Benefits and challenges of attending academic conferences for doctoral students in Global South contexts (Caroline Agboola, Helen Linonge-Fontebo, Sahmicit Kumswa)

This post includes commentary on the benefits and the exclusionary challenges of attending conferences – as well as the vital importance of funding bursaries.

OR Tambo Airport, Johannesburg Departures (by Emily Henderson)

In our recent paper in the journal Teaching in Higher Education, Like a bridge over troubled landscapes: African pathways to doctorateness (along with Marlize Rabe and Lipalese Mathe), we discussed some of the roles that academic conferences and bursaries played in our respective doctoral journeys. By adopting an autoethnographic perspective, we sought to capture the reflections of four doctoral students and our supervisor on the academic pathways to obtaining doctorates. We, the three authors of this blog post, completed our doctorates in the same African Open Distance Learning University between 2013 and 2019. Some of our experiences as doctoral students with regards to conference attendance were chronicled in our TiHE paper. This blog post dwells on some of our conference attendance experiences, such as our places of conference attendance, conferences as opportunities which aided our achievement of doctoral degrees, conferences as opportunities which helped to build and extend our academic networks, and the impact of bursaries on our journeys as doctorate students.

The importance of conferences in the doctoral trajectory…

Attending conferences is an integral part of the educational training that universities provide for PhD students so as to enable them to develop their doctoral research and become part of a professional network of other researchers. Consequently, we attended academic conferences within and outside the country where we were doctoral students, South Africa. Some of the places where we attended conferences include: Pretoria, South Africa; Yokohama, Japan; New Orleans, United States of America; Boston, USA; Cape Town, South Africa; Vienna, Austria; Lisbon, Portugal and Dakar, Senegal. The academic conferences that we participated in as doctoral students enabled us to present some chapters of our doctoral theses and receive feedback from conference participants, which positively impacted the quality of our theses and the academic papers that we subsequently published (see also Fakunle’s post on this).

Also, the academic conferences that we attended not only served as avenues for sharing our doctoral theses and their findings but they also helped us to initiate academic collaborations, and expand our academic networks. Attending conferences served as a forum for us to exchange ideas with colleagues in our respective disciplines, as well as meet other researchers with whom we shared similar research interests. Some of the academic connections that we made at the academic conferences that we attended as doctoral candidates are still in place today, and some have evolved beyond academic boundaries to close friendships. Furthermore, a conference that one of us attended enabled her to visit one of the biggest women’s prisons in the USA – the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Boston. This experience enabled her to conduct a comparison between prisons in the Global South and those in the Global North.

Challenges of doctoral students (from the Global South) attending conferences…

The largely positive impact that we experienced as doctoral students in attending academic conferences notwithstanding, at other times, we encountered challenges. We identify four main challenges, namely:

1. Abstract rejection by some conferences: This made it impossible to attend such conferences or present papers there. However, we note that such rejections of abstracts are a part of academic life!

2. The curtailment of opportunities to attend international conferences due to visa denials by the Global North: Even though funding to attend a conference was generated, and money was expended on visa application fee, a return flight ticket, conference registration fee and hotel accommodation in the country where the conference was to take place, one of us could not attend a conference in the Global North because she was denied a visa due to her nationality. After the visa denial, most of these expenses could not be recouped. Hence, the unpleasant experience dashed her hopes of attending the conference, and it was a very expensive financial loss, particularly for a doctoral student. 

3. Difficulty in visa applications: The process of applying for visas, and putting together the documents that are required to cross international borders, which often includes shuttling between our towns and cities of residence and those in which the embassies are located, is expensive for doctoral students, as well as daunting. In addition, overcoming these challenges and the successful submission of visa applications does not guarantee that visas to attend the conferences will be granted.

4. Lack of funding to attend conferences: The abstract of one of us was accepted for a conference, and she sent her full conference paper to the conference organisers but she could not attend the conference because there was no Portuguese embassy in her country of residence – Cameroon. The nearest embassy to the country in which she resided was located in Nigeria. The financial implications of traveling to Nigeria for a visa application and the uncertainty of whether she would be granted the visa or not stopped her from embarking on the cross-border journey to apply for a visa. Even though she obtained partial financial support from the conference organisers, her conference attendance was largely self-funded. Hence, as a doctoral student, she did not have enough funds to make the international travel that was required for her visa application. Ultimately, she could not attend the conference. However, in her case, the conference organisers presented her paper in absentia, and sent her soft copies of other papers that were presented during the conference.

Finally…the importance of bursaries

In addition to the enriching experiences that were obtained from successful conference attendance, bursaries form another important element in our journeys as doctorate students. Whilst undergoing our doctoral studies, the three of us received bursaries from our Alma mater, the University of South Africa (Unisa). These bursaries were awarded to us between the first and second year of our doctoral studies. Also, one of us received a Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund Scholarship Grant. The bursaries and grant helped us to cover some of our most pressing needs as doctoral students. These needs included our tuition fees, some transportation costs, fieldwork, photocopies, purchase of laptops, partial conference attendance costs (such as, visa application fees, conference registration fees, transportation and hotel accommodation costs). However, none of us received these benefits for all the conferences that we attended as doctoral students – we did have to self-fund. Overall, the bursary from Unisa had a positive impact on us as doctoral students, and it helped us to concentrate on and finish our studies in a timely manner.

Although our journeys to obtaining doctorates were fraught with challenges, particularly given the peculiar challenges that we experienced as doctoral students of an Open and Distance Learning university, academic conference attendance (notwithstanding some of its unpleasant aspects) and the bursaries that we received from our university cushioned the effect of the challenges and enabled us to finish our doctorates strong.

About the authors

Caroline Agboola is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of South Africa. Her research interests focus on Open Distance Learning, Sociology of Crime and Sociology of Education. She has published several academic articles. She can be contacted via

Helen Linonge-Fontebo is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Women and Gender Studies and Secretary General in the Faculty of Social and Management Sciences, University of Buea, Cameroon. Also, she is a part time Lecturer in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, the Pan African University and the National School of Penitentiary Administration (ENAP), Buea, Cameroon. Her major research interests include the following: Feminist criminology, theorizing and Prison studies, human rights, sexuality, gender and climate change. She has published a book, several articles and book chapters both in national and international academic journals. She can be contacted via 

Sahmicit Kumswa obtained her PhD at the University of South Africa, and is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Jos, Nigeria.  Her research interests are in the area of Demography and Family Sociology. She has been involved in several livelihood research projects across Nigeria. She can be contacted by email at, and on twitter @Skumswa.

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