Future IEDPers: Lessons From CIES 2023!

Radhika Mittal

This blog is for future IEDP students as you start to think about attending the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference! Many peers from my cohort grappled with questions like what will I gain from it, how do I select which sessions to attend, or how do we network! I spoke to ten IEDP students who attended CIES 2023 in Washington DC and crowd-sourced their main takeaways, which will be useful for any education conference you would attend!

How to prepare for CIES

  • Spend some time on the CIES website taking a look at which sessions interest you, and also move beyond the topic to research the speaker and their organization. 
  • Going through the CIES list of sessions is time consuming! So, try to get to this 2 weeks before the conference. Many of us were not able to do this (and only got to it the night before the conference started) but we also feel that it did not heavily impact the quality of our experience at CIES.
  • You can consider dropping an email to the speakers you are keen on connecting with before the conference, but it’s not necessary. It’s still possible to create a connection during or after the conference!
  • Attend CIES preparation sessions by the IEDP faculty. When in doubt, the profs are here to help!

Which talks to attend?

  • If you know your geographical and topical interests, then you can pick your sessions based on that. Quality over quantity!
  • That said, challenge yourself and attend sessions on unfamiliar topics or those you may not usually attend. A good way to do that is tag along with a friend to a talk they are attending. 
  • You will notice that the speakers in sessions are either practitioners (Lego Foundation, IRC, etc) or academicians (PhD students, professors, etc). IEDP students reported that this can be another way to decide which sessions to attend depending on where your future aligns.
  • Have a look at the format of the sessions (paper presentation, round table, etc.) Try to attend a mix of formats!


  • Networking is hard and you’re not alone! It is possible to conquer it. In the words of Nike, Just Do It! If you’re really nervous, consider it as practice for future networking. People are very open to talk! So, it’s mostly about overcoming our own inhibitions.
  • You can approach someone with either a question (e.g. after attending their session) or appreciation for their work. You can also bank on some shared commonality, like you went to the same university or work in the same field. 
  • After a session, you can strike up a conversation with someone who asked a question during the session. Or even with the person who was sitting next to you! 
  • Receptions (informal gatherings that happen almost at the end of each conference day) are a great place to meet people. A trick is to go up to a table of people and ask them if you can share the table to eat. Place your plate and introduce yourself! 
  • Visit the stalls of organisations that are set up and show interest in their work. Pro tip: Tell them you’re from UPenn and they’ll probably say, “oh so many of you are here!”.
  • Take printed business cards! It hasn’t become outdated and people are happy to exchange cards.
  • Encourage your friends if they’re shy/introverted. If you’re comfortable with networking, help your friends by introducing them to people too.
  • Don’t go with the intention of getting something out of someone because it can be off-putting. Rather, approach with curiosity and a genuine interest in the person and their work. 

What did we learn about IED (international educational development) from CIES?

  • The real world application of what we are learning at IEDP – context matters, intersectionality, M&E, ed-tech, participatory work, etc
  • How IED looks on the ground and how sticky it can be. Despite best efforts, research and implementation are imperfect. But there are always lessons to be learnt.
  • A glimpse into areas that we do not have much knowledge about
  • A vision of what kind of work we’d want to do in the future in our own careers

What current IEDP students want future IEDP students to know:

  • It’s okay if you can’t stick to the schedule you’ve created. There’s so much happening and it can get tiring once you’re at the conference. Give yourself grace.
  • Some will be good sessions, some maybe not. 
  • Even if you connect with one person – its a success. You define for yourself what is successful. Don’t compare yourself or your journey to others. 
  • You can consider balancing between attending large scale sessions and smaller, more engaging ones like round tables.
  • Leave some wiggle room in the day to be spontaneous or to support friends who are presenting. The conference can be exhausting. Ensure you are hydrated and have moments to relax too!

Most importantly, have fun! Because if your CIES timing is anything like ours, then you’re going to be returning to a week of major deadlines which will make CIES seem like a cakewalk. Kidding! *nervous laughter* I’d also like to thank the IEDP students who took out time to share their experiences so candidly!

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