A blog by Michele Jacobsen, Sonja Johnston, Alex Paquette and Tanille Shandro

During our weekly online research team meeting, the four of us sought a day and time to meet in-person. Far from being a simple task, the act of finding a time to meet in-person proved a challenge given the large number of conferences, various travel plans and schedules, and ongoing scholarly responsibilities we found ourselves navigating. While comparing our different conference plans, travel and schedules, we soon realized that our research team of four was packing in over two dozen online and in-person conferences in a six month timeframe! Clearly, attending conferences, either in person or online, was valuable to members of our research team if measured by our busy schedules and number of upcoming presentations. When we finally nailed down a date – several weeks in the future – that the four of us would be able to meet in person, our conversation turned to the value and cost of academic conferencing. We explored the pros and cons of online conferences – flexible and accessible from our usual workspaces, and compared these to benefits and drawbacks of in-person conferences – which generally involve extensive planning for national or international travel, accommodations and meals. In this blog, we combine our reflections, from both supervisor and doctoral candidate perspectives, with findings from our Graduate Student Experience Surveys (GSES) in 2022 and 2023 to explore and evaluate the value and cost of academic conferencing.

Graduate Student Survey

We selected two survey questions to frame our reflections and analysis. The first question focused on conversations with supervisors about attending and presenting at conferences, and the second on accessing available travel funds. Reviewing our 2022 & 2023 survey findings for two questions, we observed some persistent trends.

Over two years of the GSES, approximately three-quarters of the almost 1200 respondents agreed that their supervisor “communicates about conference opportunities” (2022) or “communicates about opportunities to attend and present at regional, national, or international conferences” (2023). We interpret this as a promising finding given the majority of graduate students agreed they are talking about conferencing with their supervisor. However, this finding also points to opportunities to expand student-supervisor conversations about conferencing. For example, in 2022, just over 1 in 10 graduate students disagreed that their supervisor talked to them about conference opportunities, which doubled to 1 in 5 graduate students in 2023. This trend is going in the wrong direction with the increase from 2022 to 2023 in proportion of students saying they are missing out on advice and direction from their supervisor on academic conferencing.

Our team believes that graduate students should be made aware of opportunities to engage in knowledge sharing and networking in their professions and research disciplines at regional, national and international conferences. However, we also realize that there are many costs to academic conferencing that must be considered. To address any gaps in communication, details about upcoming conferences should be shared broadly across programs so that all students have access to this information. There may be a number of reasons that some supervisors either hesitate or choose not to talk about conference opportunities with graduate students. For example, supervisors may be factoring in the cost to attend conferences in choosing whether or not to bring these opportunities to a graduate student’s attention, especially if travel funds are unavailable, which is where we turn to next.

Travel Funding and the Costs of Conferences

Over two years of our survey, more than half of respondents agreed that their supervisor “communicates about travel funds opportunities” (2022) or “communicates opportunities to access available travel funds” (2023). In 2022, the remaining two-fifths of graduate students either disagreed or were neutral or indicated that such communication was not applicable. In 2023, a larger proportion of students disagreed that conversations about access to available travel funds were happening with their supervisor.

Key factors to consider with regards to graduate students and engaging in academic conferencing are the costs, both in time and in funding. It may be unclear whether travel funds are available to graduate students, either at the program or institutional level. One challenge to consider is the timeline between a proposal, acceptance and access to funding. Graduate students often have to commit to attend months before they know whether travel funds will be available to support their attendance. Even when travel funds are promised, a graduate student may have a lengthy time gap between putting expenses on their credit card and getting reimbursed. For in-person conferences, and to a lesser extent with online conferences, a cost to be considered is time away from home, especially for graduate students who are parents and caregivers, or who may be missing paid work opportunities. Travel to an in-person conference may be well beyond the financial and time possibilities for graduate students, as well as the health and mobility status of graduate students, whereas online conferences may offer the access, flexibility and cost savings that make it possible to attend.

Reflecting on the Value and Costs of Academic Conferencing

From doctoral candidates’ perspectives on our team, the value of academic conferencing tends to be defined by goals, feedback, impact, and modality.

Graduate students should consider, What academic and career goals are served by this conference? Graduate students recognize the value of sharing their research within or beyond their discipline, and the opportunities to network with scholars and potential employers in the discipline, as two key values. It can be complicated to capture the return on investment (ROI) of time and resources to attend in-person conferences, and the payoff in knowledge engagement, networks and relationships. Factors that influence ROI can range from the type and value of connections one is able to make in planned and informal contexts, how many people attend and ask questions during sessions, whether big name scholars are in the program but do not end of travelling, and whether one has the time to attend social events, the funds to stay at the host hotel or to take part in costly excursions. Whether one’s supervisor attends or not can have an impact on networking and introductions. At the same time, being involved in a supervisor’s research can lead to more co-presentation opportunities at conferences.

