As academics we typically participate in conferences for several reasons such as: to present our work, follow work that we are interested in, and attend meetings of divisions or other groups we belong to. However, there is another type of conference activity that I consider valuable for academics to engage in: providing mentorship by leading professional development workshops for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) including graduated students and postdocs. This summer I facilitated such a workshop at the meeting of the Junior Researchers of EARLI and I found it to be one of the most rewarding conferencing experience I recently had.
I was invited to facilitate a workshop on professional e-portfolios from the JURE 2014 committee organizer with whom I met in a previous JURE conference and discussed about potentially running this workshop. I was preparing for it with great anticipation for several reasons. First, it would be the first conference I would attend with my new title as Academic Staff Developer and it would be the first time that I would facilitate an e-portfolio workshop for an audience outside the US. But I was mainly excited because the conference was taking place in my home country at my alma matter the University of Cyprus. It felt like a full circle now, returning there after my graduate studies and realizing that I was finally starting to do what I enjoyed mostly: educational development.
The purpose of the workshop was to introduce ECRs to the professional e-portfolio as a tool to establish their online presence as researchers. Specifically the workshop aimed to enable participants identify a theme (i.e., digital signature), select and reflect on their teaching, research, service, and leadership activities for their e-portfolio, brainstorm evidence to support their effectiveness in carrying out these activities, and to decide what strategies to use to collect feedback on their activities. I will not go into more details about the specific workshop but rather I would like to share some advice for academics who would like to lead such mentoring activities in academic conferences.
- Rely on your network: Often in academia we rely on collaborators for our research activities. You can also use your network to become involved in mentoring activities in case your people have connections with conference organizers otherwise take the initiative to contact them directly, suggest a workshop, and explain why you would be a qualified person to facilitate it.
- Make it relevant: Early career researchers who attend conferences look out for professional development opportunities especially during conferences that offer some of these workshops for free. Select topics that are relevant to their current needs and can cover a broad range of audience for example new methodology approaches, innovative research technologies, ethical research, social media presence for researchers, and public engagement.
- Ensure it is interactive: Conferencing can wear you out after a couple of days of following sessions and attending meetings. Facilitating a workshop is inherently different than a paper presentation. It should be engaging, interactive, collaborative, and action provoking. When preparing for your workshop start by thinking how you will involve participants with the material and with each other. During the workshop alternate between presentation, small group-work, discussion and case studies.
- Plan for action planning: Early Career Researchers need to leave from your workshop with an action plan specifying what steps they will take to use what they have learned in the workshop for their own career progression. It is therefore essential for you to allow them time at the end of the workshop to come up with an action plan with a few manageable steps that they can take the next few months. Further, you can ask them to check with each other what progress they have made by emailing at least one person to catch-up and share their progress.
- Facilitate networking: One of the primary reasons that ECRs attend conferences is to expand their network and meet with potential collaborators. During the workshop provide opportunities for participants to talk in pairs or in their group about their experiences, their goals, and the reasons they are attending the workshop. You can do that by using activities such as an elevator pitch exercise, brainstorming activities, or a wall of collaboration with post-it notes about their research interest and potential areas of collaboration. When participants leave your workshop they should at least have the contact details of another two colleagues they would like to keep in their network.
- Collect evidence: During the workshop participants generate collaborative and individual authentic work. Collect evidence from their contributions, for example, photograph the pages of a flipchart, collect post-it notes, save concept maps and brainstorming papers, ask for participants’ reflections on activities. Following the workshop you can annotate these materials and include them in a journal or blog post as part of your reflection on the event.
- Evaluate your performance: Often conference organizers will send electronic feedback forms to participants to evaluate the workshop. Make sure you contact the organizers to get a summary of the evaluation. In addition, at the end of the workshop ask participants to provide you with some immediate feedback either informally through questioning or by distributing a feedback form with a few questions such as: “What helped you learn in this workshop?”, “What could improve your learning?”, “What are two take-home messages from this workshop?”
Facilitating a workshop is a very rewarding experience and it is a form of mentoring and community service that I find exciting since it allows me to stay in touch with the new generation of researchers and motivate them to reach their personal goals. As with any other academic activity it needs planning so turn up prepared with a realistic set of objectives and a session plan. Give it a go and let me know how it went and how you benefited from it.