BLOG | An AAG Retrospective: tips for conference ‘newbies’

BIOSEC doctoral researcher Hannah Dickinson shares her insights from AAG 2017 - and offers some handy tips for other conference 'newbies'

Hannah Dickinson is a Doctoral Researcher on the BIOSEC project.  She completed her undergraduate degree in Geography at the University of Oxford and her MSc in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway, University of London  . She was awarded a European Research Council PhD Studentship at the University of Sheffield in September 2016 to conduct research on the EU approach to illegal wildlife trade. In April of this year, she attended the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. 

A fortnight ago, from the 5th-9th April 2017,  I was fortunate enough to attend my first big conference as PhD student – the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in Boston, USA – alongside thousands (upwards of 9000) of other “Geographers” from across the world.

I use the term “Geographers” in inverted commas given the fact that I find myself now situated in a Politics department, and others who I met throughout the week in Boston heralded from departments as diverse as Zoology and Biology, to Computer Science and Economics. This is an important point to make, as it demonstrates the sheer variety of perspectives and academic orientations that the AAG conference welcomes and brings to the table under the broad rubric of ‘Geography’.

I had been pre-warned by my supervisor that for a first-time conference goer, the AAG had the potential to be incredibly overwhelming. Thankfully, instead I felt inspired, welcomed and completely at ease. In fact, the only time I was overwhelmed was when the conference was over and I had a notebook full of indecipherable notes and a brain brimming with so many ideas that I didn’t know what to do with them.

So now, after a few days of jet-lag recovery, and the chance to make sense of those indecipherable notes, I thought it would be useful to write some retrospective tips for the ‘first-time AAG goer’:

Tip 1: Don’t spend all day, every day, in sessions

The programme for the AAG is vast, and it is possible to find multiple sessions at every time slot of every day that sound interesting and worth attending. As someone paying a significant amount of money to be at the conference it is tempting to try and attend everything… but don’t! Your brain needs time to process the information you have taken in, and also to relax. It’s not very often you’ll get to visit a vibrant US city, so make the most of it and schedule time to sight-see. The AAG mobile app made it easy for me to plan the sessions that I was interested in, and by prioritising the sessions I definitely wanted to attend and scheduling in some down time, I felt more rejuvenated and engaged in the panels. If I was awake early enough or at a loose end I would try and attend some other sessions of interest, but it is important not to put too much pressure on yourself – that’s where you’ll spiral down the slippery slope of feeling overwhelmed! Around three sessions a day felt like a healthy number for me.

The BIOSEC team at AAG 2017. L-R: Rosaleen Duffy, Laure Joanny, Hannah Dickinson

Tip 2: Regularly debrief

I found the most useful points of my trip were the discussions that I had with people over lunch or dinner, or in what became a favourite haunt of ours – McGreevy’s Irish Bar – with a pint at the end of the day. I made a conscious effort to meet people at lunch time, or to attend ad-hoc lunch outings after morning sessions, as it gave me a chance to meet new people, discuss ideas introduced at the conference, and ask questions that I hadn’t had opportunity to raise during the panels. In the evening I always tried to meet Sheffield colleagues or friends from my Masters for an evening de-brief that was a little more chilled out, but equally fruitful for discussing the day’s events, theories and concepts. I also made time to write some short notes on each day of the conference so that I could trace my thought pattern and not lose sight of ideas. This is a daily habit at home, but I found it even more useful in a conference setting where I was being bombarded by new ideas, concepts, terminologies and phrases that I could easily forget if I didn’t write them down and revisit them.

Tip 3: Visit the exhibition space
I made the rookie error of only visiting the exhibition space half an hour before it closed! I was amazed at the variety of publishers who were represented at the AAG, and the number of books that were for sale. In that short half an hour I found so many books that looked interesting, but unfortunately didn’t leave myself enough time to browse properly – an essential aspect of book shopping! The majority of the publishers I came across were also offering significant discounts, and were also keen to speak to researchers about their work, with a view to future publication or editing opportunities.

So my tip would be to dedicate a full morning or afternoon (at the very minimum 1-2 hours) to exploring the exhibition space, talking to publishers, and book shopping!

Tip 4: Go and hear your academic idols/heroes 

Day 4 of the conference… I was exhausted. The afternoon rolled around, and there was only one thing on my mind…. sleep! However, David Harvey was scheduled to speak in the afternoon. I very nearly headed back to my room for an afternoon nap, however with the help of a strong coffee I forced myself to go, and I am so glad that I did! David Harvey was one of the first critical geographers I studied as an Undergraduate, and hearing him speak reminded me why I fell in love with human and political geography as subject areas, and also of the importance of critical academic scholarship as a vehicle for change in the world.  So the point I’m trying to make is that if you have the opportunity to hear your academic idols present, you should go – no matter how tired you are, no matter how different their area of work is from the area you are working on now – there is a reason that they are one of your academic heroes, and sometimes you just need reminding of that!

Tip 5: Be bold

It is nerve-wracking at times to be an early stage PhD student sat in a room with esteemed academics that you have been studying for years. But I found that after introducing myself to someone for the first time, it became much easier to introduce myself to people from then on. Furthermore, everyone seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say, and keen to talk to me, and offer advice or introduce me to others. So put yourself out there and meet people – conferences are as much about listening to papers and gaining inspiration from them, as meeting people and bouncing ideas with them.

Overall, I had an exciting and unforgettable week at the AAG in Boston. The conference definitely opened my eyes to alternative ways of thinking, and made me realise the importance of thinking geographically – which is something I’d lost sight of a little bit. I’m already looking forward to AAG 2018 in New Orleans and hopefully I will be presenting on my own research next year!

If you wish to contact Hannah about her research, please email her on h.g.dickinson@sheffield.ac.uk