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A first-timer's review of BERA 2019

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

As an Early Career Researcher (ECR) here are some tips for newbies and thoughts on my first experience of British Educational Research Association (BERA) Conference 2019. The choice of location at the University of Manchester was ideally selected for the three-day event. The 'drum' shaped venue buzzed with chatter up and down lifts, yet somehow facilitated comfortably accessible multimedia spaces on each floor for parallel events.

Like any international conference BERA was bursting at the seams with people from all over the world, so coping with the large crowds and busy platforms could be quite a challenge if you were under-prepared.

To my surprise there were so many people, at difference stages of their career, who were attending for the first time (though only some of us received tags identifying us as such). The registration process was quick and efficient, and it was refreshing to see recyclable cardboard conference packs being distributed, instead of the typical synthetic cloth bag.


Planning with the App

If you will be attending in the future it is advisable that you plan ahead your schedule for the full three days before showing up at the conference. Otherwise, you might feel quite overwhelmed on the day as the fast pace of the sessions makes it difficult to improvise a strategy for navigating them. My own strategy was to attend all the sessions that were peripheral to my extant area of expertise. This led me to cutting edge research talks which stylised interdisciplinary applications of new methodologies, policy drives and the momentum of big data.

Unfortunately, the conference app was not dependable. I attempted to add my schedule for all the days but the information was overwritten after each day's selection, rendering the app program as cumbersome to personalise. As well, the special interest groups (SIG) were not well advertised and there was limited information, as a first-timer, about joining a specific SIG.


Keynotes and social media

Though BERA does not promote a specific conference theme common issues were featured in the keynotes by, Pat Thomson, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Dominic Wyse (BERA President), Mary James and Andrew Pollard (from right to left below). Their messages generically spoke to an audience of researchers and practitioners but culminated on the passing of the beacon of education to the next generation, who might embrace familiar challenges in newer strides.

Attendees were largely encouraged to use social media to tweet and tag our experience but this was not well reciprocated by BERA's social media management. Some @BERANews messages were retweeted while others were not. With this in mind perhaps #BERA2019 needs to reconsider its 'live' policy for conferencing and purposefully make its social media presence play a larger role for engaging those academics who are in a common space but may not be aware of their shared interests.

From my experience, platforms like Twitter can be put to much better use in sustaining academic connections if they are purposefully facilitated, rather than serving as a form of tagline expression.


Publishers & poster presentations

It was a most exciting and rare opportunity to meet book publishers and journal editors. Speaking to these gatekeepers of the research domain is always profitable for career progression, as they can offer insider views on the expectations of the journal/book, their internal processing times, review turnover and recommendations on how to become more involved in the publishing industry.

Some publishers ought to be specially commended because they made extra efforts to be entertaining. For example, Wiley Publishers brought a selfie camera device and polaroid printer for attendees to take photos and enter a prize-giving competition, which was quite a bit of fun!

Regrettably, the other main interactive figureheads of the conference, the poster presentations, were not well displayed and seemed relegated to public open spaces like the canteen/eating and communal areas. This may have been due to a restriction of architecture and foot traffic, but it seemed to alienate the posters from the other presentations. One idea for future BERA conferences might be to set up a tablet or provide a dedicated digital activity for attendees to leave comments for poster presentations. This would allow such submission formats to be more interactive and engaging so that their presenters are not dependent on spatial designs to provide a wholesome contribution.


The Gala dinner

This year the Gala (formal conference dinner) was at the Science and Industry Museum, which is a tourist treasure for Manchester, housing precious industrial artifacts and annals of the city's development. From the ground floor the museum exhibits seemed quite alluring, though we were not invited to enter the upper levels to view the displays.

The Gala dinner (valued £50) covered the cost for an appetizing meal and tabled wines, in a formal setting, but the ambiance was quite relaxed. There was not much information beforehand on the dress code for the event, but guests turned up in a range of smart-casual to formal evening gowns. Surprisingly there was not a welcome address or chaired feature at the dinner. This was a bit disappointing as I thought the BERA Awards could have been celebrated and showcased here. On the third day of the conference, I briefly noticed on Twitter that these awards were distributed in the communal area and not specially highlighted. Perhaps next year the gala might be a more suitable occasion to celebrate these achievements with more pomp and reverence.


BERA 2020, Liverpool - will you be there?

While BERA 2019 was quite a rewarding experience, conferences can be rather exhausting and large ones are particularly taxing being packed to capacity with sessions. Many ECRs (between 1 to 5 years post-PhD) are often quite overwhelmed by the whole ordeal usually because such large events rarely cater to the developmental needs of researchers at this stage of their careers. It is a tricky stage stepping out of the shadow of a PhD while also trying to project down the pathway of becoming an established scholar.

Perhaps the best strategy is for ECRs is to approach conferencing as a momentary experience and suspend the reality of where they are currently in their career. Embracing this process can lead to discovering the unspoken benefits of the conference experience. To my fellow ECR scholar, it is important to get your work out there and gain some feedback on promoting your research, but keep in mind conferences are also about exercising peer review, gaining an appreciation of new scholarship, meeting some seasoned mentors and seeking out guidance on your next area of academic growth. That being said, perhaps I will see you in Liverpool at BERA2020, submission of abstract proposals are due on January 31st 2020.

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