Focus: ESRC Final Year Conference, Sheffield 23-24 April 2013

Report by Stephen McGlynn (University of Sheffield)

This April, the White Rose DTC had the pleasure of hosting the ESRC conference for final-year doctoral students. The conference saw 200 students with ESRC studentships come together from across the country, taking part in a one-day event to develop skills for the next stage of their careers and to think about the impact of their research.

esrc2The event kicked off with an evening reception at the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield, where delegates were welcomed by Professor Paul Boyle, CEO of the ESRC, and Professor Craig Watkins, Director of the White Rose DTC. With a jazz accompaniment and free-flowing bars, the Galleries provided a most hospitable opening to the conference, allowing students to network and share experiences, whilst watching the sun set over the city. Guests were also invited to take a tour around the various galleries showcasing the city’s steel-work heritage; a particularly fitting welcome to Sheffield, which is celebrating 100 years of stainless steel this year.

Keeping with the centenary of steel theme, the main event was hosted in the Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield, a grade II-listed building, home to the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire and venue of the annual Cutlers’ Feast. Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice Chancellor of The University of Sheffield, opened the main proceedings, setting the scene by stressing the importance of social science and hammering home how “now, more than ever, we need new ideas to figure out how to organise our society”.

As would be expected from an ESRC event, the rest of the morning focussed on ‘impact’, with staff from the research council giving a ‘snakes and ladders’ inspired presentation on how students can make a difference to the world with their doctoral work and any future work they carry out. The ESRC were keen to highlight the ever-growing importance of impact in the research world, and gave an introduction to some of the assistance they provide: from their free media-training courses for researchers, to their online impact toolkit, which provides a diverse array of advice on engagement.

One of the highlights of the conference was a keynote by Professor Matt Flinders, from Sheffield’s Department of Politics, who talked through his trials and tribulations of engaging with both policymakers and the media. Flinders framed the impact agenda as ‘an opportunity for critical social science’, and through a mixture of stories about his trips to Westminster and getting into arguments about robotic forks, he encouraged the audience to ‘think creatively, seeing opportunities when others see obstacles’. Perhaps one of the most enlightening take-home messages from the conference was the idea of it being ‘necessary to engage with multiple publics’, engaging with different groups of people in different ways, being to find a respective hook and express your message succinctly in a page of A4, and at the same time, seeing this as a process of upskilling your audience, and not necessarily dumbing down your research.

For the rest of the morning and the afternoon, the conference agenda turned its attention to other key skills relevant to completing doctoral students. Several workshops were on offer as part of the programme, with sessions focused on careers, big data, and networking and public engagement.

esrc1The careers surgery showcased some of the opportunities available post-completion, with a panel made up of representatives with social science PhDs working across the private, academic, public and ‘third’ sectors. The presentations and Q&A highlighted the variety of ways in which a social science PhD can make a difference in working life, and showed that there isn’t necessarily one set path that everyone will follow. One of the pertinent issues in the room was the use of social media in networking and promoting your work, something that each of the panelists stressed as becoming increasingly important in today’s climate. There was also regular praise for Vitae, the network that champions the career development of postgraduate researchers, and who can provide a variety of useful resources and advice through their various channels.

The second of the three workshops focused on networking and public engagement. Although the two are often seen as dichotomous, it was argued that the two require similar skills and approaches, in that they both involve having conversations and developing relationships for mutual benefit. Key to both activities is the idea of engaging with different publics, and thinking about how you break down your message differently for different audiences. The speakers also highlighted the importance of practice and preparation of your key messages, including putting serious thought into who you want to reach. Both networking and public engagement can be scary, but it was a recurring message that you have to be proactive and not be afraid to take new opportunities.

The final workshop explored the changing data landscape, where a variety of researchers debated and discussed shifts towards ‘big data’ – the use of existing large data sets, especially important in the austerity that we face today – and towards ‘open data’ – providing access to our datasets as a matter of transparency and public responsibility. For aspiring academics, these shifts in thinking about ‘data’ will no doubt become increasingly important, and the workshop provided the opportunity to discuss the challenges and solutions that social science researchers may face. Current researchers at the forefront of these changes also presented some of their work and personal experiences.

One of the key foci of the event was preparing doctoral students for the next stage of their career, and so the tail-end of the programme was set aside for talks on the vital process of winning funding and grants. Representatives from the ESRC explored the funding opportunities that may be available to continuing academics, and also shed some light on to the grant application process, including providing some insight into what makes an effective grant application.

esrc4As the day drew to a close, students were invited to partake in a spot of roleplay and begin to apply what they’d learnt during the last session. Participants were invited to form mock funding decision panels, reviewing real-life grant applications to the Future Research Leaders call. The exercise provided the opportunity to explore what makes a good grant application, with teams scoring and making funding recommendations on real grant submissions. This practical and realistic scenario was well received, demystifying a somewhat daunting process for early career researchers.

All in all, the day was well received by all those present, and our visiting students left the venue encouraged, enlightened and inspired (and not just because of the closing wine reception!). It was quite the coup for the White Rose DTC, now in its second year, to host one of the ESRC’s two flagship student conferences, and it was a fantastic opportunity for us to show off the talent and enthusiasm that we have within our DTC to the wider community. A most hearty congratulation must go out to our hard-working administrative team, who, no doubt after many sleepless nights worrying about name badges and coffee queues, pulled off an extremely successful event that the Scotland DTC may have to work hard to follow!