LPS doctoral researchers discuss research and professional development challenges
By: Charlotte Shamoon
Last updated: Monday, 2 August 2021
On Wednesday 17 June, 30 PhD students took part in the ninth School of Law, Politics and Sociology (LPS) annual away day for postgraduate doctoral researchers, held this year as a ‘blended’ event, with participants attending both in-person at the Freeman Centre and online. (Last year’s away day was run as three online workshops.)
The away day focused on themes relating to PhD research skills and professional development selected by the students themselves, with sessions on: undertaking interviews, presenting at conferences, developing an online profile, non-academic careers for doctoral researchers, and getting published.
In the first session, Professor of Sociology Susie Scott gave an extremely wide-ranging and comprehensive presentation reflecting on the role of interviewing in research. The issues covered by Prof Scott ranged from methodological reflections on the value and appropriateness of undertaking interviews to practical suggestions about interviewing techniques. A couple of particularly useful tips were to do a ‘pilot’ version of the interview with an intelligent ‘other’ or a particularly sympathetic and helpful interviewee (who might not mind doing a re-run!) and the importance of having proper ‘de-briefs’ after interviews.
Politics lecturer Dr Neil Dooley then gave a thoughtful take on how to present papers at academic conferences. He ran through the various stages of applying to conferences (including writing a good abstract), as well as preparing and rehearsing presentations, and concluded by giving tips on presentation structure and delivery. One particularly helpful tip was the importance of having a full run-through of the paper, preferably in front of a (sympathetic) audience. This could be a formal setting, such as an in-house research-in-progress seminar, or an informal one to friends, or even to yourself if no one is around. (Dr Dooley admitted that he often practised his presentations in front of his cat!)
In the second session, Senior Lecturer in Intellectual Property Law, and self-described LPS ‘resident geek’, Dr Andres Guadamuz, shared his thoughts on the best ways for doctoral researchers to develop a social media profile. He discussed the pros and cons of academic blogging and ran through all the various social media sites, especially Twitter which, he argued, had developed into the most ‘academic’ of social networks but required very careful navigation and handling. Interestingly, Dr Guadamuz explained how he used his own blog posts as ‘building blocks’ – first run of sections of longer research papers – as a way of getting past the ‘blank page’ syndrome.
Former Sussex Politics PhD researcher, and now a Director at the opinion polling agency Kantar Public, Dr Amy Busby drew on her own professional background and development to discuss how doctoral researchers could market themselves when applying for non-academic jobs. One thing that she particularly stressed was the importance of building up experience of working with practitioners while undertaking doctoral research, citing her own experience of embedding herself within non-academic networks.
In the final session, Professor of Sociology Gerard Delanty, who is also editor of the European Journal of Social Theory, gave an extremely comprehensive and thorough overview of all the stages of getting published in academic journals. As well as some perennial publishing tips, Prof Delanty highlighted recent trends, notably: the huge increase in journal articles being submitted (leading to more desk rejections), the concomitant increase in the number of academic journals (meaning that ensuring publication in higher quality journals was increasingly an important marker), and the importance of crafting good titles and abstracts likely to be picked up in search engines to help ensure large numbers of citations.
Sociology lecturer Dr Jamie Barnes wrapped up the day with a presentation on how to turn a PhD thesis into a monograph. After running through the various stages of the book proposal review and publication process, Dr Barnes gave some useful tips, including: trying to design and write the thesis with publication as a monograph in mind, and giving plenty of thought to potential audiences to whom the thesis could be marketed and sold, including non-academic ones.
Summing up the day, LPS Director of Doctoral Studies Prof Aleks Szczerbiak identified some of the cross-cutting themes in the presentations. One of the main ones was obviously the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic had moved a lot of research and networking activity for doctoral students online.
He said: "For better or for worse, many of these activities that we discussed today are likely to continue online in some (probably ‘blended’) forms – which creates both opportunities and challenges for doctoral researchers.
"For example, it will be much easier to set up and attend some events, such as elite interviews or academic conferences, without actually being physically present. This can open up opportunities for attendance and dissemination of research without costly and time-consuming travel. On the hand, the kind of informal networking or ability to quickly develop rapport with interlocutors that you get through in-person interaction is very difficult (arguably impossible) to replicate in an online setting.
"Our away day was a perfect example of this. Online attendance facilitated participation by many of our PhDs who could not get to the Sussex campus (indeed, were not even in the UK), but a lot of the most interesting discussions were informal side-conversations before and after formal sessions during lunch or coffee breaks. In LPS we have worked hard to keep our doctoral research community going through various online events over the last few months.
"But it was really great to be able to organise and attend an (at least partially) in-person event after so much time spent talking to each other on Zoom!"