Are you missing out at conferences? You might be if you’re just attending and not connecting.
Conferences are a fantastic place to meet influential scholars in your field, make connections that can lead to later jobs, and “gain insight into some of the ‘less-obvious’ aspects of how things work in the academic world — various norms, conventions, as well as some of the social and political dimensions.”
Conferences also are a great opportunity to be a helpful expert, connecting the dots via social media for other attendees as well as people who are monitoring the meeting from afar.
In today’s challenge, you’re going to learn some ways to network at conferences and make plans for future meetings. You may cringe at the word “network,” and we wouldn’t blame you. The goal here is to make authentic connections though, NOT to shake hands with everyone!
But first things first: you’ve got to attend the right conferences.
Choose the right conference
There can be dozens of conferences aimed at scholars in your field. Here’s how to find your best options:
- Ask a trusted colleague or advisor: They can tell you what the most popular conferences are, or the ones that are most appropriate for someone in your area of study or stage in your career. Take their recommendations to heart, but also consider the source: if you’re studying something they’re unfamiliar with or working on an interdisciplinary problem, they might not know about the best opportunities for you.
- Browse scholarly society websites: Some of the most important conferences are organized by scholarly societies. So check out the websites of any scholarly societies that are big in your field to see if they have annual meetings or related events listed.
- Use aggregated conference calendars: If you’re in a STEM discipline, try WikiCFP or Nature Events. Both of these sites provide comprehensive lists of STEM-related meetings from around the world. You can browse by subject area on both, and Nature Events lets you export conference information to your calendar. If you’re not in a STEM field, Force11 links to several conference calendars, including a crowdsourced one, and MLA maintains an event calendar. There are many others; just make certain they are for credible conferences.
- Use your academic social media channels: If you’ve been following along in the OU Impact Challenge, you have contacts on Twitter, LinkedIn, and more. What conferences do your contacts attend? Reach out to your network to find out what conferences are most valuable to others in your discipline.
Once you’ve got your meeting options, how will you know the right ones are to attend? Science recruiter David Jensen suggests four filters to use when deciding whether to attend a conference:
- Relevance of the topic to your current work and future goals: If you have the option, choose a meeting in your current or future field with a broad range of attendees, including people from industry and government.
- The quality of the speakers: The quality of the speakers determines the quality of the audience, which determines the quality of the networking opportunity.
- Visibility: While you can make a ton of contacts at a big meeting if you do it right, you’ll be more visible at a smaller meeting. An opportunity to present at a more intimate meeting is often very meaningful.
- Can you afford it? At a big meeting, you can often skip the presentations and get an inexpensive “exhibits only” badge. Ask the organizers if they need volunteers to work the social events desk or help attendees with their projection equipment. Many meetings have reduced rates for students, and some even have awards to cover the cost of meeting-related travel.
Got some conferences in mind now? Good – now let’s dig into how you can make the most of them.
Dig into the session schedules available on the conference website, and try to identify any “must see” talks by topic well ahead of time. This little bit of planning will keep you from missing out on important presentations related to your work.
In addition to searching the schedule by topic, keep an eye out for the names of people you want to meet. Knowing who is presenting – and when they’re presenting – may provide valuable opportunities to make meaningful connections. Conferences provide many opportunities to connect: poster sessions, before and after presentations, at cocktail hours, and so on. If there’s anyone you want to meet who’s presenting, this will be your chance!
Make some dates
Once you have a sense of who’s going to attend, reach out via email or social media to arrange an informal meet up. The Next Scientist’s Julio Peironcely suggests cold emailing with the following information:
- Use a self-explanatory title for the subject of your email. Don’t just write “Hello.” Instead, write a subject like,“Meeting at conference XXX dinner to discuss BLABLA?”
- The first paragraph of your email is your elevator pitch, short and to the point. (more on that in a moment). After reading the first paragraph, the person you are contacting should already know if they want to meet or not. Leave the details for the rest of the email.
- The rest of the email could contain some of your achievements or background and describe what’s in for the other person to meet with you.
For contacting colleagues with whom you’re already familiar, 99u suggests reaching out to your contacts beforehand and proposing “grabbing an early breakfast together, lunch, or drinks during the conference. Encourage each person to invite 1-2 people that they deeply respect, thus broadening the potential of the meeting.”
Prepare an elevator speech
Consider this scenario: you find yourself standing in line for coffee with the conference’s keynote speaker, who also happens to be someone with whom you’d love to collaborate. How do you pique their interest in the 30 seconds you have available?
That’s where an elevator speech comes in. An elevator speech (also called an “elevator pitch”) is a short, practiced explanation of who you are and what you do. Having a speech ready for situations like the one described above can save you from fumbling when you’re on the spot.
Biologist Catherine Searle proposes the following framework for creating your elevator speech:
- Introduction – Explain who you are. Obviously, this is unnecessary if you have already struck up a conversation.
- Hook – What is the major question/problem you study? You can also start with an observation (e.g. I noticed this pattern in communities with more predators and I thought that predation could be driving dynamics).
- Solution – How are you answering this question? For example, you could describe your use of field surveys, experiments or modeling. You may also talk about why you use a particular system.
- Summary and benefits of this knowledge – What have you found? Why is this work useful? What are you looking into next? Try to draw it back to your hook.
- The stage of your career (optional). For example: “I’ll be finishing my PhD this spring and will be looking for a postdoc position.” This can be useful if you are about to transition to a new stage in your career; the listener may be a potential advisor or collaborator.
