How do distance doctoral students learn about and access conferences? (James Burford)

In this post, Conference Inference Co-Editor James Burford considers the experiences of distance doctoral students in accessing conference opportunities and introduces a new survey he and colleagues have launched on distance doctoral education.

Photo by Mikey Harris on Unsplash

We know from existing research and from previous posts on our blog, that accessing conferences can be hugely important for doctoral students, both in terms of their identity transformations and in terms of the development of doctoral knowledge itself. In a previous Conference Inference blog post titled Conferences as transformative moments in a doctoral life, I reflected on the pivotal role that conferences played in my own becoming as a doctoral student. I noted that conferences gave me a sense of a community I felt I belonged to and a sense of who the audience for my doctoral research might actually be.

This reflection has been echoed by other Conference Inference contributors over the years such as Caroline Agboola, Helen Linonge-Fontebo and Sahmicit Kumswa in their post Benefits and challenges of attending academic conferences for doctoral students in Global South contexts. Agboola and colleagues identified that conferences were key spaces to receive feedback on doctoral thinking, as well as important zones to expand academic networks and initiate potential collaborations. In addition to networking and feedback, in her post Why do doctoral students attend conferences? Omolabake Fakunle adds that doctoral students may be searching for ideas for new research and also seeking to develop communication skills (e.g. presenting, developing a poster) in attending conferences. And in an interview with Britt Amell during the covid-19 pandemic, we explored why doctoral students might be missing conferences, and what might be missing in their doctoral development when conferences (or access to them) disappears.

We already know that access to conferences, and to research culture more generally, really matters for doctoral development. This year the #DistanceDoctorates research team that I am a part of (alongside the wonderful Tseen Khoo, Katrina McChesney and Liezel Frick) have launched a survey in order to better understand the experiences of doctoral students who work away from campus (for more on our project see here). In our project we have taken a deliberately broad definition of ‘distance’ – encompassing those who work from home, study online or away from campus, engage in a blend of on- and off-campus study, and those who may travel away from their institutions as a part of their research work. Some questions have been included in the survey that will help us to better understand the experiences of distance doctoral students in accessing conference opportunities.

In this post, I lay out some initial thoughts on distance doctoral students’ access to conference opportunities. It will be interesting to see whether the survey results confirm, disprove, or otherwise disrupt any of my initial hunches here, and I plan to report back on this in a follow-up post.

Firstly, I wonder if doctoral students working at a distance have the same kind of orientation as their on-campus colleagues to what conferences are, and why participating in them might be valuable. We know that for many students, conferences can be part of a hidden landscape of academia. For on-campus students, there is a fair chance that a student might be invited to volunteer or get paid work at a conference held on campus, or that they might stumble across one taking place, or be around other students who are going off to attend a conference or event. This kind of ambient contact with conferences may be less likely to happen for those studying off-campus. It might mean that supervisors need to take a more active role in introducing the purpose of such events to their students who have less contact with such events by virtue of their absence from the campus environment. 

Secondly, I wonder how distance doctoral students who are studying off campus learn about conferences in their fields, and how they select which conferences they wish to attend. Supervisors and mentors (e.g. senior postdocs) are often key sources of information in this regard. But students also learn about possible venues to share their work from their peers or from others in their department. Again, this kind of information is often traded over the photocopier, in the tearoom on campus,  or walking back to an office after attending a class or workshop.  I will be interested to see in the survey if distance doctoral students have developed other strategies for gaining access to this information, such as participating in online communities (e.g. on Twitter or in Facebook groups), where they might ‘bump into’ different conference opportunities. 

Thirdly, I wonder how learning about conference funding opportunities happens for distance doctoral students. For many off-campus doctoral students, it can be difficult to learn to ‘read’ a higher education institution from a distance. For example, while an institution might be divided up between central units and other administrative units (e.g., a faculty, schools, departments/research centres), for a distance student these can simply look like different links on a website rather than something grounded in bricks and mortar. However, each of these different parts of the institution might have its own pots of funding available to assist doctoral students to attend conferences. I’ll be curious to learn if distance students have developed strategies for seeking and sharing such information in their departments (e.g. groups on Facebook or WhatsApp etc), which might help to ameliorate some of the challenges of limited face-to-face conviviality at the local level. 

Finally, I suspect that the Covid-19 pandemic may have opened up significant opportunities for distance doctoral students to participate in conferences. While the restrictions on movement associated with the pandemic may have been novel for some researchers, this has been a normal state of affairs for other students who were always-already restricted in terms of their capacity to attend conferences in person. The widespread availability of online conference options may have been experienced by many distance students, including disabled scholars, as a significant leap forward in terms of accessibility (for more on disabled students’ experiences in this regard see the Going Back is Not a Choice report). However, I think this is a complex space because access to the conference is only one consideration here. There may also be concerns about the quality and utility of online conferences, especially in terms of their network-building function. There are also remaining access within concerns, for example around the reproduction of academic hierarchies in online events (see Bing Lu’s post on this here) and uneven access for doctoral students who also manage caregiving responsibilities. Some of these access within concerns may not have been fully resolved by taking conferences online.

If you are currently a doctoral student who has had an experience of studying off campus (chosen or otherwise) or you were a distance student (having graduated no earlier than 2015) we would warmly invite you to fill in the survey for our project see here and share your views and experiences.

James Burford works in the Department of Education Studies at Warwick University. Alongside the work he is doing on the #DistanceDoctorates project, Jamie is also working on a project entitled Opening up the Black Box of Pre-application Doctoral Communications which investigates how supervisors and departments make judgements about the pre-application communications they recieve from potential applicants. Jamie tweets at @jiaburford

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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