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First (Virtual) Conference Experience

Eliza Sylvia, Ph.D. Student in the Department of Communication, shares her experience about participating in her first (virtual) conference.


So: you’re going to a conference. Congratulations! You have survived the grueling process of generating a worthwhile idea, reading, reading, reading (and probably some more reading after that), eventually constructing an abstract, then a full paper, until it’s ready for submission to an upcoming event. Your acceptance letter is the shining gold star sticker that you have worked so hard to receive.

Unfortunately, the hard work does not stop there. You may have completed the most academic portion of this process, but now a road of administrative tasks and social preparation lies ahead of you.

During the summer of 2020, I completed my first journey down this path. I had two presentation applications for a social science paper I wrote accepted to two conferences in July. It was a thrilling, terrifying, humbling, and above all else – educational experience. My only previous experience with presenting had been in a classroom setting, a relatively simple and coordinated activity. While this is great to receive feedback and enhance your presentation style, it does not really prepare you for the full conference experience.

Things I learned through my first conference experience

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent health practices that happened this summer, my first experience in the world of academic conferences was completely virtual. However, many of the things I learned will still be applicable when we make the shift back to in-person events.

1. Find out where your conference is being held and if there is a time difference.

My first online conference was held at a university in Athens, Greece. Besides the statues and gorgeous views, do you know what Greece has? A time difference. In all of my excitement of being accepted to my first conference, I completely forgot to investigate the 7-hour time difference between our countries.

2. Find out what format your conference will be following.

You might be asking, “but why is a time difference such a big deal?”. Well, if your conference is being conducted online in a synchronous format and you are expected to present at 10am local time, you need to make sure you are awake, ready, and online at the converted time to make that happen. In other words, be prepared for the possibility of making your presentation at 3am… preferably not in your jammies.

3. Appearance matters.

Online or in-person, you are representing not only yourself but also the institution under which you have applied to this event. While current circumstances have forced people to be more understanding about your background environment, you still have full control over the image you are projecting to your fellow academics. Make sure to wear clothing appropriate to your discipline and topic. When in doubt, a simple, clean blouse or button-up and brushed hair will serve you well. Your presentation of self reflects how seriously you take the opportunity to share your research, and the level of respect you have towards the organization and those that are taking time out of their day to listen to you.

4. .. and that goes for your house, too.

That said, please do everything in your power to create a presentation environment to reflect this as well. I know many of us are having to present in our living rooms, home offices, or kitchen tables, so do the best with what you have. If you can clear the stacks of paperwork and dirty dishes from the view of your computer camera, it will provide you with a greater sense of credibility and not be a source of distraction. You want your listeners to be focused on your research – not what you had for dinner last night.

5. Check Registration Costs

Just because conferences have had to go virtual this year does not mean that they have waived their registration fees. Be sure to check what it will cost you to attend and present, and what benefits this includes. Some conferences are offering a ticket to next year’s event, and some a year-long membership to their respective journals. Once you’ve checked the cost (and done the conversion if it’s not in your native dollar), look and see what refunds your institution offers graduate students who participate and present at an academic conference.

6. Practice Makes Perfect

Once you’ve put together your presentation, it goes without saying that rehearsing it will serve you well. If you have a group of friends or family who are willing to be your audience during these rehearsals (through video or in person) and give you feedback, it will enhance your style and help you perfect your performance. It helps to have a group that know nothing about your field of research give you their thoughts so that you know where you need to condense or clarify the information.

7. Don’t Stress

Remember that everybody has their first presentation. You’ll inevitably be nervous but try and savour the experience! You are guaranteed to learn something new each time you participate however, make sure you take the time to slow down and enjoy being surrounded by fellow scholars and interesting new research.

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