Experience of a PhD student from an in-person conference in the era of covid-19.

by Konstantinos Konstantis

Before covid-19, almost all the conferences were held in person with very few exceptions which were held online. During the first months of pandemic, many conferences were cancelled and other were postponed. Scientific community started to held conferences online in its try to keep organizing conferences during pandemic. In 2022, countries started to lift restrictions that were imposed due to covid-19 and some scientific communities started to organize in-person conferences again. 

As a student who started my PhD during pandemic, I have participated in many online conferences and meetings. For example, I participated in the joint meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) which was held online in 2020. Presenting a paper at the first year of my PhD was absolutely a remarkable experience. Although, after the presentation, I felt that I hadn’t lived this experience on the highest level. This feeling changed directly when I participated in an in-person conference.

One could claim that with online conferences people could benefit from the advantages that may provide this form of events. One of the advantages is inclusivity. Online conferences are more inclusive than in-person conferences. People from all over the world can participate in online conferences and they don’t have to worry about many issues that they would have to deal with, if these conferences were held in person. They don’t have to pay for flight tickets, for their accommodation and for their meals during the conferences. So, one could say that participants could have many reasons to support that online conferences increase inclusivity. My intention is not weighing up in general pros and cons of the two forms of events. My intention is to focus on the claim that attending in-person conferences provide PhD students with experiences that cannot be lived in online conferences. The feelings that has a PhD student presenting their research in front of other PhD students, professors, and researchers and become aware of their reactions and their emotions are unique.

Being part of an enormous conference like EASST 2022 “Politics of technoscientific futures” is a unique experience for a PhD student. My research focuses on the ethics of engineering (and more specifically of artificial intelligence), so I was happy to find that many sessions and presentations were related to this topic. During all days of the conference, one could easily find panels dealing with subjects in areas related to AI, big data, and digitalization, from STS perspectives. In this review, I provide, first, my perspective as a presenter, and then, as an attendant.

Presenting a paper at an in-person conference is a totally different experience than presenting at an online conference. First, you meet in person with the other panelists of the same session. This is a fruitful experience for a PhD student. Meeting other scholars from all over the world who work on similar topics to yours makes you understand that you belong to a scientific community that shares mutual concerns. In this way, one feels that their work could have a contribution that is useful and interesting for many other academics. Discussions with the rest of the presenters start even before the beginning of the sessions. And then, when the time for the presentation comes, presenters are overwhelmed by satisfaction because finally they have the chance to present their work in front of professors, PhD students, researchers, and many others, from all over the world. This is a feeling that is almost impossible to be felt in online conferences. Questions, comments, and a constructive discussion follow the presentation. All these that seem common for a conference, are a whole new experience for a PhD student during the covid-19 era. Even once the time of the session is over, attendees and presenters have the time to discuss about their concerns during coffee breaks, lunch time, and so forth. I had the chance to exchange opinions with other PhD students and professors during breaks in between other sessions, something that I would not have the chance to do in an online conference.

My presentation was part of the panel entitled “AI, digitalization, and algorithms”. On this panel, I had the chance to meet in person and speak with scholars who focus on the same research area as mine. Apart from this panel, EASST had numerous panels and sessions focused on the broad field of AI and big data. As a result, I had the chance to attend many other presentations relevant to my research interests. Also, this conference gave me the opportunity to attend many sessions relevant with a variety of STS issues. Examples are the panels entitled “Conflict, contradiction, and crisis in data-intensive health innovation” and “Energy futures from the past”.

Figure 1: Konstantinos Konstantis in his presentation with the title “The birth of (AI) ethics and its discontents”. (Source: Konstantinos Konstantis)

PhD students have some professors that inspire them. Some professors that play crucial role during their PhD studies. In-person conferences give PhD students the chance to attend the sessions of distinguished professors from all over the world. Meeting in person, asking questions, and discussing with professors and scholars from all over the world that share the same passions is a remarkable experience for PhD students. Personally, I enjoyed Plenary 1 of the first day. Annalisa Pelizza, a distinguished STS professor, and Amade M’Charek, a distinguished professor of anthropology of science, provided excellent presentations in a crowded auditorium. The presentations of these two professors were relevant, among other issues, with the question “What kind of STS do we need”, which was part of the title of this Plenary. For an STS community and for PhD students of STS this is one of the most interesting questions. Presenters approached this question by concrete examples relevant to migration and borders, having a sociotechnical approach. Questions, comments and a fruitful discussion followed the presentations. For a PhD student, being in an auditorium full of professors, researchers, and other PhD students, who make a discussion about the role of their scientific field is an incredibly constructive process. At an in-person conference, someone could perceive much better the arguments, the concerns, the aspect, and the reactions of a speaker, than at an online conference. So, in-person conferences offer a much more fertile ground for discussions like these.

I conclude this reflection by highlighting that EASST 2022 in-person conference was a brilliant experience for me as a PhD student. In-person conferences offer a more holistic experience for attendees than online events. Complying with all the restrictions for covid-19, EASST 2022 was a safe and at the same time exciting conference. Presenting your work, discussing, and socializing is much more efficient when it happens in person.