Graduate students may want to reflect on, How much and what quality of feedback will be received on one’s research, and from who? A reflection on the relative benefits of conferences close to home versus those far away surface different types of engagement and value. Conferences at or close to home and those that require travel can offer similar types of engagement. No matter where one is presenting, it can be hard to anticipate whether other attendees will pick up on the ideas shared or not. At national or international conferences, one might bump into new people and get asked really good questions or get unexpected feedback on the research that prompts new ideas or directions in thinking, which is great for expanding one’s research. Conferences that are close to home are easy to access and may be great for connecting with familiar faculty and peers, however these sessions may not yield a high return in new feedback on the work one is doing. So, conferences close to home were perceived as potentially lower in value for the types of questions and feedback that might contribute to one’s ongoing development and growth as a researcher.

A key value associated with travelling to present at national or international conferences is the break from campus, the opportunity to get away from data collection or the lab, get away from home, and the fun associated with visiting new locations. To add to the complexity, conferences that require travel may be more nerve wracking because one does not know who will be there and how they will react to one’s research, while conferences closer to home may be more comfortable and feel less risky because one is surrounded by familiar people and predictable interactions.

Another aspect to consider is, What is the status of the conference and the anticipated impact of the presentation and any published conference proceedings? Our team reflected on the challenges of navigating the discipline-specific knowledge and diverse cultures with regards to each conference’s reputation, status and impact on one’s CV, along with any prestige associated with being accepted at major conferences that tend to have a high rejection rate. We discussed the value and impact of conferences with peer-reviewed proceedings and how such knowledge mobilization offers opportunities beyond the presentation to document accomplishments and academic contributions on the CV along with representing a commitment to ongoing professional learning.

As our team reflected on modality, and the relative merits of online and in-person conferences, we agreed that online conferences offer some real benefits and lower costs of not having to travel, so this type of academic conferencing is less expensive and thus a more accessible and flexible option for graduate students. Online conferences can increase opportunities for graduate students to engage in an international community of scholars; however, depending on how the online conference program and technological system is designed, there may be big benefits or high costs in the level and quality of engagement. Low engagement scenarios occur when the conference IT system is difficult to access or navigate, or when delegates turn cameras off, or when programmes do not schedule or support any informal or social occasions for initiating or continuing conversations. Even with scheduled online social events, there are not the same opportunities for serendipitous conversations and hallway connections at online versus in person conferences. Return on investment in online conferences can pay off with greater opportunities to engage with academic colleagues in a greater number and type of academic conferences, and also present variability in quality, type, and opportunity for engagement.

Travelling for in-person national and international conferences can offer value in being able to access diverse researchers and peers in one’s discipline as well as going beyond one’s research area, increases opportunities for new collaborations, opportunities to meet professors who impact one’s research and writing, and can influence choices about where to carry on one’s training in a PhD or postdoc, or even where to start one’s career. In-person conferences can make it easier to meet scholars in one’s discipline and to form new relationships versus emailing someone out of the blue. Balanced with the many benefits are the expenses, so a graduate student’s travel for in-person conferences often depends on their own and or their supervisor’s financial resources, or access to program and institutional funds, which can make it harder for graduate students to travel for in-person conferences away from home.

Supervisor Perspective

From a supervisor’s perspective, the value of academic conferencing for graduate students is also defined by goals, feedback, impact, and modality. However, there are several specific factors that a supervisor should consider when choosing to recommend that a graduate student either join as an author on a research team’s proposal or when encouraging them to take lead on a proposal from their thesis research for a conference. When graduate students are involved in Michele’s research projects, she invites them to be co-authors on conference proposals, presentations, and proceedings, and also provides financial support whenever possible from my research grants. She is up front about what the invitation to become involved entails, whether she can provide funding, and does not link authorship with a requirement to attend and pay out of their own pocket. Other factors to consider include the type and quality of conference, the costs involved, and the modality of a conference, along with factors such as a student’s timeline, goals and progress in the program, and access to available funding, either through the supervisor’s grants and resources, or through travel grants for which the student is eligible. Local and online academic conferences that are low or no cost are a top priority for every graduate student, and such disciplinary gatherings offer a way to be mindful of equity and privilege. Local and online academic conferences that are accessible to every graduate student are worth the investment of time and talent in proposing a topic, preparing for the session, and presenting one’s thesis research, for all of the values and reasons that were mentioned earlier. It is important for supervisors to be aware that student’s access to time and resources for academic conferencing will vary and to offer accessible options for every graduate student.

As part of academic conferencing, our team recommends that students become involved as reviewers on proposals, for the learning opportunity, the contribution to service, and value in connecting to researchers and peers in conference communities. Our team recommends that graduate students serve as conference volunteers as this can yield big value in academic experience, networking, and can sometimes offset registration costs.

To conclude, the Graduate Student Experience Survey findings point in a positive direction, in that the majority of graduate student respondents agree they have opportunities to talk about conferencing opportunities with their supervisor, and more than half agreed they talked about available travel funding with their supervisor. There is value and cost in academic conferencing, and supervisors need to reflect on their own privilege and perspectives as salaried post-secondary educators and their awareness of available travel funds, in the mentoring and support provided to graduate students. Finding the right balance between value and costs for academic conferences makes it vital that research, planning and care is invested in identifying and selecting the academic conferences that matter the most to one’s goals and desire for impact, engagement and modality.

(CFREB approved research, Jacobsen, Shandro & Paquette: REB 22-0374-MOD1, GRA Sonja Johnston),

This Supervision Blog is part of the Quality Graduate Supervision project website.