Visiting conferences abroad: cherries on top of an academic cake or an absolute necessity?

Yazililtasby Demet Yazilitas / Reading Time: 8 minutes


Early June 2014 I attended the International Science and Mathematics Education Congress organized by the Educational Research and Publications Associations (ERPA) in Istanbul, Turkey. The visit was partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) to which I am very grateful. Though the main purpose of my visit was to present my own work and to meet and learn from other researchers working in similar fields, the visit turned out to be much more than that. During my visit I got acquainted with the city of Istanbul, also known as the City of Cities by Turks, in ways I did not before. This blog is essentially about the extras of doing a PhD –of which going abroad to attend conferences is an important one – and the additional learning experiences that come with those extra’s.

City of intersections – Istanbul

The last visit I made to Istanbul was 9 years ago and I was surprised to find the city even more magnificent and energetic than during my last visit. To some extent this probably relates to the combination of splendid summer weather and the neighbourhood in which the congress took place, namely Beyazit Square in the district of Fatih on the European part of Istanbul. Besides being close to the city’s main tourist attractions, the square is also adjacent to Istanbul University’s main campus where the congress took place. Established in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II – immediately after Mehmet’s conquest of Constantinople – it’s Turkey’s oldest university.

Main entrance of Istanbul University

The history and grandeur of Beyazit Square was one of many marvels the city had to offer after my arrival. The district of Fatih is generally considered to be the heart of Old Istanbul. Some of Istanbul’s most important architectural buildings are situated here, including Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) and Basilica Cistern. Although I had visited this particular neighbourhood before, it had changed in many important ways, of which the introduction of Marmaray was only one. In 2013, Marmaray was opened for public after years of delay. It is best described as a high-speed metro-line that partially runs under the Sea of Marmara that connects Europe to Asia in only a few minutes.

An impression of Marmaray – connecting two continents

On the day of my arrival I called an old friend who lives in Istanbul to meet up and have a coffee. He had migrated 8 years ago from Paris to Istanbul for work and I was eager to hear his stories about life in Turkey, and Istanbul in particular. He told me to take the Marmaray and get off at the last stop at the Asian side after which he would pick me up in order for me to meet his wife and have dinner at his home. I did as he said, thinking that he probably lived near this last stop since this last stop was already quite far off from the city centre – at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise we had to drive for an hour or so before we reached his house. The city kept on going as we drove further and further away. Skyscrapers and construction sites as far as the eyes could see. At that moment I started to realize how big the city actually is. With a population of 14.1 million this is perhaps not surprising. When we arrived at this home, he and his wife, assured me that this still wasn’t the edge of the city. It was still within reasonable distance. They lived in East Ataşehir, at Eastern part of Asian side, of which you can find an impression below.

Ataşehir – cities within the super-city

The supersized city as a magnifying glass

Besides the distance and all the skyscrapers, there was one other thing that caught my attention. When I entered my friend’s home I was introduced to someone who I thought was a family friend. Later this person turned out to be the housekeeper from Georgia who lived with my friend and his wife. This was, I have to admit, a bit of a surprise to me. In the Netherlands I personally don’t know anybody with an in-living housekeeper although outsourcing of household tasks such as cleaning has become rather normal, even among single households. Having an in-living housekeeper is therefore something I still associate with old movies and Victorian costume drama’s in particular. My surprise is also related to my upbringing in a welfare state in which social inequalities between “the haves” and “have nots” are much less visible to the ordinary eye. This is of course not to say that there are no similar manifestations between these groups in welfare states as ours. It’s that they are less visible. The scale of a super city like Istanbul in this sense probably acts like a magnifying glass for social processes of all sorts, both the positive and negative, and all at the same time.

City of intersections – history and present

Over the next days, as the congress and my stay in Istanbul progressed, I would slowly start to understand some of these processes along with the vastness of the city. In 2009, research conducted by the London School of Economics referred to Istanbul as the “City of Intersections”, which I think is a very good description of the state of the city, both in the literal meaning as in a more symbolic. Examples of the literal meaning immediately come to mind when we speak of a city stretching out over two continents. An example of the more symbolic meaning includes the sight of two women, sitting next to each other at a restaurant, and one of which is dressed in a niqab and the other in a short and bare dress. Never, at any congress, or in any other part of the world I have visited, did I witness something similar. This is I think the strength of places like Istanbul, diversity is the norm rather than the exception. And that in itself creates a kind of flexibility in attitude that we in the West, I am inclined to argue, are not used to nor completely understand.

