She is responsible for the delivery and evaluation of programs in which ECR share ideas, build confidence in leadership, develop cross-college networks, and acquire skills and knowledge required to establish a successful teaching and research career.
Julie promotes career development through ownership and self-empowerment.
Julie’s academic background is in Immunology and Microbiology. Her PhD thesis and postdoctoral research investigated mechanisms of Streptococcus pneumoniae infections.
Julie tweets at @julzpreston.
The recent post by @tseenster “It’s not you, it’s me” compared the conference approaches of an introvert and an extrovert.
My experience of conference attendance has been influenced not only by my own personality, but also that critical first impression of conference attendance.
My contrasting perspectives come from when I was a budding young scientist, then when I was an older – but equally impressionable – trainee career practitioner.
Personality tests, whether you believe them or not, have always labeled me an introvert. “Fantastic!” I thought. “That’ll get me through those long periods alone in the lab!”
The other end of the spectrum – extroversion – can be great for those short bursts of intense social interaction we call conferences. I attended a very small primary school where I was encouraged to find my voice and get involved, which, combined with other childhood pursuits, should leave me sufficiently confident in social situations like conferences.
So, what went wrong? Why were academic conferences such a challenge? And why did I feel more confident in my post-academic life?
I attended my first departmental seminar as an Honours student, at which a newly hired academic presented his research to the department for the first time. Another academic tore his research (subsequently well published) to shreds with a line of questioning that sounded too personal to my novice ears. This was my first, but by no means my last, encounter with the academic ego.
My first national conference did little to foster an atmosphere of open engagement with peers either. I presented my PhD research to a fairly small audience comprised primarily of student speakers and their supervisors. Through the entire session, all questions were directed to, and answered by, our supervisors. Student presenters weren’t given the opportunity to be involved. This experience taught me that while a student could give a carefully rehearsed presentation, that same student couldn’t be trusted to engage in intelligent, unstructured conversation about their research in a public forum.
I learned to keep quiet and allow those with titles higher than mine to take the limelight.
As I continued with my PhD and onto a postdoctoral appointment, I became more adept in the face of the academic ego, but those early experiences continued to shape my conference experiences. Through the latter stages of my postdoc, I made a decision to leave academia. The reasons and details of this story are for another day. When my research contract ended, I moved back to Australia and retrained for a career in Learning and Development.
My first job on this new career path is to coordinate NECTAR, a leadership and career development initiative for Early Career Academics (ECA, also ECR) at the Australian National University (ANU). I facilitate networking opportunities for ECRs, organise workshops, and support ECRs to develop their leadership potential.
Each of these tasks, in stark contrast to my academic life, requires regular interaction with other people.
I meet regularly with ECRs, university executives and other stakeholders. Each meeting requires a different approach and, in the past sixteen months in this role, I’ve built up quite a useful toolkit of ways to engage in conversations with everyone from my peers to my manager, and right through to the Vice Chancellor.
The most important influencers in my transition to a more extroverted conference attendee were my colleagues in the Centre for Career Development at ANU. I was still studying Learning and Development, and this was my first career development job but, from day one, I was part of the team and my contribution was just as valuable as that of the most senior members. My colleagues were honest, giving praise when praise was due and offering constructive criticism and support when I needed it. Pressure from the academic ego was beginning to fade.
The peak conference for my new field is the Career Development Association of Australia (CDAA) National Conference, which I first attended in 2013. I was immediately struck by how friendly everyone was. Career practitioners teach others how to network, so it stands to reason that I wouldn’t be left alone. The second major difference from an academic conference was the feeling of equality, just as I had noted with my colleagues in Career Development at ANU. I attended as a student, but in contrast to my early academic conferences, I was encouraged to participate. That encouragement was incredibly influential.
A year later, with a completed degree and more experience in the field, I attended CDAA again. Having just been invited to write this post, I considered the conference both on the floor, as an attendee, and from the balcony, observing and recording my interactions with fellow delegates.
Chatting with the people around me before a session started wasn’t the chore it had been as an academic. I actually enjoyed getting to know other attendees by listening to their career stories. I reconnected with friends from the previous conference and made new connections at the welcome reception. The conference dinner was a hoot! My extrovert self went into overdrive, and I realised I could hold my own next to ‘true’ extroverts like my new friend, Jen (@nej_kralc).
Previously, I was never sure how to approach the keynote at an academic conference. Their title and swarm of admirers always seemed to get in the way. At CDAA 2014, I initiated a conversation with Dr Peter McIlveen, CDAA Vice President and Conference Convenor. Peter had been my lecturer in L&D at the University of Southern Queensland, but we’d never met because it was an online course. We spoke for more than a few minutes, and I walked away confident that my new approach to engaging with as many people as possible, no matter who they are, was the right one.
My inner extrovert is starting to shine, but I still sit firmly within the introvert box. I enjoy what I do, but the intensity of so many real conversations with so many people in such a short time is draining. Taking time alone to recharge is essential for my conference survival.
What does this all mean, and what difference could it make for academics?
Changing the culture at academic conferences can only be done from the inside.
Don’t be afraid to approach other attendees, even if they are the luminaries in your field. They may brush you aside, but chances are they’ll be interested in your new idea. Ask a question during the session, and don’t be afraid to regain control over questions about your work. Kick up your heels (a little) at the conference dinner.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the new friends and research collaborators you’ll meet.