Community From Afar: Why Graduate Conferences Should Stay on Zoom Post-Pandemic

Grace Kimball blog post

Community From Afar: Why Graduate Conferences Should Stay on Zoom Post-Pandemic

“Zoom – Video conferencing, Web conferencing, webinar application logo” by wuestenigel

April 2, 2021

By Grace Kimball

When the pandemic shut down schools in the United States in March 2020, many academics wondered how it would be possible to continue normal routines online. Courses could be rewritten to be taught asynchronously. However, could conferences, the primary means of academic networking and research discussion, be moved online and still be worthwhile?

Over the past year, Zoom conferences have become the new reality, one that we should consider keeping, at least within graduate academia. While many members of the academic community still see Zoom as a temporary means to an end, there are a multitude of reasons that students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees should reevaluate the positive outcomes of a platform with continued potential beyond quarantine.

One of the biggest factors that graduate students should assess in creating and attending post-pandemic zoom conferences is the financial aspect. Students surviving on varying degrees of funding have found it difficult in the past to be able to go to in-person conferences because of their budgets.

Jill Hurst-Wahl’s “The Cost of Attending a Conference” highlights how academic event costs usually include everything from travel to hotel fees to registration fees for each individual. These costs can be sneaky and quickly add up for a student on a tight budget. Although these factors might seem small to a tenured faculty member with a six-figure salary, even eating out can be a point of internal debate for a graduate student.

>Zoom, however, costs nothing to a university-affiliated student apart from the expense of internet access and a computer. This aspect considerably lowers the financial strain associated with conferences. There is no expensive travel since a graduate student can attend from home, and registration fees are often waived without a need to cover in-person overhead costs.

Aside from monetary difficulties, it can also be a challenge navigating the amount of time it takes to travel to and from conference venues. Between teaching positions, classes, and other forms of professional development, graduate students rarely have free time within a school year. Time becomes a luxury for graduate students, and they may have to rush to finish term papers and dissertation chapters in crowded trains and airplanes while traveling to an event.

Zoom conferences, however, require only a few minutes of travel to one’s computer. The reduced journey means that graduate students may make better use of their time within their typical quiet environment. A student could even attend multiple days of a conference without worrying about being away from home for too long.

For students attempting to plan a conference at their institution, they are often not exempt entirely from the troubles of money and time. Although they have less of a challenge in being able to afford to go to a conference, they must orchestrate a budget, venue, and attendees for the event. Zoom conferences, although difficult to coordinate from a technology standpoint, are ultimately time savers for conference hosts who no longer have to stress over things like speaker accommodations and catering.

Such factors for in-person conferences also mean that presenters will generally come from more local areas unless they have strong financial support. The choices of conferences become more limited for graduate students, meaning their research will cater toward nearby conferences or those with less expense. This decision ultimately inhibits their academic creativity.

On the other hand, the ease of access for online conferences means that anyone in the world may apply to a conference, which diversifies the scope of presenters. Academics have the opportunity to see speakers that they would generally be unable to observe because of geographical distance.

Although many established academics may immediately want to return to a more traditional mode of conferencing, the Zoom graduate conference needs to remain after the pandemic. It is reasonable to expect that some conferences will return to previous routines since presenting on Zoom does not feel quite the same as speaking in person. However, the benefits for graduate students are too great to give up Zoom conferences entirely.

Although attendees may not be able to network as much as they do at an in-person conference, Zoom conferences provide an opportunity to gain feedback for one’s work without the long-term financial and time-based costs. Online conferencing gives students a chance to add to their CVs or resumes without wondering what they will be sacrificing just to be able to attend.

As students concerned with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion can acknowledge, advocating for online conferences as the new standard can address our shared goals. Students inhibited by circumstances that make traveling to conferences difficult, such as physical exceptionalities, location, lack of funding, and more, could have accessible opportunities that better cater to a diverse graduate student population with a variety of needs.

The opportunities that come with this mode of conferencing are endless, as students can participate in and host more conferences than ever before. This new-normal online form means that the academic community can be improved without the inequities that come from being a pre-doctoral student during the twenty-first century.

Grace Kimball is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. Her research focuses on the English early modern period and performance.