How to Chair at a Conference – as a PhD student

Now you may be wondering, “Why bother chairing a conference track? I’m just a student and happy to present a paper or poster.”  Think again! You can make valuable contacts, and develop your confidence. Here are my suggestions as to why to chair a track and how to do it effectively.

Why Chair a Track?

  1. Find your Viva examiner

You may well be reviewing papers from experienced academics in your field of study. Chairing a track gives you the opportunity to work together beforehand. I’ve found a few potential Viva examiners from chairing a conference.

  1. Practise your paper reviewing skills

As a track chair, you will be expected to get to review and prepare questions on all the papers presented in the track. You should explain the theme that connects all the papers and summarise the papers effectively.  This is good practice for becoming a journal reviewer.

  1. Get spotted by a publisher

I’ve recently been invited to publish by a journal editor who attended my paper presentation. Because I was also chairing the track, we worked together beforehand, and I got to understand exactly what her journal is looking for. I was able to tailor my presentation of the paper to meet her journal requirements.

How to Chair a Track

  1. Present a paper at the conference

You should always try to present a paper or poster, if you want to chair a track at a conference. Even if you are not asked to chair a track, presenting the paper will give you valuable experience of discussing your work with experts in your field.

  1. Ask the conference organisers

Conference organisers can find it hard to find track chairs, especially for the last session of the conference. Send your CV to the conference organisers beforehand, and offer your services. Be prepared to stand in at short notice.

Inject your personality

There’s more to chairing than informed questions and keeping the speakers on time – see the cartoon above by Steve Macone and Lindsay Moss Try to add humour or bring chocolates or pens. Salford Business School has a great range of promotional material for PhD students going to conferences).  Make sure your track ends on a high, and you are likely be invited back next year.

More advice and suggestions for how to chair a track effectively here:

Photo 1: Udeni Salmon getting ready to chair a track at the 2016 EURAM conference in Paris in July 2016, at the  l’Université Paris-Dauphine. Coffee is always important part of being a track chair! The Latin in the hall above me, means “A mind unfettered in deliberation” and is the NATO motto. NATO were housed in this building from 1959 to 1966.

Euram Conference Chair


How to survive your 2nd year as PhD Student

How to survive your 2nd year as a PhD student

Here is a quick overview of yesterday’s training course, organised by and delivered by the fantastic Dr Jim Boran (Researcher Developer Manager, University of Manchester @whalesense) and Dr Victoria Sheppard (Researcher Developer Coordinator, University of Salford, @vishepp).

The purpose was to boost the confidence of those of us who are full-time in the second year of our PhD. Here’s a rundown of the questions we asked ourselves:

How does the 2nd year feel?

Personally, I feel that I cant see wood for the trees!


“In The Wood” by MarcoHeisler at

Other descriptions included – “Too far in to stop” “Reality sinking in” “I’m an academic teenager: -acting out!” “Middle-of-anything blues”

Where are you on the PhD mountain?

We were asked to draw a mountain – and where we are on the mountain. My image was of a tunnel: I feel like I’m finding my way under a mountain, and am now stuck half-way through, where it’s cold, dark and lonely!


“A Tunnel To… ” by Mamophoto

What advice would supervisors give someone starting their 2nd year?

– Read in an organised way 1-2 articles per week

– Start writing as early as possible

– Be clear about defending each sentence in what you write – defensibility starts in the 2nd year

– Is lack of time the issues – or is it lack of motivation?

What advice would supervisors give someone starting their 2nd year?

– Don’t prevaricate – just do it!

– Keep perspective – don’t live to work, work to live

– Read continuously – maintain a current literature review

– Manage your supervisors

What is your research question and your hypothesis?

Quite a few of us struggled to succinctly verbally explain our research question and hypothesis. This was where submitting papers, and routinely explaining the nature of my research to outsiders has helped me.

What is a thesis?

We reviewed the four main thesis type and how our research could fit into one – or none of the them! – The final work should create “sympathy for the reader”: an examiner has 80,000 words to read, so we should make it easy for them to read.

Thesis Regulations

We discussed the importance of knowing your thesis regulations, including the marking structure. We were also reassured that the best research is rarely done in your PhD, and that the contribution to knowledge does not need to be dauntingly huge. Thesis Whisperer has a good post on being realistic about your contribution to new academic knowledge

Managing the Doctoral Process

  1. Is everything you are doing taking you towards the end of the project?
  2. Where is your plan?
  3. How does your supervisory balance look?
  4. When was the last time you wrote something?
  5. Who is in your support network?