The rootedness of diversity and the importance of the Ottoman era in today’s Turkish culture

The importance of diversity in Istanbul is probably rooted in the city’s specific historical context  as one of the most diverse and tolerant empires of all times – the Ottoman empire – and the city’s specific geo-political importance as a city connecting two continents. According to Oxford Islamic Studies Online the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world during the 16th and 17th with control over many of the countries around the Mediterranean, the Middle-East and North-Africa. The city’s importance as the capital and home of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multinational and multilingual power is still very much engrained in the collective memory of most Turks and Istanbulites. The recent revival of the Ottoman era and it’s artistry and craftsmanship, e.g. in architecture, jewellery, fashion and interior design, are only few examples of this. Popular use of the ‘tughra’–  the Ottoman calligraphic monogram or seal – ranges from tattoo’s, t-shirts, home wall and car stickers. Other examples include multiple TV shows that are inspired on the Ottoman history and/or take place during that particular period, including the hit-show ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’. Translated as The Magnificent Century it is currently one of the most popular shows in Turkey. The show mainly deals with the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest reigning Sultan of all the Ottoman Sultans, and his wife Hürrem Sultan, who used to be a slave girl from what we now know as the Ukraine. Moreover, since the shows first broadcast in 2011, it has reportedly gained an international audience of 200 million viewers with broadcast in 59 different countries, including USA, France, China, Russia and China. One last interesting example concerns the construction of mosques around the world based on the Ottoman style, e.g. the Nazimiye Turkish Masjid in Midrand, South-Africa that was built in 2012. The renewed interest in the Ottoman era and culture is thus not limited to Turkey but well exceeds the country borders.

To understand today’s Istanbul, and for that matter Turkey, is to understand its history as a multiethnic power. This history is of course not only limited to the Ottoman era, but starts well before that with the history of the Anatolian peninsula as one of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world that saw many different rulers throughout its long history. However, one cannot understand this history without understanding the country’s specific geographical location on the brink of two continents. This specific location is of course deeply imbedded in the region’s history and that of its neighbors. Taking into account how history and place are interconnected over time is of course not an easy task to venture on, nor something that one can do within a few days, weeks or perhaps even years. Nonetheless, this visit has inspired me to do just that. I think that places like Istanbul, where all of these things come together, are very important to visit especially for sociologists, since time, place and history are key factors that we always need to take into account in our work when we try to understand how groups of people interact in any given society.

Visits like these might be considered by many as the perks of doing a PhD – the figurative cherries on top of an academic cake –, the extras that come with hard and lonesome work of an academic but that’s not how I see it anymore, at least not for sociologists. I think that when you claim to investigate social behaviour and are interested in finding out why certain groups of people act in certain ways you cannot disengage from getting acquainted with different cultures and places. Here I thus argue that going abroad and taking time to understand differences is therefore an essential necessity for all sociologists and we should not think otherwise.


Demet Yazilitas is a PhD candidate at the department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the influence of social, institutional and psychological factors on gender and ethnic differences in natural science choices of high school students in the Netherlands and Sweden.

Should we do research in difficult environments?

 by Maaike Matelski / Reading Time: 6 Minutes /

Social scientists are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of ethical research standards. However, it is not always clear whose guidelines we should adhere to and which types of research should or should not be allowed. Anthropologists and other social scientists conducting fieldwork may face a particular set of challenges when interacting with local respondents and informants.

As I argued in a recent article, it can be difficult to study environments where few researchers have gone before, especially if these situations are considered potentially dangerous. Possible risks include hostility and harm to the researcher, but also direct and indirect negative consequences for research participants whose position or even safety might be threatened.

