Grad School 101: Making Virtual Conferences work for you

By Emily Elia: Make the most of virtual events in order to develop research and your professional networks!

People gathered in auditorium for conference

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused academic conferences to shift to an online format for the foreseeable future. While presenting your work may not be drastically different over a video conference platform, making meaningful connections through networking takes some dedication, and networking is an integral part of the conference experience. We encourage you to make the most of virtual events in order to develop research and your professional networks. Read on for some advice about how to make the most of virtual conferences!

Carve out time.
While attending a virtual conference from home, it is tempting to multitask. You probably feel like you still need to be getting a full day’s worth of work done regardless of the conference events since you’ll be sitting at your desk anyways. At an in-person conference, though, you would never have this expectation of yourself! Make time in your schedule for the conference, and try to resist getting non-conference related work done while you’re supposed to be tuned in to a panel. You will likely get much more out of the conference if you are truly “dialed in” and paying attention. If you are only half-listening to presentations because you’re trying to finish writing a reaction paper for class or trying to complete a data analysis, you are going to miss out on all the conference has to offer.

Take notes and ask questions like usual.
It can be tempting to zone out during virtual presentations, but try to stay focused like you would at an in-person conference. Take notes during presentations, and write down panelists’, discussants’, and chairs’ names in case you want to check out more of their work or get in touch after the conference.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions like you would at an in-person panel! On Zoom or other virtual formats, audience questions tend to be less common, probably because the virtual setting takes away the natural flow of a Q & A session. Remember that presenters want feedback on their work, and they probably would rather field questions than awkwardly sit in silence. Typically, the chair of a panel will tell audience members the preferred method for questions at the beginning of the panel session.

Dress the part, even at home.
You should still put effort into looking professional at a virtual conference, especially if you are a presenter or discussant. If you are just an audience member, the conference may have established a norm that you keep your camera off while attending a panel or poster session. However, it is still smart to dress sharp just in case you do need to turn your camera on for whatever reason. You don’t want to be sitting there in an old t-shirt!

Dressing well may also serve as a little confidence boost! Look sharp, be sharp. Dressing well also often causes others to take us more seriously and perceive us as more professional, especially in a setting like a conference. You do not need to sit at home in a suit all day, but donning a nice collared shirt or blouse will make you look more put-together and conference-ready, even from your couch.

Test out your tech.
It’s a tale as old as time: You start your presentation, and suddenly nothing is working correctly. When giving presentations virtually, this conundrum seems to be even more relevant! With virtual platforms, some common mishaps are totally out of our control: our internet connection is spotty, the platform is having technical issues, glitches occur out of nowhere, etc. But you can try to avert some crises by being prepared with your materials and tech beforehand. Make sure your presentation is ready to go on your computer. Test out sharing your screen and clicking through your presentation before the conference. Getting your peers together for a Zoom practice session a day or so beforehand can be a great way to prep for the conference! We cannot control everything that can go wrong with a virtual format, but we can make sure we are not fumbling around for our Powerpoint file when it is our time to present.

If the chair of your panel has not set rules for asking questions, it may also help to let audience members know how you would like to receive any questions during your presentation. When we share our screens on Zoom, we often lose the ability to see the full audience and the chat box. Without these visuals on our screen, it can be easier to miss a virtually raised hand or a question in the chat during your presentation. Don't be afraid to tell audience members your preference for how to ask clarifying questions during your presentation, especially if screen-sharing creates difficulties.

Attend virtual networking events.
Most conferences are well aware that the virtual format takes away a lot of networking experiences. To make up for this loss, the conference has likely planned some virtual social events that aim to get close to the networking experience. Read through the conference program thoroughly to identify any kind of networking events going on, and try to pick at least one to attend. Yes, you may feel awkward, but remember that everyone is likely feeling the same awkwardness!

If the idea of a virtual social hour really makes you nervous, try to attend something focused on professional development instead. Lots of conferences will have round table sessions or panels focusing on aspects of professional development for graduate students and/or junior scholars in your field. These sessions may be a great way to meet other graduate students, especially outside of your research focus since the virtual session is not focused on research topics. Having a structured discussion may feel less nerve wracking and more natural to you than attending an open virtual happy hour, but you still get the chance to engage with people.

Pay attention to your field’s academic Twittersphere.
Twitter is a place where many academic communities thrive. Promoting research, connecting with other scholars, and advertising new workshops or mini-conferences are just a few things that make Twitter a powerful resource for scholars. Keep an eye on what people are tweeting about the upcoming conferences in your field! Scholars may be organizing new panels, roundtables, or other virtual sessions due to some greater freedom that comes with the virtual format.

More well-known or advanced scholars in your field may also be organizing meetings like virtual “coffee dates” with graduate students in order to make up for the fact that you cannot physically approach them at the conference happy hour, for example, and introduce yourself. During a recent national conference for political science, I saw many tweets from senior scholars saying that they were open to virtual chats with graduate students. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of this offer! A person would not offer to meet with graduate students if they did not sincerely want to, so do not feel like you are intruding on their time or stepping out of line. These meetings can be a great way to make up for the lack of networking opportunities.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to scholars individually.
If there is a scholar in mind who you would have tried to connect with at an in-person conference, try to reach out to them to see if they would be available for some kind of meet-up during the virtual conference. A scholar may be more than happy to meet with you if they have the time.

Though virtual conferences cannot replicate in-person conferences perfectly, remember that conference organizers are trying their best to make the conference worthwhile. One similarity between virtual and in-person conferences is that it will likely be only as good as you make it! So don’t shy away from attending as many opportunities as you can to learn about new research and connect with scholars in your field.

Further Reading:

Grad School 101: Learning from (and through) COVID-19

Grad School 101: What to expect during year one

Grad School 101: New challenges in the time of COVID

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.