Finally, we completed a project plan, to help us plan the remainder of the year. We left, feeling energised, uplifted and ready to climb the mountain…

Mount Everest Zig Ziglar

“Climbing a Mountain” by Zig Ziglar via

What are your reflections on Year 2? What advice would you give Year 2 PhD students?

Interviewing as a Martial Art

Pierre Bourdieu, the provocative, brilliant, exasperating French thinker, described sociology as a martial art:

I often say sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use it for unfair attacks. Pierre Bourdieu

Now in my second year of my PhD, I have completed and transcribed around 30 interviews, of both family firms and policy makers. These interviews have, at times felt, like defending the value of research. Particularly if the interviewees have not themselves attended university. They are keen to talk about their struggles and successes. They also want to know how my research will help other family firms. These are valid questions and ones that every business school academic should be able to answer: why is theoretical, conceptual work important in a business school? How do we help these many small businesses succeed, or make their exit less traumatic? I hope that, for a start, putting these businesses in touch with our students, researchers and other resources can help them grow. And that eventually, yes, my research will help explain why some family firms successfully innovate, why others do not, and what “familiness” even means in the context of business innovation.

But a martial art involves violence and we should not be afraid of passionately defending our right to understand the world in more depth and to explore areas that have not previously been studied. This is, partly, what universities are for.

Martial Arts by dunnodt

The family firms who have been willing to talk to me have been curious about the research, though I suspect that they are delighted someone takes an interest in their business, and wants to learn more about them. Bourdieu was passionate about the need for academics to take a stand, to be activists in the real world. As a business school researcher, taking a stand for me will involve teaching the “attack and defense” moves learned by family firms, to students, policy-makers and firm owners themselves. This will also be a way of honouring those who have given up their time to talk to me.

“La Sociologie est un sport de combat”

The Literature Review as Dinner Party

The best advice I had on starting my PhD was to write 3000 words each month, no matter what. After 9 months, my average is closer to 2000 words each month and my literature review, minus the conceptual framework, research questions and methodology, is only around 10,000 words. It hasn’t been easy. I chucked out around 5000 words after 4 months, having re-scoped my research and completely changed the research question. There are still areas in family business, innovation and internationalisation which I haven’t explored in sufficient depth yet. Though with new papers coming out all the time, perhaps I will always feel insufficiently knowledgeable. So what’s the answer? It’s too early to say. As my research question, sub-questions and objectives continue to get refined, and my philosophy, methodology and research design take shape, the literature review will continue to evolve. Sensible advice, as always, comes from Kamler and Thomson (2014) in their chapter on literature reviews; this is unforgettably titled: “Persuading an octopus into a glass”. I read their book early on in my studies. It made a profound impression. Thinking of the literature review as a dinner party, where, as the host, I am orchestrating different conversations, showing appreciation asking probing questions and firmly in charge of proceedings. By the end of the evening, I hope my guests will have been entertained and informed. If my literature review can illustrate the fields relevant to my research, whilst also outlining the nature of the debate, define terms and establish how gaps in the literature justifies my research questions…then I will be satisfied.

Image below “Family Meal” by PascalCampion

Taming your tiger

“Staying OK” (Harris A, Harris, T., 1985) is an early self-help book, using Transactional Analysis methods. early childhood experiences shape our lives: for the better or worse. I was struck by their description of how we can continue to fear a person, or situation, that no longer has the power to threaten us:

“It is as if [we] spend out lives locked in a cage with an enormous tiger…and all we know how to do is walk backwards. Anyone else can see the tiger is fifty years old, toothless and slowing down. Also, the lock on the cage is rusty. Escape is possible. We do not see what may be obvious to others because our seeing apparatus is not working for us.”

Whether it’s an ex-friend, an ex-boss, an ex-colleague, how many times have I failed to realise that my tiger is now toothless, and that I’m fighting an enemy who no longer has power over me. In the PhD jungle, toothless tigers are lying in wait. I fear the pile of unread books; sitting down to write, when writing is so hard; the journal reviewers who turned down my first draft….This is where the world of blogs, writing workshops and coffees with friends come in: talking about your fears with other people, makes them much less scary.

Let me know what toothless tigers you have successfully recognised as such, and escaped from…

“Lords of the Swamp” by Gabor Dvornik