I will here share a few findings based on the research I conducted in Myanmar over the past years. At the start of my research, Myanmar (formerly Burma) was considered a pariah state fraught with conflict and human rights abuses. When I decided to visit the country for my thesis I encountered doubt and criticism, and was advised to operate from a safer environment where I would not endanger myself and others.


Other researchers have described similar dilemmas when conducting research in various conflict areas in the Middle East. A Master student who was conducting field research in Egypt wrote about the challenges she faced when the popular uprising broke out in 2011. She explained how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official advice to leave the country ran counter to the more nuanced local safety assessments she encountered, and her own desire to stay on. Another colleague wrote how the unfolding crisis in Syria profoundly affected his field research in neighboring Lebanon. Although this led to different types of issues than my own research, he too had to balance the potential risks of staying with the desire to bear witness and lend a hand.

These are difficult dilemmas for which there is no single solution. I will offer some considerations to take into account when making individual assessments.

 1) People want to be heard

The fact that people might be vulnerable and find themselves in situations of risk does not mean that they do not appreciate attention. If we want to study real people in real situations, we must accept that their lives are not always easy, that they face difficult choices and sometimes cope with loss. As researchers we are not necessarily obliged to report on human suffering, but neither should we be obliged to ignore it. When I presented my research proposal on Myanmar, some commenters suggested that I should conduct research with Burmese people living outside the country (e.g. in Thailand) instead. This way they assumed I could gather information while keeping myself and my respondents away from the possibly serious risks we would face in Myanmar. Yet as soon as I arrived in Myanmar, I was greeted by local people eager to share their views and correct some of the misunderstandings about their country that they thought existed abroad. A comparison of views held inside and outside the country proved particularly valuable in the course of my research.

 2) The researcher has primary responsibility

Despite the importance of our research, we should avoid exacerbating risk or suffering. I therefore argue that we as researchers remain primarily responsible for the ethical collection, analysis and dissemination of our research findings. We should do everything possible to avoid causing risk to our research participants, as harmful consequences cannot easily be undone. In my article I argue that we must first discuss the potential risks of research with our respondents, and then review their assessment to check if they too do not create unacceptable risks for themselves or others. In my case, many respondents were remarkably open and willing to discuss their activities, but they sometimes seemed unaware of the potential impact of having such information made public. As a result, I chose to anonymize certain data even when respondents had told me I could mention their name.

 3) Risk assessment is best conducted on a case-by-case basis

In countries such as the United States and Australia, ethical review boards play a much larger and more decisive role than in The Netherlands. The question is whether such procedures make the research stemming from these countries more ethical, or whether they merely serve to absolve universities of potential liability. Of course we can simply prohibit research in environments that are not considered a hundred percent safe, or where written consent cannot be obtained, but we must realize that this will have profound implications for the way peoples and countries are portrayed internationally. The more researchers choose to stay away from ‘difficult situations’ such as countries in turmoil or under authoritarian rule, the easier our views of the lives of their inhabitants become simplified, as we rely on a limited number of spokespersons or experts to represent the views of many. In the absence of binding ethical guidelines at VU University, I was encouraged to seek advice from people who had personally experienced the situation on the ground. This allowed me to come to a balanced approach in which I sought neither to endanger, nor ignore local people.

4) Situations can change

Another argument against general guidelines and prohibitions is that situations can change rapidly. My own research focus, Myanmar, has undergone a transition from pariah state to investment, tourism and donor hotspot in just a few years’ time. Political situations elsewhere however have deteriorated considerably, as my colleagues working on the Middle East have experienced. Although I had been advised to conduct research from Thailand, the security situation there at times has proven less stable than in many areas of Myanmar. Studying contemporary topics means that situations can improve or deteriorate at any time, and our research environment might no longer be the way we found it at the start. As risk assessments will differ not only between and within countries but also over time, researchers are often best advised by those with longer-term experience in the country. If those contacts have not been made, such assessment will be much more difficult.

Although our universities may be held accountable for our research activities, we can only come to new insights if we dare to venture beyond the comfort of familiar environments. As long as we do so responsibly, this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. While my research at times has proven difficult, I gained many important insights from being able to talk to local people about the way they perceive and deal with risk in their daily lives, instead of relying solely on my own assumptions or the views of foreign experts. This revealed many complexities, paradoxes and insecurities that I reflect on in my thesis, hopefully to the benefit of other researchers seeking to make informed risk assessments in the future.


