Showing up Fully for Virtual Academic Conferences


Written by Dr. Doris Chow, postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Miriam Spering's lab.

Building professional relationships is vital to the career success of scientists, especially trainees and early-career researchers. With academic conferences going virtual, many of us are exploring new ways to share our research and to connect with the broader academic community. How do we show up more fully, and still connect with others, in these large virtual meetings? Here, I share my experience, from the three online conferences I have attended since March, for anyone preparing to attend their first virtual conference.

Embracing Experimentation

Do you find it weird to join a virtual meeting and not know who else is in the room? Do you find it takes a lot of effort to participate in Zoom conversations? Do you miss the casual encounters with people in a hallway? If you answered yes to these questions, you are not alone. That’s how I’ve felt at all the online conferences I’ve attended.

Virtual conferences often consist of a combination of live and pre-recorded research presentations and live chats between attendees, which are also usually video-based. At the first online conference I attended, I was eager to watch and learn, but I did not participate at all. Having a video chat with a stranger felt intimidating, as did joining in on a chat where everyone could see what I was writing. No one would have noticed if I was not in the room. Being overwhelmed intellectually—yet underwhelmed socially—I felt drained from attending my first online conference.

I reflected on how to improve my future experiences after this first “failure.” Attending virtual conferences is new for most of us, regardless of our career stage. So, as a scientist, why not think of it as an experiment where I explore what works for me and what doesn’t? I decided I have to be more open to different ways of interacting virtually. If a failed experiment is not a failure, then why should an awkward video chat with a stranger, or an embarrassing virtual moment, be? These are useful data for me to learn to engage with others in the new normal. For me, switching to this beginner’s mindset lowers the psychological barrier to conference participation.

Not only did I decide that I have to be better at trying new things, I decided I have to hold myself accountable for showing up and participating. If I don’t, I won’t have data to judge if something works or not. So, before attending the other conferences, I set myself quantifiable goals. For example, to show up to one video chat per day, ask one question each session, or watch three presentations per day. I ensured these goals were attainable by considering my other responsibilities—self-care, house chores, teaching, and writing. I set breaks, including a one-day break in a six-day conference, because I knew I’d need them.

So now that I was determined to embrace the experience, how did the other conferences go? In the last conference I went to, I typed in my opinion on a topic of discussion via chat despite a large audience. Others echoed my comment, and because of that, the host acknowledged it, reading it out and inviting others to comment. I was able to contribute to the conversation and get my ideas across to a group of strangers. To me, this is just one proud moment for having tried something new.

Try This at Home

Here are some ideas for you to network and show up more fully at virtual conferences as an attendee:

·       Engage in live conversations by using your voice, chat, and Q&A functions. Many platforms also allow attendees to vote on questions.

·       Use social media to share your work and engage with others. Join the conversation using hashtags, if your conference has one.

·       Email a presenter with questions and comments to connect. The interaction could ignite a chain of conversations that may be useful in the future.

·       Participate in a networking match exercise if your conference organizes one. People out there want to connect with you too. If there isn’t one, suggest it.

Virtual academic conferences can mitigate many of the issues that traditional in-person conferences have, like reducing our carbon footprint and promoting diversity. However, fully participating in your first virtual conference can be intimidating, whether you are an undergraduate researcher or an experienced academic. My best advice is to embrace the experience, knowing it is different from an in-person conference.


Want to Read More About Virtual Conferences?

What can and should be improved for in-person conferences:

Learning to love virtual conferences in the coronavirus era (Nature Career):

Matching attendees for networking using an algorithm:

The backstory of Neuromatch—the first large online neuroscience conference: