Danielle Butler is coming to the end of a PhD in Social Policy at the University of Salford. Her research focuses on energy advice in the context of fuel poverty. She is an Associate Member of the Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit, a founding member and Trustee of the Fuel Poverty Research Network, and UK Advisor to an International Energy Agency’s Task looking at Hard to Reach Energy Users.

My first experience of academic research back in 2013 was, rather unintentionally, in housing. I investigated the phenomenon of long-term empty homes – specifically exploring the drivers and barriers as to why properties sat vacant for months, even years in many cases. As a Psychology undergraduate, this choice of final year research project was often met with confusion as peers asked “but what’s that got to do with Psychology?” Not really sure what I wanted to do, the decision to study this topic came about from the quickest of corridor conversations with my dissertation supervisor where I decided I fancied doing anything but a ‘normal’ Psychology project (in other words, a topic I felt had been done to death in the syllabus). And, if I could get to work off campus, maybe with non-academics, that would be an added bonus.

What followed was the opportunity to work closely with a local authority’s housing team, as well as the researchers in the Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) (still my research ‘home’ some six years later). The finished dissertation landed me my highest grade, was later written up for publication in an international collection, led to presentations at a number of academic and non-academic events, and allowed me to travel to some incredible places and meet outstanding professionals in housing and beyond. The cherry on the weird housing-Psychology-dissertation-project cake for me was being chosen as the 2014 winner of the Jonathon Sime Award.

The point I want to make is how much came of that simple, quick, relaxed, unplanned chat back in 2013; no more than five minutes long, it led to a fixed eye on a career in housing and research. I can think of many other times and places since where seemingly serendipitous housing-related chats have led to exciting experiences and opportunities. Among this, one place stands out: the Housing Studies Association (HSA) annual conference.

I’ve been to the HSA conference twice, in 2018 and 2019, both times as an Early Career Researcher (ECR), last year as a recipient of one of the ECR bursaries, and presented on different parts of my PhD research. It’s a fantastic space to feel supported, share ideas, and connect with others in the field, at similar early stages and beyond. I can really relate to the positive experiences shared by other ECRs, like Jenny and Christian, who’ve also attended. Sticking with the theme of opportune chats in corridors, typically over cake and coffee – all the conference ‘in between’ – I wanted to use this post to share some examples where the often nerve-wracking academic small talk has led to other interesting pockets of research-related experience.

The first came out of the ECR workshop in 2018. It was the first session on the agenda and my welcome to the HSA and its conference. A packed room heard from various speakers sharing their own journeys and tips for employability in housing, not just as academics. After speaking in the session, and one-to-one afterwards, Dr Gareth Young, Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fellow for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), talked about CaCHE’s commitment to supporting early career activity and involvement, mentioning an upcoming PhD summer school. I applied and was offered a spot for the two-day event, and gained so much from it, reflecting on this in a blog for CaCHE’s website. As the ECR lead for the Fuel Poverty Research Network, the content and structure of events and workshops targeted at those early on in their research career are especially beneficial from the point of view as an event attendee and organiser.

The second example actually came about via Twitter (another great place to stay up-to-date and connect with all things HSA). After submitting an abstract for the 2019 conference, and tweeting about it, Emma Lindley from Ashfield District Council, and HSA Committee Member, got in touch to say she was working with a researcher on something similar. We exchanged emails and calls to talk about research plans and methods, sharing ideas and relevant literature. We then ended up in the same workshop at the conference later in the year and, as well as meeting Emma properly, it was brilliant to hear about the early findings, reflections and impact from this piece of work. Getting to learn about and see the research process, and the people behind it, instead of just reading endless papers and final reports, is so refreshing and motivating. 

Thirdly, was a conversation with Barry Malki, then Head of Communities for the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (HACT). Again, we were in the same workshop stream at the 2019 conference and afterwards discussed our areas of work, key links and potential opportunities. What followed, in July 2019, was a SHUSU sponsored (alongside Catalyst Housing Association) research symposium as part of the new Centre for Excellence in Community Investment. Held at the University of Salford, the event was well-attended, bringing together researchers and practitioners, including many HSA members, to explore how best to increase the evidence base, and its impact, in community investment. Although playing only a small part in the early stages, understanding the organisation behind such events was an incredibly valuable experience, and one often overlooked in academic ‘training’.

So, you never know where the conversations in-between all the events on the agenda will lead. For me, I met new people, discovered relevant research networks, attended events, learnt about and shared research plans and ideas, got involved in setting up events and workshops, and yes, all of this boosted my confidence. From talking to other HSA members and conference attendees, I know that others, too, have gone on to work on collaborative projects across disciplines and institutions, co-author publications, access funding to host various events, as well as finding employment, mentors, and friends. Perhaps the most important thing here is that my experience is nothing out of the ordinary – and that speaks volumes about the benefits of being involved with the HSA, especially as an ECR.

Follow Danielle on Twitter: @delisabethb

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