Liam McLoughlin & The ECN Committee 18 May 2020

With the launch of the ECN’s virtual conference, Because the Internet (July 13-24th) some might be wondering what they should be doing as a participant. In truth, you’ll be doing a lot of the same things as you’d be doing at a normal conference - but online. But there are certainly some differences, so here are seven things to bear in mind!


Set your own goals for a conference

For ECRs, a virtual conference has the same benefits as any other; namely, providing an opportunity for you to present and discuss your research, and receiving initial feedback that might help shape your papers or PhD. We’ve been there, and it can mean a lot early on just to tell people (other than your supervisor, dog or cat) about your research. Conferences are also key opportunities to follow interesting developments in your field, to form connections and even find future collaboration partners.

However, especially at big conferences, the weight of expectations can be damaging – whether that’s to have a perfect paper and delivery, or to meet certain people, see certain panels or go to certain lunches. Especially as an early-stage PhD, it’s easy to assume that if you’ve left a conference without binders full of business cards that you’ve failed.

By taking it online, and sharing the conference mainly with ECR peers, you can be guided more by your own goals than by others’ expectations. If you do want to build your network, or learn as much as possible about what’s happening in your field, then great! But if it’s just to get to grips with the conference format, or to have some presenting experience, excellent! Set your own goals, and you’ll have a more fulfilling experience.


Know what you’re committing to

Conferences require preparation to do them right. First, you have to get your paper researched and written – although we don’t expect the most perfectly rounded research, and work in progress (such as a theoretical framework, or plans for data collection) is welcome. After all, most conference papers get redrafted after getting the feedback.

Next, you must prepare and rehearse your video presentation [which is a big topic in itself – but rest assured, contributors to our July conference will soon be getting detailed advice].

Remember, a good participant goes into a conference to engage with others’ research, not just broadcast their own paper. So, you should also consider the time needed to look over other people’s presentations during the conference, and to leave comments and questions. We’d suggest a day or two – and don’t forget to pop back into the conference to check people’s responses.


Understand what makes a good conference paper

What makes any paper a good paper? Structure; an introduction that highlights why your research is important; being well-written; formatting... and all that jazz.

However, some of the best advice I’ve had is to write for your audience. ECRs often make conference papers overly complicated and detailed, especially with things like graphs. Sometimes this is in an attempt to ‘wow’ the audience, or because they forget that not everyone is used to seeing information presented the same way. An ECN conference will involve people from various subfields, so try not to fall into this trap.

Rather, keep your paper accessible. The best papers we come across, at ECN conferences and elsewhere, write in a way that highlights the core aspects of the paper – primarily its methods, key arguments and interesting findings. To get some ideas of good [and perhaps not so good] practice, you might like to look in a conference paper repository like this one.


Don’t fear the Q&A!

To many, giving a presentation might not be the scariest bit, but the Q&A. It’s the only part you can’t truly prep for. But there’s a pretty good reason why you should go into this part with confidence.

At the end of the day, nobody knows your research better than you, and the majority of questions will only be asked in the interests of finding out more. However, if you get asked a question that you don’t know the answer for, that’s normal. I’ve seen plenty of established academics respond to questions with ‘I don’t know’. It’s actually a skill to recognise when you don’t know something, and to seek out ways to fill that gap. Luckily, a virtual conference means that you can take the time to think of satisfying answers.


Virtual conferences can avoid networking anxiety

One of my big secrets is that I’m a massive introvert (sometimes I hide it well, other times less so), and one of my pet peeves is a conference advice is geared towards super extroverts. ‘Talk to 500 people’, ‘Go network’, ‘introduce yourself to everyone’ etc etc… Advice I’ve found, at times, stressful and off-putting.

Virtual conferences in many ways relieves some of this pressure. It’s a lot easier to engage in dialogue via the comments or through adjoining social media conversations. And even better, you don’t have to navigate the pre-existing circles of conversation during the coffee break. During virtual conferences, it’s as easy as typing a person’s name and saying hello!


Remember, online communication is different from offline communication!

I’ve always been mindful that in-person communication includes some visual or aural cues that you don’t get via written communication online, such as tone of voice and body language.

As a result, written feedback, even if intended as friendly, can be interpreted as cold, hard, and even negative. So, when you’re leaving a comment, giving a question, or even detailed feedback, remember the human, and try your best to ensure your words come across as constructive – no-one wants to be Reviewer #2…!

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t make longer comments or searching questions. Unlike an in-person conference, you’re not holding anyone up by doing so, so take the opportunity while you can!


Consider following up *after* the conference.

Whenever I’ve gone to a conference, I write up a lot of notes. Sometimes these include action points, such as ‘check out this paper someone referenced’, or ‘pop this person an email regarding a question that I had after Q&A’. Maybe it’s a list of people you need to follow on Twitter after the event. Either way, joining in with a conference can be part of a journey – not a destination.



If you’ve got this far and you haven’t signed up yet, then why not take a moment to read our call for papers [deadline 5th June].  And if you’re wondering how to actually present at a virtual conference –we’ll be providing all presenters with a step-to-step guide.