Thoughts on the Faculty of Health 2018 HDR Conference

Deakin’s first ever HDR Conference was surely worth the crowded train ride into and out of the city to Deakin Downtown. The opportunity to see what other students within the Faculty of Health are conducting, and to get out of our psychology bubble was one that is albeit exciting, also very intimidating. But hey, this is life as a socially anxious PhD student who really enjoys hearing other people talk about their passions. This is my life now, and it still doesn’t feel real that for this part of my life I get to go to places to hear about cool stuff.

This was my fourth conference type event, and it was different to the other three in terms of set up. It was probably the most similar to what I imagine a traditional conference program looks like. Being in these situations I don’t think will ever get easier, I have come to the conclusion that you just get better at faking it. Being in a room full of people at all different stages of their candidature (yes I am aware that I am talking in terms of everyone being a PhD, I apologise. I should be better at this given I am also not a PhD student yet but shhh in 6 months I hopefully will be) when you are technically only 3 and a half months into a research degree it’s overwhelming. It always feels like there is more you can and should be doing, and I think that we all just need to be sat down and be told that you can’t actually do it all, which overwhelmingly wasn’t the main vibe of experienced academic advice (I’ll get to that later). Regardless, I don’t think any of us would listen to it anyway and we will always try to do way too much and learn the hard way.

Oh, you came to learn about what the conference was like, I apologise for my 400 -word rant. Moving on.

The day started with again remembering that Deakin Downtown is probably in the most confusing building in the world, but I digress. The morning kicked off with Jane Martin giving a keynote presentation. With the amount of advice that was given I could probably write an entire essay on, however here are the main points that I think that people outside of that room should hear also.

  • Have a personal brand, and curate it early on. For me I am the vegan that researches vegans who also happens to be a cat mum.
  • Surround yourself with good people. Which I couldn’t agree more with! I am in a lab that honestly is the greatest environment thus far. My supervisors have literally saved my life this year and for that, I don’t think I could have found better people to have attached myself to #sappyappreciationdotpoint. Granted, I have had the same supervisor from fourth year and so I don’t know any different other than an amazing supervisor so I am probably not qualified to talk on the point of being surrounded by dodgy people. I am sure in the next 50 years of my career I will be able to, but hopefully not.
  • Everyone has an opinion. I feel like this is just solid life advice, but especially in research. I am finding this out very quickly. I research vegans. This is an issue of contention. Everyone who hears this has to suddenly justify why they eat meat. Word of warning, to anyone who comes into contact with me in the future I couldn’t care less if you eat meat. Really. I mean I hate that it causes climate change and that we are all dying faster than necessary. But it is not up to me as an individual to convince you that veganism is the answer. I don’t need to witness cognitive dissonance in action. I also don’t need to be told that I am pushing veganism on people, that we are all protein deficient, or that bacon is delicious. Stay in your lane. And I am sorry also for saying that veganism is not a massive part of my life, when it clearly is (let me live in denial of this for a bit longer). Side tracked from the point of the advice from the presentation, I guess this is what it is like to talk to me in real life and for that I am deeply sorry. But you have your opinion, and people will continue to have theirs, just ignore as appropriate.
  • Have fun. YES! I am sensing there is this group mentality that a PhD has to be the worst 3 - (insert amount of years people finish their degree in) years of your life and I just don’t buy it. I think this can mean many things but for me it is that I am in an office with people who I would consider some of my closest friends and if you have to leave the office at 2pm to go to the movies to escape for 7 hours, then do it! I don’t know about anyone else but I don’t want to look back at this six years of my life and think, yep could’ve gone to the movies more often with the people I love and eaten more pho. No. I want to look back and go yep that was a great six years; I had fun, travelled, talked to some of the most amazing people, oh yeah I also got a degree and did research. But maybe this is me taking on board that our lab is big on work life balance but not all of us are good at it and so maybe I need to change my mindset now before it is too late. Maybe there should also fun-get a degree balance?
  • Go outside comfort zone I think was a major theme throughout the day. I mean I was out of my comfort zone by being in a room full of people so I am nailing that one. But also too, don’t do this to the point of detriment I think is also important to take into consideration.
  • Media is important. This is key I think. We research, we write it up in academic jargon, and then if a media outlet jumps on it we lose control. We know living in this post-Trump era that the media can make or break certain things. I think learning how to navigate this is an important lesson. I know that this will probably be relevant to me given that vegan is a buzzword at this point and oh you guessed it… everyone has an opinion.
  • Persistence is key. This is something that I think I will find tough. I don’t like to be annoying so persisting in the advance of potential collaborations or anything that involves other people may prove challenging. But hey, there’s time to work on this. There’s always time.

