It’s that time of year again: post Eurovision but pre Glastonbury. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for GradFest.
Alas, GradFest hasn’t got quite the cultural cachet that Eurovision or Glastonbury command, but I don’t see why not. It does in one way feel like a music festival: several days spent running around an unfamiliar place sweating and trying to remember what happens next, whilst people ask you for directions. In precisely no other way does it feel like a music festival, but let that not deter you, because it’s actually good fun in its own right. And you won’t get rained on or queue to pay £6 for a pint either.
GradFest is a series of university-wide events running at Queen Mary, University of London. If you’re not at Queen Mary, or indeed not a PhD student, bear with me, because this post acts as a kind of snapshot of academic life, and I think it’s pretty interesting.
The whole point of the festival is that it is organised by PhD students, for PhD students. This is my favourite part of it: the idea that any PhD researcher at Queen Mary, whether from Mile End, Whitechapel or Charterhouse Square campuses, can volunteer to be part of the steering committee early in the academic year and take the project through to the festival itself the next summer. The group, overseen by good egg Zi Parker, works together to decide what the theme will be and how it will be run (but thankfully not how to fund it because the Doctoral College currently covers it). Then the steering committee invites applications from the PhD cohort – anyone, from dental engineering to French cinema – to propose events that the student would like to put on, either by themselves, with colleagues, or by inviting big names in the field to come and present.
For members of the steering committee and also the students invited to plan an event, talk, or show, it’s a good skills-building exercise. The fact that there is an allocated budget – no mean feat in our age of austerity – means that the proposers can get some really exciting projects off the ground, honing their own presenting or management skills whilst putting free events on for other researchers. If your university doesn’t run this kind of project (and many do – from Goldsmiths to Bristol), it’s an easy sell because it builds skills in the PhD cohort, encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, and you can include public-facing events too which boosts your outreach profile. The word ‘festival’ is slapped on everything these days, but the idea of a learning festival isn’t risky and the atmosphere does feel somehow festive. Also, as any PhD student will agree, it can be hard to socialise with your cohort when your work is so solitary, so for just a few days you’re guaranteed socialisation.
GradFest is only one year old, so it felt good to be part of its inaugural run last June. One of the most valuable experiences I learned was how to review applications for all the different events suggested by students. It felt a lot like how I imagine conferences are run by their organisers (that’s my next goal – organise a conference – but it just seems so much easier to watch House of Cards forever), because you as the steering committee are the ones with the vision of the overall festival, and you want to get projects on board that match up with that. That said, we didn’t outright reject many applications – though the idea of Dragons’ Den style cruelty appeals – but we did give ideas for editing their format or content, and set up events management training from former Arts Council workers, which proved invaluable.
I loved every minute of the festival. We had a photography competition called ‘Your Life Through A Lens’, where PhD students submitted a photo that represented their research. The surprise there was the range of submissions, from microscopic cell mutations to a feminist linguistics mis-en-scene. We had an Arduino programming workshop, teaching non-computer scientists how to make software and hardware and sharing all the results. We had a great roundtable talk about the joys and anxieties of being an interdisciplinary researcher – research combining music and technology, or geography with politics – and how you get to span two disciplines but sometimes feel like part of neither.
The ‘finale’ event (gulp) was ‘Question Time’ with the Doctoral College and various higher education experts… and me. To stop myself dissolving into a sweating heap I told myself “you are the student in this scenario, which gives you license to basically say whatever you want without repercussion”. Reader, I did.
Simon Gaskell, who is the Vice Chancellor of Queen Mary, talked about the university strategy, and the growth in science and technology research. Averil MacDonald, board member at WISE (Women in Science & Engineering) spoke about the future of PhD research and made several inflammatory remarks about students not knowing how good they’ve got it. Holly Else from the Times Higher Education magazine did a great job of highlighting precarious working conditions for PhDs and Post-docs who teach – part of a larger move towards casualisation, where early-career academic staff are hired on an hourly basis rather than given a proper contract (today’s Guardian article provides a good précis.
As for me, I talked about how the PhD experience is such a mixed bag, from the freedom of research to the job market, from the sense that your PhD can really contribute to new thinking to the pressure of balancing efforts at publication and outreach activities, all whilst trying to write 100,000 words of original, insightful research and not eat total sh*t for 3+ years as a result.
I know these panels should recruit a student as good practice anyway if they want a wide range of views, but nevertheless I felt pleased to be a part of it, and the mixed audience of students, UCU reps, staff and researchers who attended just to hear our debate made it all worthwhile. It gave me a wider knowledge of the higher education environment that serves me well now as we embark on GradFest #2, because it shows me the political forces battling in the higher education market and who has a stake in universities (clue: private bodies, if the government gets their way).
PhD students are so often reluctant to get involved with anything that feels secondary to The Precious PhD. But the experience of mixing with other disciplines, of going to see a talk on something fascinating and completely outside your experience is a valuable thing. Even if you’re not at Queen Mary, GradFest exists in various guises in universities and cities around the country, from LIFT festival to Birmingham’s Arts&Science week: give one a go!