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My Online Conference Experience as a PhD Candidate

I'm going to preface this blog post by saying that I know I'm extremely lucky to have attended any conferences during my PhD. Conferences themselves can be exclusionary based on the high fees required to attend which can prevent access to these events for those with limited funds, and I acknowledge that not everyone can be as lucky as me to have attended conferences during their studies. This article is not to detract away from that in any way, shape or form, but simply to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the online conference experience. With that out the way, lets proceed with my experience!

So with the new world order during this pandemic, in order for many conferences to go ahead, they’ve mostly needed to switch to being virtual. Though we did had online conferences pre-COVID, they’ve now become more the norm rather than the exception. In the past year, I’ve attended a few online conferences – two international and two local. Most of the conferences had a similar format, in that they all had the presentations being held over Zoom, with many opting to have all other conference proceedings being hosted on Slack.

An international one occurred first, and honestly, it wasn’t that great an experience. The conference was based over in the USA (I’m in Australia) so there was a vast time difference. I wasn’t going to stay up all night to watch the talks, as I’m the kind of person who needs sleep, so I decided to watch each nights talks the next day. That way, if I had questions that next day, the speakers would still be checking the slack channel for them. However, after arranging a day off work on the first Friday to sit and watch the talks, I found out that the recorded talks were not being released until after the conference. This meant that by the time I would be able to watch them, the slack channels would no longer be such a hotbed for discussion as the conference would be over.

This was greatly disappointing and meant I was not able to actively participate in the conference. I ended up having to just watching the talks after the conclusion of the conference. Therefore, it didn't feel like a type of engaging conference that I'd come to know, but instead more like I was back in undergrad and had missed out on my lectures and had to catch up.

My other international conference went pretty much the same, except this time I was prepared for it. No days were taken off lab work to sit and listen to the previous days recordings, instead I just listened to the recordings over the coming weeks after the conference, whenever I had a spare bit of time.

I would definitely say that these international conferences didn't really have such a great experience for me. I wasn't able to engage as much as I'd have liked with everything, and I didn't really feel like I was a part of the thing. This is likely due to the fact that I was in basically the opposite timezone to where the conferences were being held as this prevented me from attending live, so I would recommend attending conferences in your timezone or in a more compatible timezone where possible. I also think that not releasing the recordings till after the conference had finished wasn't the best move for getting high engagement from attendees, so if you're out there organising a large scale conference, I would definitely recommend making the recordings from each day available ASAP, preferably by at the conclusion of each day. On the plus side though, as it wasn't all negative, the cost of these conferences were lessened by the fact I didn't have to travel, which meant I gained knowledge from researchers all over the world for a much cheaper price tag!

In contrast, I've attended a couple of local conferences held here in Western Australia, and I've found these to be overall thoroughly enjoyable. I think the bonus of online participation is that you can dip in and out of sessions if you need to go and do things. But overall, I think these conferences were made just so much better by the fact that I could watch the talks live. Being local conferences, there wasn't much research from outside the state, but the level of active participation from each attendee was much greater.

I've also attended some in person local conferences during the last year, thanks to the basically non-existent impact of the pandemic in our state majority of the time, and I do have to say that I still prefer these over online conferences. I think this is because the main critique I have with online conferences overall is that I personally find it much harder to concentrate when watching a screen than watching a person talk. I find my mind wanders much more, and I struggle to pay attention for the full session, let alone the whole conference. But I think that is natural, as watching someone speak in person is definitely more engaging than watching them talk through a screen.

As I near the end of my PhD, I do lament the fact that I never got to travel to any large scale conferences in person, but I do know that it was for the best, and also that I was extremely lucky to have participated in the virtual conferences I was able to attend. Hopefully, as this crazy era of the world draws closer to an end, in person conferences will grow in popularity again, or at least a hybrid of in person and virtual to allow for people from all situations and locations to attend. But overall, I would say that there is definitely a place for virtual conferences when done right, but it can be hard to strike the balance between the scale of the conference and then the accessibility, particularly based on timezones and speed of recording release.

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