A PhD Student's Reflection on Conferencing: The Story of CIES 2019

Academic conferences aren’t always memorable experiences… but sometimes they hit the mark.

For me, academic conferences are often like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet. You enter filled with awe and excited as you browse the vast number of things to consume, but pretty soon you’re full, tired, and just want to go home and lay on the couch. But at this year’s annual Comparative International Education Society (CIES) conference, held from April 14-18 in San Francisco, I had a markedly different experience. Perhaps I am just getting better at “conferencing," but undoubtably this year’s conference provided a well-rounded balance of learning, socializing, and exploring (thank you, San Francisco!).

As the conference for scholars and students of global/international education, CIES is always a large gathering full of prominent and promising individuals in the field. This year proved no different as attendees were treated to a week of insightful presentations, engaging roundtables, and inspiring presentations. For me, a PhD student in the midst of dissertating, and in search for any type of inspiration to keep pushing forward, this year marked the first time I would present research from my own baby (i.e. my dissertation). So, as you can imagine, my main hope for the conference was pretty simple: to not have 4 years of work torn to shreds (aim high, right?).

Learning from past mistakes, I spent the first two days of the conference selectively attending sessions that looked particularly interesting and relevant to my own work. With a little luck (and some exhaustive internet research beforehand), I ended up attending several engaging sessions that provided a feeling of excitement that PhD students get whenever we find someone whose work, in any way, resembles or supports our own (the internal dialogue is typically something like: “yay, I must not be totally off base!”).

Outside of the sessions, I spent my lunches and dinners both catching up with colleagues and exploring the City. For lunch each day, I walked with colleagues around the Wharf, Financial District, and Embarcadero, exploring several of the fantastic restaurants San Francisco has to offer. For dinner, I ventured a little further from the conference venue to meet up with some old friends who I’d worked with overseas many years ago. We ate, drank, and laughed till late in the evening – a welcomed interlude from the day’s academic rigor. Each night I wondered back to my little, funky hostel room (which was $150/night – thank you, again, San Francisco), and crawled into bed feeling both exhausted and fulfilled (the electronic music coming from the lobby not even bothering me in the slightest).

Then came my third and final day of conferencing, that all important day: presentation day. Every PhD student knows this day by the feeling you wake up with in the morning – a cocktail of emotions that ultimately fall somewhere between excitement (“let’s do this!”) and anxiety (“I need an Ambian!”). Needless to say, I opted for decaf coffee that morning and spent most of the day preparing and finalizing my presentation. At approximately 1:45pm I took the stage (i.e. I stood next to a projector at the front of a small room), and eloquently delivered a captivating summary of my innovative research. Or at least that is how it went in my mind – in reality, I pretty much blacked out throughout the whole thing, but luckily came to just in time to say “thank you” and take my seat. A few rounds of Q&A later, and after exchanging cards with some really wonderful people, the session was over and the rush of being “done!” swept over me like cool fog over the San Francisco Bay.  

Later that day, the time had finally come for me to begin the journey back to Los Angeles… back to reality. But as I walked towards the BART station that afternoon, still dressed in my best suit, I stopped and looked back at the Hyatt Hotel, majestic with the sun shining off its 42 floors, and with a small grin, I whispered to myself, “not bad, CIES, not bad.”