The Sociological Review Foundation awards grants to individuals for attending conferences and events. We ask recipients to write a report afterwards. This report was written by Nicola Chanamuto.
Working towards a PhD can be a lonely experience at the best of times. For many of us, the global pandemic has meant further isolation from our peers, colleagues and the wider research community. For those who are studying part time, are self-funded or have caring responsibilities, the pandemic has affected our PhD journeys in various ways. Restrictions on global travel and large gatherings have seen many of the conferences we’d planned to attend this summer cancelled or postponed. This has meant research communities have needed to quickly find new ways to connect, share and have an impact.
In my case, thanks to funding from the Sociological Review Foundation, I had been looking forward to joining migration researchers from across the world at the IMISCOE 2020 annual conference. IMISCOE is Europe’s largest interdisciplinary research network in the field of migration, integration and diversity studies. I really value being a part of the IMISCOE community because it allows me to make connections beyond my institution and country. This year, the annual conference was to be held in Luxembourg in early July. I’d spent the months beforehand brushing up my French, arranging childcare, planning the journey and reflecting on what I wanted to share.
Luckily, in a tremendous show of organisation and resilience, the IMISCOE team managed to move the 800-participant event online, with the face-to-face conference rescheduled to 2021. A happy outcome of this was that holding the 2-day conference online attracted a greater diversity of participants from a wider range of countries than normal and allowed those with caring responsibilities or limited budgets to participate without traveling overseas.
Although currently in my data analysis phase, I was glad to present my initial thoughts on the career pathways and aspirations of migrant women who do cleaning work. I also had the opportunity to chair another panel on changing gender relations and family dynamics. It was wonderful to hear from participants in a variety of countries, time zones and stages in their research. While the panels worked well, the social aspect of conferences is under-rated; as the sessions ended strictly on time, I know many of us longed to spill out into the corridor to continue conversations over coffee. It has taken intentionality and effort to pick up those conversations over the following weeks, but nonetheless some really positive connections were formed.
In my role as a PhD representative on the Gender and Sexuality in Migration Research (GenSeM) IMISCOE committee, I also facilitated a meeting for PhDs/ECRs during the conference. For many PhD students accessing marginalised or ‘less-reached’ participants was already challenging, and data collection has been further disrupted by the pandemic. During the meeting we were able to encourage one another and share interdisciplinary experiences of migration research.
As a PhD student, presenting your work before it feels ‘ready’, and in front of some of the most well-known and senior academics in your field can be a little intimidating. Nonetheless, I found that comments and questions from the audience helped challenge some of my assumptions, particularly during this data analysis phase. Participating in conferences is a key aspect of academic life and can be hugely enjoyable, motivating and stimulating.
Reflecting on my online conference experience, I’ve been reminded of the following:
- Large, international conferences are a great way to feel part of a wide, diverse research community, even if they are held online;
- Concentrating for two days straight, using new software, presenting your work online and simultaneously managing your home life can be incredibly tiring so schedule a quieter day following the conference, if possible;
- Attending an online conference from your home rather than travelling overseas might mean you are more interruptible so do set aside the time and space to fully engage;
- Chairing panels and presenting your work at online events requires different skills, learning a new “netiquette” and following specific guidelines;
- Networking at online conferences needs to be somewhat more intentional than at face-to-face events, including following up initial conversations with an email, video call or (eventually) getting that coffee together.
As the far-reaching effects of the pandemic continue over the years to come, we might expect to see more blended conferences offering both online and face-to-face participation. If we approach these with an open mind, I believe the benefits can be great.
Nicola Chanamuto is a current PhD student in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Lincoln, UK.