A peer into the academic conference

I attended and presented at my first academic conference last week – The British Academy of Management annual conference {BAM2023}. This blog offers you a comparison between the “professional” conference and the “academic” conference format.

This blog will highlight the importance of peers as exemplified by the peer role in academic conference. To peer in: “to glance, look, or stare in (to something), especially in an intent, inquisitive, or searching manner”. To be a peer: “a person who is equal to another in abilities, qualifications, age, background, and social status”. Peer is meant here in that second definition, but both notions apply.

I have attended many conferences in a professional (i.e., business) capacity over 25 years. That has involved me presenting to rooms full of people; I have been interviewed as panel guest, and played host. The professional conference can be a place to prioritise many things: aimed at selling; a networking focal point; places of debate, political persuasion, or commercial positioning; or a glorified meeting place where familiar people meet to chat in some far from home bar. On company time and expense, I have accumulated a toolbox of skills for all those formats…

a group of friends drinking beer
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com
people on a video call
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

My first academic conference was unlike anything I had attended before. Firstly, it was all online (at least for me). More fundamentally however, an academic conference is a place where new ideas are presented and given critical scrutiny. It is expected that presenters will face challenging questions aimed at the validity and significance of their work. Questions like “So what? Why is that interesting?” are common. Participants engage in critical discussions about methodology, the strength of findings, and the understanding of theories being compared.

Three distinctions – preparation, participation, and expertise in the audience – are now expanded upon to offer some insight into what academic conferences do differently. Firstly, the preparations are different because to be academically interesting, requires something to be new. Unlike other conferences where sometimes the speakers have nothing new to say – and may have paid sponsorship fees to say it (again!) – academics come prepared and ready to share their latest research. Preparation will have begun well before the conference. For example, the BAM2023 call for papers was made in the Autumn of 2022 to be submitted in early spring 2023.

Secondly, academic conferences are different from professional conferences because participation is a two-fold process with all authors of papers additionally acting as reviewers. Participants have the opportunity (and the obligation) to review other submitted papers and provide feedback. The selection of papers for the conference is influenced by these reviews. This is the peer-to-peer process in action. At BAM, the membership is roughly one third PhD students, so both paper development and the review of papers are perpetually a mix of experience and new researchers learning the peer-to-peer craft. The process is anonymous (double-blind of both author and reviewer). Not all submissions are accepted. However, that review process is also observed to ensure quality. The goal of this process is to improve each paper based on feedback from peers.

Thirdly, when presenting at academic conferences, you are sharing your research with other experts in your field. This includes PhD students, but also accomplished and established researchers, professors, and journal editors, who will all ask questions and engage in discussions to better understand your work. This can help improve the quality and impact of your research. It is also quite possible that in citing someone’s scholarship in support of your argument, that same someone is listening in the audience to fire comment back at you. Ultimately, this process aids in enhancing the quality and impact of the research being conducted. The collective advancement of knowledge is dependent on that community of peers all playing their part.

Those are three aspects of the academic conference that can be intimidating, even for experienced speakers like myself. In an academic domain where the audience is so well informed, and your work so fully exposed, that self-doubt is potentially magnified. However, it is ultimately a great opportunity to improve your research and get valuable feedback from the audience. Academic conferences are especially helpful because of that audience expertise. You can engage with peers who are likely to be your target readership. The discussions, different perspectives, and feedback you receive can really enhance your work. The key message of this blog, and this comparison, is that unlike other types of conferences, the relationship between presenters and the audience in academic conferences is special. It is a close and symbiotic connection, with both sides aiming to enhance and share their ongoing research. It is right to be a little daunted, but take a moment to revel in that peer privilege as well.

Postscript: The icing on the cake for my first conference was later being told I had won an award – “best reviewer” in the project expertise conference track. My university have told that story, and I will just leave that link {here}. Given all I have observed above, being acknowledge as a good peer by my peers is the highlight of my first year.

Next blog: My end of year viva voce examination is almost upon me. Preparing for that transfer exam is a time of stress and unease. As such it reveals what is most significant from that first year – i.e., retrospectively as factors being examined upon. The next blog will summarise what research has been for me, looking backwards over this first year.

To be continued…

About Me

“PhD and me” is a blog-series about my later life move in academic research. One mask, among many.

Find my professional mask here: