Since the start of the pandemic, I have had the opportunity to attend two virtual conferences on August and early October. As a graduate student, attending conferences is an amazing opportunity to keep up with the latest research projects in your area, present your current work, listen to talks from the experts, and most importantly, to network. Networking is a critical part of the professional development we acquire during graduate school, and there is no better chance to do so than at a conference in your field. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made travel almost impossible and thus in-person conferences have gone virtual. Although virtual conferences might seem complicated and have a risk of getting into technical issues, there are many ways that you can still network with potential collaborators at these online events.
Make your virtual profile as complete as possible
Virtual conferences have a limited amount of time for networking, so organizing committees have creatively set up online communication platforms such as Slack groups or Pathable. Since you are able to customize your profile in these platforms, try to make it as complete as possible so that fellow attendees can contact you. Placing a professional profile picture, institutional email, professional title, and pronouns will help other people get to know you before you even start to chat! You can also add in the description whether you would be comfortable talking mainly by direct messaging, Zoom or email. It is also recommended to add a virtual business card and professional social media accounts such as LinkedIn and even Twitter.
Get to know the specifics of social/networking sessions
It is crucial to know the details on the when and how of the networking sessions at a virtual conference. In-person conferences will most of the times have a “wine and cheese” or “breakout sessions” so people can socialize and exchange information. Since the organization of each virtual conference will be different, you need to familiarize yourself on how each event will manage this time. If the virtual conference is mainly on Slack, you would want to join channels that are designated for this purpose. For instance, the conference that I attended in August had a specific #virtual-bar channel where people could start conversation about other things not conference-related (mostly sharing quarantine hobbies). Joining talks in this way can help “break the ice” and will make you feel more comfortable before starting a more scientific conversation. The conference I attended earlier this month was mainly based on an online virtual conference platform and it had two Zoom sessions designated for networking. This might be more straightforward because people would join different breakout rooms depending on the topic they wanted to discuss. If you wanted to talk one-on-one to a specific participant, you could schedule a time with them during this time and setup a separate breakout room or Zoom call for that purpose.
Take advantage of virtual job boards!
Most in-person conferences will also have a special job posting board with post-doc offers from labs presenting at the event or sponsoring companies. Virtual conferences have also changed this job board to an online format, either as a specific Slack communication channel or Zoom breakout rooms. Participating in any of these job posting discussions can be very useful for senior graduate students who are looking for relevant postdoctoral positions or internships at established companies or startups. Even if you are still in your early years of grad school, it is a good idea to talk with the representatives posting the jobs to get information on their work environment and research projects.
Virtual poster pavilions
A conference cannot be complete without a poster session, and the same rule applies to virtual conferences. Every conference will have different methods of displaying and connecting the presenter with the attendees with a “live” Q&A session. From the experience I had during both virtual conferences, you are able to visualize posters at the event’s online platform and listen to a two- or three- minute “flash talk” video by the presenter on the poster. Most virtual conferences will have a “Rapid Fire” session where attendees are encouraged to watch these videos and posters, followed by a live Q&A time where you can post questions for presenters, mostly via chat, and presenters can answer in the moment. While this format makes it harder to have a more dynamic conversation about the research, presenters would put their contact info either in the poster or in their profile so anyone with questions could reach out to them. Attending the virtual posters also serves as a good “ice-breaker” topic when trying to network with the presenter!
Overall, it is recommended to be flexible and open to different methods of communication during the social sessions. Don’t be shy! Most of the people attending virtual conferences are as interested as you are in getting to know potential collaborators and fellow colleagues in the field so they will be more than happy to network!
About the author: Rosa Selenia Guerra Reséndez is a GCURS alum, a Fulbright-García Robles Doctoral Scholar and active member of the Latin American Graduate Student Association at Rice University. She is a third-year graduate student in the Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology program, advised by Dr. Isaac Hilton, and in 2017 earned her B.S. in Genomic Biotechnology from Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. Read more about Rosa here.