Experiences with online conferences – from an Early Career Scientist perspective

As an Early Career Scientist (ECS), conferences are essential to get to know new people, gain experience in presenting your research, and learn a lot about the current science in your research field and beyond. Here is the personal experience of Linda with online conferences.

In early 2020, I made some plans for scientific conferences and travels. In spring, I already had booked a hotel room and train tickets. Then, everything changed: the pandemic came, and we all started to work remotely. And all travel to conferences had to be canceled. Luckily, I could still attend as organizers moved the conferences online.

Online conferences are easily accessible worldwide, without spending a whole week in another country. It can save a lot of money and time. Also, there aren’t any emissions from traveling, an important aspect for climate scientists like us. Emission reduction is especially true for large conferences like the EGU General Assembly and the AGU Fall Meeting, each with thousand participants. Reduced emissions in science have to become the norm. We can learn a lot from this year and hopefully apply to future conferences and not go back to business as usual.

I participated at the EGU General Assembly 2020 in May and the recently finished AGU Fall Meeting 2020. In May, everything was new, and the organizers made a virtual alternative possible – in only a few weeks. It was a good alternative for the short preparation time. For the AGU, the organizers prepared beforehand and scheduled the sessions for different time zones around the world. Organizers developed a specific concept for the online presentation. We could schedule text-based chat and video live sessions on our own. I liked this concept beforehand, but unfortunately, nobody used it. I waited several hours in the chat room and almost got no feedback at all.

Consequently, I started to ask myself what I did wrong with my presentation. After having a chat with my peers and a look on Twitter, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one. The feedback seemed to be overall very limited. But this is what young scientists are looking for in conferences and workshops. In an online format, you don’t start a spontaneous conversation with people walking by the poster or chatting during the coffee break.

From my perspective, and after discussing with other Arctrainee, some aspects influence the problems experienced during online conferences. The concentration is not high all day. I have to sit all day at the desk looking at the screen. Thus, it’s easy to get distracted, e.g., by emails and messages on the lab slacks. Distractions may not look significant, but I might miss some exciting introduction talks only lasting three minutes. I have to admit that I didn’t use the chat function either. It was already quite time-consuming to have to look at all the interesting posters and talks.

In the future, I will try to focus on fewer sessions and follow single presentations. During the AGU fall meeting, I contacted some scientists with engaging presentations related to my work. From this conversation, I also got some good feedback for my poster. It’s easy to oversee some presentations, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t interesting and important. Organizing a conference isn’t easy, but we still have a lot to learn how to do successful online conferences. 

My conclusion is: It’s good that online conferences take place to keep up the scientific presentation, but the outcome wasn’t worth the effort I put in. I have my lesson learned. I’ll further present my research at the forthcoming online conferences with less information and focus on a few key aspects. I could advertise my presentation to my peers, within the ArcTrain community, and on Twitter, to reach more potential interested people. In the next online conference, I plan to be more active and contact other scientists to talk about their research and use the possibility to introduce my research.

As ECS, we share the feeling that online, the conference’s immersion feeling is missing. Conferences are usually a halt to the usual work schedule. Most scientists use the transport time to work on some text, read or review a paper. However, the conference’s time is dedicated solely to the conference and the interaction with other researchers. We often try to add an online conference on top of our usual (and already busy) schedule, a mistake. Loose conference schedules play a role here (two hours there, one hour here), making it challenging to isolate everyday research work from the conference time.

As Early Career Scientists (ECS) from ArcTrain, we can make several recommendations for online conferences:

For organizers/chairs/conveners

– Mark the posters and presentations made by ECS.
– Encourage senior/established scientists to attend ECSs’ talks and posters. Conveners can probably help here.
– Also, having at least one (1) ECS convener in each session helps a lot.
– Having attendees register in advance for attending posters to avoid the frustration for the presenter waiting at the poster.
– Avoid making conferences spread long over time. Or bundle a subject over a few days.
– Please do not make the breaks shorter because it is an online event. On-site, coffee is ready and just needs to be taken. At home, it is frustrating to run to make coffee on a 5-minute break between two hours-long sessions.

For ECS attendees:

> Close your emails, Slack; all messaging apps (if you don’t expect a message from another attendee!)
> Define a short time (1 hour, not more) to be available to answer questions about your poster/talk. Take into account the location of your field’s important people, the scientists you want to exchange with, choose the right time for their time zones.
> Sit down with your supervisor to decide whom to contact and invite to your poster/talk, at the time decided before, or another one if they are not available.
> Do not be too greedy on your schedule! You are at a conference now, do not try to have your usual workday on top of it.
> Define in advance which talk and poster you want to attend and join their chat/presentation time. You may also trigger people’s interest in your talk.

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