidence that helps them to answer the dreaded questions of the PhD life. Moreover, they got first-hand networking experience, which made it easier to navigate the academic ‘crowd’ of the main conference, which we delved into straight after the PhD workshop.

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