Sheree Bekker | FedUni conference 2014: communication challenges

A necessary part of our training as PhD scholars is the art of presenting our research, we learn to adapt our language and style to appeal to the audience at hand – from conferences to our curious grannies. The person who is adept at sharing findings within the scientific community of their research field often struggles with explaining their work to granny without her eyes glazing over. Cue: elevator pitch. On the other hand, the person who can happily explain what they do to their non-judgmental granny often experiences nerves presenting in the formal environment that is the conference. Cue: practice presentations. We thus learn how to present our research within our own discipline area, and we also learn how to share it with our grannies. But what of the middle ground: sharing research with an audience that has a research background, and so has knowledge of theories and methodologies, but no knowledge of our specific research field?

The Federation University Australia conference for higher degree by research students presented that middle ground challenge this year. In contrast to previous years, we were divided into sessions randomly, so as to not be clustered within the comfort zones of our discipline area. Clusters included researchers from the arts, mathematics, engineering, education, history and sport (to name a few) presenting together. This thrust us all into a new communication dilemma  – it demanded of us to actually share our research, rather than regurgitate it for a known audience.

The main aim of structuring the conference in this way was to facilitate the sharing of research across the university. This forced us out of the comfort zones of our peers and colleagues, and into the realm of a fresh new audience. The goal being that the presentations would not just be (re)presentations to supervisors and peers in our small corner of the university school – the very people who already knew what we were researching and had most likely critiqued our practice runs.

I may be biased, as I sat on the organising committee for the conference, but I really did enjoy this unique conference format. How else would I have met the super-cool maths PhD scholar if I had not been in a session with him? Same goes for the artist in my cluster who recently won a major award for her work. This is particularly true because we are all on different campuses of a regional university. 

This conference facilitated a supportive environment in which we could laud our peers. In the competitive world of academia, how often do we get the opportunity to do just that?

S

Ps: That afternoon, when I had just arrived home after the conference, a fourth communication challenge presented itself to me – in the form of a telephone interview with the print media. Fair to say that this is an entirely different audience with its own pressures. Anyway, here is the result of that interview in the Ballarat Courier: