Navigating Online Conferences in the Time of COVID-19

Author: Taylor Nelles-McGee


At the best of times, graduate school can feel like a juggling act. Managing coursework, research, extracurriculars, jobs, families, and other commitments while trying to make sure we’re productive in our graduate degrees (publish or perish, we’re told!) and building strong professional networks is not easy. Attending and presenting at conferences is an important aspect of this process, but throw a pandemic into the mix, upending projects, cancelling conferences, and throwing a wrench in group networking events, and it becomes that much more challenging.


During COVID, finding opportunities to attend or submit to conferences and networking events is a little more complicated, but not insurmountable. Below are some simple tips to help get us through!


1. There are a lot of options, so ask the experts. Your supervisors will know which conferences are best aligned with your lab work. Additionally, upper year students in your lab may be able to draw on their experience to provide suggestions that might be more specific to your research aims than a more general search.


2.  Keep your eye on your email.  it can be easy to skim over or reflexively archive emails from the university, but often these will have details of upcoming opportunities. Sign up for mailing lists from the Society for Neuroscience, Canadian Association for Neuroscience, American Psychological Association, and any other networks your supervisors and lab mates might suggest to alert you to registration deadlines, calls for submission, and other opportunities.


3.  Stay organized. Once you know which conferences you’re interested in, check if they have moved online. Make note of submission and registration deadlines, and set reminders. If you are submitting work for consideration, track any explicit requirements of the submission, and the delivery method. Are you expected to pre-record your talk, or present in real time? If it’s a poster presentation, do you need to be available during the session? What are the file size requirements? While everyone adapts to a new delivery system, it’s even more important to plan a dry run, and to give yourself extra time for troubleshooting.


4.  Do it early! Make sure you look into these opportunities early so that you don’t miss the deadlines. Some conferences book as far as a year in advance. To keep last minute stress to a minimum, keep an updated CV and drafts of your work on hand.


5.  Make it count! Once you’ve registered, treat it like a regular conference. Familiarize yourself with the schedule and block off the time to attend. Register for the events you’re interested in, and reach out to the organizers to see if you can access the slides in advance. Make sure you have all the access information you need to move to different online rooms as needed so you get the most out of your experience.


6.  Network. Networking is a crucial aspect of participation in conferences. While it’s possibly the biggest challenge of moving these events to an online space, many conferences have found creative ways to overcome this obstacle. Look for an active online chat during presentations and participate! Online discussion with other attendees is a great way to be active in your involvement and meet people. Many conferences are also offering the opportunity to sign up for breakout room/small group networking events. Find out when these are, and make sure you’ve signed up ahead of time if necessary.


7. Find tips online. In the past few months, lots of great information about attending and making the most of online conferences has been published online. If you’re still feeling unsure, there are lots of other excellent suggestions here about how to get the most out of online opportunities!

 

Lastly, consider that moving online may even offer some unexpected benefits. For grad students with families, mobility and health considerations, or a tight budget, online conferences may actually be a more inclusive delivery method (that’s also easier on the environment!). Pre-recorded talks also make distant travel and time zones less of a barrier - a potential benefit both for attending events and for diversifying the audience at your own presentations. Researchers are resilient and creative. With a little bit of extra attention, conferences and networking in an online space can be just as enriching an experience as an in-person event.