Yes, You Can Still Network at Virtual Conferences!

Written by
Jonathan Schmidt-Swartz and Emily Tobey

Nov 11, 2020

Nov 11, 2020 • by Jonathan Schmidt-Swartz and Emily Tobey

Annual meetings and conferences provide opportunities to attend talks by peers, to present your work to increase your visibility in the field, and to network with scholars from other universities. In terms of networking, in-person conferences can provide opportunities to meet and encounter new people serendipitously; for example, you can connect with someone when you stand in line for coffee, bump into a colleague at the water cooler, stay after a session to chat with a panel member, or formally introduce yourself at an after-conference networking event. Seasoned attendees know that networking is a vital part of the conference experience. Some may even argue that it is necessary for professional growth and development. Networking need not be defined as one’s ability to superficially “work a room” of strangers; on the contrary, networking can be understood as an opportunity to foster the development of authentic relationships with others who can serve as resources and allies throughout one’s career and life.

As is the case with the 2021 MLA Annual Convention, most, if not all, conferences are being forced to replace live events with virtual ones in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, making socializing in person impossible. But don’t rule out productive, career-enhancing networking. Here are some ways to make one-on-one connections during a virtual conference:

Publicize Your Anticipated Attendance and Your Scholarly Research before and after the Conference

After registering for a virtual conference, it is helpful to get the word out that you will be participating in the conference. If you are presenting your work, share the sessions, specific events, and research that you plan to present, which will help you connect with peers planning to attend the conference or with others interested in your work. Think about utilizing your personal website, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn for this. In addition to promoting your own session, consider posting a curated list of sessions on a specific topic of interest on a scholarly network like MLA Commons.

Make Use of the Attendee List and Conference Schedule

Some conference organizers grant access to daily schedules and attendee lists in advance of the conference. Look for attendees with whom you may want to connect because of shared research interests. Consider e-mailing them or connecting with them on social media—tell them that you are interested in their previous work or that you see that they are speaking about something that interests you and that you’d like to set up a time to chat informally. If possible, set up a video chat before, during, or after the conference.

Share Comments and Questions on the Conference Platform and on Social Media  

Showcase your interests and expertise by actively participating in sessions through the live Q&A tools, community chat tool, or even by live-tweeting comments if the conference allows. Some conferences, like the MLA 2021 online convention, also allow for asynchronous questions, in which you can post a question before a session and watch the session live to see presenters respond. Engagement can help you get your name out there. As with a physical conference, however, try to limit yourself to one question or comment to give other audience members an opportunity to participate.

Replace Coffee Breaks with Virtual Hangouts

Some conferences will have organized hangouts or virtual coffee breaks on Zoom or other cloud-based video platforms before the event and throughout the conference. Whether or not the events are formally scheduled, consider organizing your own to network with others. Virtual interaction might even help reduce some of the awkwardness that comes with walking up to someone at a physical conference to initiate a conversation. It may be a good idea to have senior scholars help organize these hangouts to facilitate the inclusion of those at every level. At a physical conference, PhD students may feel intimidated when walking over to a group of high-profile academics, but organized hangouts at virtual conferences—which include graduate students and professors—may finally give doctoral students a chance to engage more easily with well-known individuals from their disciplines.

Follow Up after the Conference

After the conference—within a few days—reconnect with your newly expanded network. E-mail thank-you notes to attendees you met and reach out to those with whom you would like to continue a conversation or to collaborate on a future project.

Although the “schmooze factor” of a physical conference is difficult to replicate virtually, there are some steps you can take to help create impromptu chat and facilitate online interaction. Just come to the conference with a plan and establish your networking goals early!