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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

My first conference: View from a PhD student

Kim Smith, PhD Researcher at City University of London

Trying to secure funding for a PhD analysing primary school food education policy in England, I stumbled upon the BERA PhD fund and made it to the final three candidates. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the application process not only provided me with valuable experience about academic funding applications and interview skills but also access to my first ever academic research conference. Research has demonstrated how conferences can be effective in promoting academic impact (de Leon & McQuillin, 2020), so I needed to understand this new realm, which could impact this new academic life.

As a PhD student with more than 20 years in the commercial food industry, I was no newcomer to conferences, having presented, organised and attended many in that time. Returning from BERA’s 2023 annual event, however, I was astonished to have encountered an entirely new and refreshing experience of industry colleagues coming together.

I found fellow delegates to be open, welcoming and friendly. Chats on the stairs, helping each other find venues, passionate discussions after presentations, all contributed to making me, as a novice researcher, feel less alien to the education sector. This counters some findings from interviews with early career academics (ECAs) who reported feeling terrified and excluded at conferences (Oliver & Morris, 2022, p. 617). But of course, my naivety of the existing academic hierarchies may have impacted my personal experience.

Being a student at the Centre for Food Policy, not an education institution, made me hesitant as to how much I would gain from the conference, despite my work being located in the primary education phase. But with so much interdisciplinary work spanning policy, professional development and sustainability across all levels of education, it provided extensive opportunities to reflect on how to draw education research into my PhD. Learning about Scottish curriculum policy, comparative case study methodologies, climate change education policy opportunities and how policymakers use evidence, got me scribbling notes for papers to find, methods to study and theories and lenses to apply on my own work. Everything I learned during the two days helped me apply new thinking to my work, and further refine my research questions, something health conference delegates also found (Milko et al., 2015).

‘With so much interdisciplinary work spanning policy, professional development and sustainability across all levels of education, the BERA conferences provided extensive opportunities to reflect on how to draw education research into my PhD.’

None of this was anticipated. I came along simply to discover this new experience and see what might be expected of me further along my PhD journey. But I came away with many new connections, a longer reading list, and touched by the generosity of scholars in sharing their work and thinking. This reflects motivations and outcomes from conference delegates who seek intellectual and career development, professional activities such as meeting colleagues face to face, and non-professional ones like the joy of discovering a city through its local cafés (Etzion et al., 2022; Milko et al., 2015).

I left Birmingham considering future conference opportunities and how best to present my own work post PhD, especially as research shows ‘gains are most noticeable for authors who are not in the very top institutions and academics (generally early in their career) who do not have previous papers that are cited or published in top journals’ (de Leon & McQuillin, 2020). I am very grateful for the experience of my first academic research conference, thanks to BERA’s generosity, and I look forward to attending next year to continue my learning journey.


de Leon, F. L. L., & McQuillin, B. (2020). The role of conferences on the pathway to academic impact: Evidence from a natural experiment. Journal of Human Resources, 55(1), 164–193. 

Etzion, D., Gehman, J., & Davis, G. F. (2022). Reimagining academic conferences: Toward a federated model of conferencing. Management Learning, 53(2), 350–362.

Milko, E., Wu, D., Neves, J., Neubecker, A. W., Lavis, J., & Ranson, M. K. (2015). Second global Symposium on health systems research: A conference impact evaluation. Health Policy and Planning, 30(5), 612–623.

Oliver, C., & Morris, A. (2022). Resisting the ‘academic circle jerk’: Precarity and friendship at academic conferences in UK higher education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 43(4), 603–622.