Maaike Matelski is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the VU University Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the role of Burmese civil society organisations inside and outside Myanmar during the political transition period since 2010.








Why On Earth Should I Visit A Conference?

David Firmansjah  by  Firmansyah David / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

Why should I go to a conference? This is a question which always comes in my mind when I got many of those “call for conference” invitations in my email inbox. I am interested to go, however, there are always thoughts that come to my mind that there’re might be some problems if I decided to go. First, I would spend a lot of money, for instance for traveling, accommodation, conference fees, etc. Then, I would also spend much time to prepare a presentation or a paper and be there at the conference’s places for couple days. Third, there might be many talks and topics in the conference which are not relevant to my work. So, every now and then, I would rather stay at my office and do work as usual, than planning to travel.

© Jorge Cham via
© Jorge Cham via

But after some time, I had an opportunity to be in a conference in Barcelona this April. It was a big conference relating to the topic of the interaction between universities, business and entrepreneurship. Last year, it was held in Amsterdam and involved 338 participants from 48 countries. With this year’s theme “Challenges and Solutions for Fostering Entrepreneurial Universities and Collaborative Innovation”, the conference in Barcelona attracted even more participants. In this conference, I presented my work together with colleagues from University of Valladolid Spain and VU University Amsterdam. Here you can find the paper which we had to present.

I was impressed while attending the conference because it was such a big one because of its multinational scope. It took me by suprise that this conference gave me a new experience that changed my view visiting a conference. Therefore, I will share some tips on how to get the most out of your conference visits:

New Conference New City

It is common that an annual conference is held in a different city or in a different country each year. So, it becomes important to make a plan in advance regarding the transportation, accommodation, and information about the conference venues. With these preparations, at least, you have a brief picture in your mind where to go and what to do once you arrive at the city where the conference is held. However, if you think with just having a map of your destination and you are ready to go, think again. I once failed to visit a conference in a country because there was not enough time to get a visa. It was quite a bummer! So make sure to check this out beforehand. While for some countries visas can be obtained with only one mouse click, other countries require some time and money.

New Conference New Topics

Each conference usually has a unique theme. To present your paper in a conference you should prepare a paper of which matches with the conference’s topic. Moreover, you can attend sessions or speeches which are relevant to your research. I do not suggest you to attend all the sessions, eventhough you think the rest is interesting as well. From my experience at this conference, attending all sessions would sometimes make you think too much. You’d have a lot of information that you may not need at the end of the day. I think less is definitely more in this case.

New Conference New People

This is the most important part that you could get from a conference. Instead of just enjoying yourself from sessions to sessions or presenting a paper, you can get out of your “comfort zone” and mingle with people. During the breaks, you can meet and socialize with other academics and researchers who might have a common interest with you. It will provide you with fresh perpectives (for example ideas and literatures) on your own research and may help you to find out what is new in metholodologies and operationalization of your research goals. And as a follow-up, try to collaborate with these people in the near future by simply sending them an e-mail. Do not forget to bring your business card, you will never know who you will meet there. At the conference in Barcelona, I got to know some PhDs and researchers with similar interests. After some talks, we agreed to keep connected through emails or social media. By this, we often exchange literatures and share new ideas and the possibilities to work on a paper together. Everytime I have updates or news from them, I always have a thought like: What a great thing to work with a multinational network!

Knowing all the benefits of attending a conference, now I’ve changed my mind every time I receive invitations for conferences in my email. I now read them one by one to see if any of these conferences are useful. Once I have a conference which I am interested, I take enough time to prepare it. If you ever receive invitations of conference to your email, do not rush to ignore or directly delete them. It may turn out that the one that you have been looking for is among them.


Firmansyah David is a PhD candidate at the Department of Organization Sciences. He also works as lecturer  at the Faculty of Industrial Technology Padang Institute of Technology, Padang Indonesia. His primary research area is  university-business cooperation, knowledge valorization, and technology transfer.