And the last and probably the most important point:

  • You don’t have to say yes to everything, and don’t be afraid to say no. Yes that is bolded and italicised. I think it is self-explanatory. But we need to hear it again and again, and again. Because we exist in a culture where working on weekends is praised, where burnout symptoms are celebrated. Where HDR students are affected by mental health issues, at some ridiculous number above the national average of mental illness incidence. FOMO is real. But so is the severity and detriment of having a mental health issue. Saying no to something will not make you appear bad or incompetent, in my experience saying no in an academic context is something that is admired by others. I am good at giving this advice to others and I will never listen to it myself but hey, if one person reading this says no to something because it would be one thing too many or cause too much anxiety then I feel like these words haven’t been lost.

The next thing I have to ask about conferences is why they feed us so much? It constantly surprises me. Also, stop only having cake. It’s happened at all of these things I’ve been too and there are so many better options than cake. Sorry, there is my unpopular opinion for the day.

The one thing I have decided I don’t like about conferences with streams is you have to choose the presentations you want to go to. Making decisions is hard. Luckily for me, no one in the faculty of health appears to be doing anything remotely similar to me so making choices wasn’t super hard this time. I just really enjoy listening to people talk about their passions. It is one of my most favourite things, you could be talking about the inside of an ant leg and if you were passionate about it you’d have me hooked. Maybe this says more about my ability to be easily entertained than anything else. I think the best thing about these presentations where they were all students, it is much less overwhelming to see someone like you present because it makes it seem like it is also achievable. Also intimidating but mostly reassuring and comforting that all the planning actually eventuates into a presentation.

I attended two of the workshops. One on how to get a job overseas, and the other about a career in industry. Both of these things I will not be doing anytime soon, but both helpful to have thoughts on now. I came into this degree being open to both industry and academia, but the further I go in the more and more I want to stay in academia. Sorry parents I am never leaving uni. Probably ending up back in an undergrad, this week alone I have wanted to be an astronomer, and a psychiatrist. But in all seriousness learning about all the pathways is super beneficial. I am also constantly surprised at the careers of successful academics, they are like unicorns. Or maybe once you get over the imposter syndrome and the irrational guilt that you’re not doing enough they are just horses with fake horns, then you to realise that you can be a unicorn too with a few more years experience and a fair few more publications.

The day ended with a panel of people in the field answering questions about things. Yes very descriptive I know, sorry. By that time I was exhausted and didn’t pay particular attention. To be expected at conferences, don’t feel bad if you lost focus in the first session. I assume it happens to everyone at some point. Except I did pay attention for the very conflicting sentiments of you should take every opportunity that comes your way but that you should also be balanced and have a life and not burn out. Make of that what you will. We also should take having a plan with a grain of salt. Don’t plan too much but be open to change and adjusting plans. I think this is invaluable information. I don’t know about you, but change terrifies me, and I am a meticulous planner. Maybe I need to readjust my perceptions of planning.

Overall the day was a great way to bring together the five schools in the faculty of health, and if there was one more thing to add to this very long chat about things learned it is that being at a conference in anything other than open science related things makes me deeply uncomfortable. And that maybe we need to re-evaluate the amount of value placed on p-values. Sorry I had to, I couldn’t write a thing about research and not mention open science and actually on second thought I’m not even one bit sorry for it.