Use this framework to write out a brief elevator speech, then practice giving it. Practicing will help you eliminate awkward phrases, nail the flow, and memorize your main points.
Remember to keep it short! You can always elaborate incrementally after you’ve established a rapport.
If you’ll be presenting a poster at a future meeting or conference, you’ll also want to create and practice a poster pitch, too.
“Never eat alone”
There are heaps of opportunities to meet others at conferences, and some of the best happen around meals: formal conference dinners, informal “birds of a feather” lunch meetups, and even impromptu “tweetups” for coffee or drinks.
Conference-hosted meals can give you a chance to become acquainted with people you otherwise might not meet. Worried about the mechanics of meeting new people? Julio Peironcely suggests simply asking if an empty seat is taken, sitting down, and starting with small talk about the conference food before moving on to discussing research.
He also offers the following “can’t fail” questions you can use to keep the conversation from stalling before you finish your first course:
- What is your research about?
- Do you have some exciting results so far?
- How is it to do research in your group? Pros, cons?
- How is it to live in your city?
- What were the toughest moments in your PhD?
- What are your scientific plans?
Meeting organizers might also designate tables for “birds of a feather” discussions, so you can meet others interested in similar topics. This can be an easy way to find like-minded colleagues.
You can also use mealtime to arrange informal meetings with colleagues, including those you emailed in the “Make some dates” step. Use conference downtime to arrange meetings over coffee or drinks; arranging an impromptu “tweetup” can also be a fun way to meet new people.
The title of this section, “Never eat alone,” is taken from the popular networking book, Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. We highly recommend it for learning more networking strategies.
Attend the poster session
Poster sessions are great for meeting people. Think about it: a room full of scholars standing near their posters for hours, hungering to talk to others about what they’re working on. It’s the perfect time to network and a good place to refine your networking skills. Use the prepared questions suggested above to get the conversation started. And be prepared to hand out business cards to those you meet who could be good collaborators.
You read that right: seize the conference! Jump on opportunities for socialization that arise, even if they don’t always fit into the rubric of what you’re “supposed to do.” Forego a keynote presentation to do some impromptu collaborative hacking on code; strike up conversations with poster presenters and invite them to grab a coffee when their poster session ends; linger in the conference hallway to continue a debate that started over lunch; and just basically make the most of your time at the conference by building great relationships.
Curate the conference for others
By tweeting and blogging about the meetings you attend, you can not only recap important sessions for other attendees, but also share information with those who were unable to attend.
Liveblogging and livetweeting from sessions are popular ways to curate content as the meeting unfolds; you can also recap the entire conference after the meeting ends, like Gary Steven McDowell has done.
Keep in mind that some conferences have banned social media coverage of their meetings, and some presenters might not want you to share their findings before they have a chance to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal. Check before you blog (and tweet)!
Be sure to bring business cards with you when you attend conferences. And yes, you should absolutely bring business cards with you if you’re a graduate student. They’re a quick and easy way to share your contact information with others.
You can order business cards online at Moo.com, or hit up your local copy shop, which often offers competitive prices. Moo cards have design templates, so if you’re not artistic, you don’t have to worry about designing anything–you can just choose a design, type in your contact information, and click “Buy.”
One downside to these cards is that it can be easy to forget the face that goes with a name once you return from a conference. 99u proposes beating this by writing “action items” on the back of any cards you collect; for example, “Add on LinkedIn” for a generic new acquaintance or “Introduce to Dr. Smith – reagents hookup” for a friendly vendor you intend to follow up with.
Always follow up
You won’t want to do this for everyone you meet, of course. But for the best connections you made at a conference, it’s nice to send an email saying, “Hello, I really liked your presentation; it was great to meet you” or “Thanks for the constructive criticism about my poster, it will help me improve my work.” Again, be authentic. Don’t follow up just for the sake of following up. But do follow up with the people who genuinely interested you and those who you connected with.
The Addgene blog points out that it’s also useful to stay in touch after the meeting so you can meet up at next year’s conference. “Once is just a meeting, but having lunch twice turns a stranger into a friendly colleague.”
You can use LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media platforms for ongoing interactions – the occasional comment, “like” or retweet will keep you on their mind. Do it while you’re still at the conference, or right away when you get home. Otherwise, it’s too easy to forget!
Hustling at conferences can be difficult if you’re an introvert. Heck, it sometimes can be hard if you’re an extrovert! We suggest starting small – maybe doing only a few things we’ve suggested above during your next meeting – and then building up from there. We like the advice that reminds you: you have something to bring to the table too. Check out The Postdoc Experience blog for more tips aimed at introverts who need to network.
Another challenge comes in the shape of a cocktail glass. If you don’t drink, booze-based networking opportunities can perpetuate a culture of exclusion, making it very hard to connect with other researchers in a meaningful way. You can avoid this issue by joining in the event without drinking (to the extent it’s comfortable to you), planning ahead to create informal meetings at other times, and taking full advantage of “birds of a feather” meals and coffee breaks to socialize. And take solace that conference culture is changing in many disciplines, and conference organizers are frequently creating events that appeal to non-drinkers.
Unless you’re attending a conference in the next few weeks, you won’t be able to act on the advice in this chapter immediately.
Instead, start preparing for the next conference you’re going to attend. Plan who you’ll try to connect with, prepare your elevator pitch, order some business cards, and so on. That way, you can come out swinging when those conference doors open.
And if you’re presenting at a conference, you’ll want to stay tuned to next week’s OU Impact Challenge. We’ll take a look at how to use Slideshare to make it easier to share your conference presentations.