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Grad15: How to take advantage of virtual conferences and events

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the way we learn and explore professional development opportunities has radically shifted.  In this week’s episode of Grad15, the Graduate College’s Amanda Athey, shares essential tips for graduate students attending online conferences for the first time.

With stay-at-home recommendations and travel funding curtailed across many states and institutions, traditional in-person conferences have shifted to an online environment to allow virtual attendance. While this may not be what we expected, with a little advanced planning, we can still reap the networking and professional development benefits of conference attendance from the comfort of our own homes.

In many cases, online conferences are more accessible: not only are conference fees often lower (and travel and accommodation budgets are a nonissue!), but online content availability means attendees can often access session slides in advance. Use this to your advantage, and come prepared with questions you can ask during or after the sessions.

With many virtual conference sessions offering simultaneous chat, the traditional presenter/attendee dynamic is shifted into a co-learning environment and coming prepared to engage and ask questions will ensure you (and your fellow attendees) get the most out of the experience.

The biggest difference between an in-person and an online conference is the preparation needed. With networking a significant component of many conferences., we are taught to have our ‘elevator speech’ or business cards at hand to share. For a virtual conference, it’s important to consider our social media presence – our LinkedIn accounts, professional Facebook or Twitter profiles, or digital portfolios or personal websites. Make sure you have your digital professional presence up-to-date and ready for sharing in advance, as these are going to be your primary networking tools at a virtual conference.

Just as in a traditional, in-person conference, make sure to download the conference apps and familiarize yourself with the conference schedule and select breakout sessions in advance. Make a list of sessions or breakouts, selecting, which either have a topic in alignment with your research interests or, alternately, are offered by presenters with backgrounds or focuses you are interested in learning more about.

Thinking ahead, ask your colleagues or faculty members who among their friends, grad school associates, or peers at other institutions might be in attendance and worth connecting with. It may be worthwhile reaching out to several of these potential contacts several days in advance of the conference or asking for an electronic introduction.

As a final preparation for the conference, make sure you are familiar with its platform – if it is hosted on Zoom, for instance, check both your connectivity and make sure you are comfortable interacting with the platform’s features. Make sure you’re cognizant of any time-zone differences – there’s nothing as disappointing as logging into a session just as it’s ended.

Before, during and after the conference, make sure to connect with others – as in traditional, in-person conferences, this often is the most direct benefit we gain from conferencing. Think in terms of both growing new connections and nurturing current ones. Consider joining pre- or post-conference workshops or online events, too, as these provide additional networking and ‘face’ time with working groups or specific learning communities you might want to join.

Don’t forget to engage with the conference’s social media days or a week before, during, and after the conference, and visit (and follow up with!) with sponsor or exhibitor spaces online.

Finally, remember that in the end, this is still a professional engagement. Practice established web etiquette (log into sessions on time, mute your microphone when entering sessions, consider your video background) and be prepared to engage, engage, engage!

GradConnect is a weekly 15-minute mini-webinar. Register to attend our mini-webinar Tuesday at 11:00 a.m., "Student-Mentor Communications in the Time of COVID."  To download slides from today’s or any past Grad15 webinars, join the GradConnect Community + Network.