Advice: how to network at conferences (UPDATED)

Scicurious asks a question about “networking” at scientific conferences:

HOW do you DO IT?

(emphasis in original)

Good question! But I can’t tell you the answer, because that would involve teaching you the secret handshake which is taught only to Faculty and which we use to signal to one another that we are not Students, so that we can avoid talking to Students at conferences. As a member of the Faculty, I’m not allowed to teach the secret handshake to Students, on pain of death.*

Just kidding. 😉 I actually totally understand where this question comes from. Most people don’t find it easy to just go up to a stranger and start talking to them, even when the stranger is a fellow ecologist at an ecology conference that exists mainly so that ecologists can meet and talk to one another. Especially when the stranger is your “superior”.

Which is something you really need to try to get over–the feeling that anyone is your superior. It’s easy to understand where this feeling comes from–as a student, you periodically get evaluated by certain faculty, such as the faculty teaching your courses or your committee members evaluating your thesis proposal. So it’s easy to feel like you’re always being evaluated, by every faculty member you meet. But you’re not. Seriously, you’re not. If you come and talk to me at a conference, I’m not going to be quizzing you to see if you’ve read all (or any!) of my papers, or tearing apart your research project, or anything like that. In fact, like NeuroDojo, not only do I like talking to anyone about science, I’m actually flattered that you would be interested in my work, or want my advice on your work. And most every ecologist I know feels the same way (even those who wouldn’t admit to being flattered are subconsciously flattered; having people want to pick your brain is good for your ego). And while it’s true that I’ll probably form some sort of opinion about you based on our conversation, that’s true of every conversation that every person has with another person. So have the confidence to approach others as peers–and they’ll treat you like one.

Even if you want to ask someone for advice, don’t let that shade into feeling like you’re some kind of supplicant begging the indulgence of the king. Because you know what? Faculty ask each other for advice all the time. We even ask students and postdocs for advice. That’s what colleagues do.

But of course, saying “don’t be nervous or intimidated” isn’t actually helpful advice, or even advice at all. So here are some tips for networking at conferences:

  • Ask your supervisor to introduce you to whoever it is you want to meet. A good supervisor will also tell her friends to stop by your poster or come to your talk.
  • Have some purpose for meeting people.  “I just want to meet Dr. Famous” or “I just want to make sure Dr. Famous has heard of me and my work” aren’t really good purposes. Although if all you want to do is tell someone you really enjoyed their talk, or that you love their writing for the Oikos blog ;-), that’s fine (just don’t expect a long conversation to spontaneously begin if that’s all you wanted to say).
  • Most people will see through flattery. Never try to flatter someone just to ingratiate yourself.
  • Tag along with your supervisor to some meals. I did this a lot as a young grad student at the ESA meeting. I’d just ask my supervisor Peter Morin if he had any dinner plans that night, and usually he’d either invite me along or wouldn’t object if I invited myself. As far as I recall, I was usually pretty quiet at dinner, and I don’t think Peter considered me a pest (maybe Peter will comment if my memory is fuzzy here!) I think just hanging out with Peter and all his famous friends (Peter pretty much knows everybody) helped get me used to thinking of these folks as my peers. Or, if he was chatting with someone at a poster session or something, I’d just come up and say hi to him, and then he’d introduce me to whoever he was chatting with. The side benefit of this was free food: Peter never lets students pay for their own meals when they’re out with him (I have the same policy).
  • Attend some small conferences or working groups. At a big conference like the ESA the biggest challenge to meeting someone you want to meet can be finding them in the crowds! It can also be hard to force yourself to introduce yourself, to stand out from the crowd. For students who are nervous about approaching faculty, I think there can be a subconscious tendency to sort of “hide” in the crowd at a big conference.  There’s no crowd for you, or the people you want to meet, to “hide” in at a small conference. Especially if the conference has elements designed to encourage interaction, like communal meals and discussion/breakout sessions.
  • Give a poster rather than a talk. That way, people will come by your poster and introduce themselves to you. And if they come by but don’t introduce themselves, you have a ready-made excuse to take the initiative (“Hi, I’m So-and-so, let me know if you have any questions or want me to walk you through it.”)
  • Talk with visiting seminar speakers at your home university. And not just as part of your lab group’s meeting with the visitor, or as one of 50 grad students attending the pizza lunch with the visitor. Book some one-on-one time. Put a bit of advance thought into what you want to talk about, and don’t hesitate to talk about your own stuff. Remember, the speaker will probably be keen to talk about your work, because she’ll already have given, or be giving, a seminar on her own work. Do this even if the speaker’s research isn’t exactly like, or even all that similar to, your own. Every ecologist I know is broadly curious about the world, and likes chatting with people about all kinds of ecology. Plus, visiting speakers expect and want to chat with all sorts of people about all sorts of things–that’s part of being a visiting speaker. Once you’ve chatted with a few faculty from outside your own university, you’ll stop seeing them as your superiors. Plus, you’ll have had practice explaining your work to strangers, so you’ll be good at it when it comes time to attend the next conference.
  • Email people in advance if you really want/need to talk at the conference. This is probably most appropriate if it’s someone who you want or need to have more than a brief chat with–say, someone you see as a potential collaborator or something.
  • Right after someone’s talk, or right at the end of a session, can be a good time to grab someone and ask them if they’re free to chat later.
  • If the person you want to talk to is currently talking to someone else (and they probably are), just stand close by, in their line of sight, and wait a minute for a break in the conversation so you can introduce yourself. Yes, this is a little awkward–but not because you’re a student. I find it awkward too; it’s awkward for anyone. Once there’s a break in the conversation, just say “Sorry to interrupt…”, introduce yourself, and ask the person you want to talk to if there’s a time when they could chat. This kind of interaction happens all the time, especially at larger conferences. You’re not going to annoy or offend anyone if you do this. And if the person you’re talking to responds by saying something like, “Sure, send me an email,” they’re not signalling annoyance, that’s just how they’d prefer to do their scheduling. Similar remarks hold if the person you want to talk to currently appears to be going somewhere in a hurry. Just introduce yourself and say “I know you’re busy–do you have some time to talk later?”
  • Talking to postdocs, younger faculty, and your fellow grad students often is more valuable than talking to Dr. Famous. And you may find it easier.
  • It’ll get easier with practice, just like everything else in life.
  • UPDATE: One more thing I forgot: don’t ever feel obliged to drink alcohol if you don’t want to. Just drink whatever you want. No one will hold it against you or think you’re weird or anything. I’m speaking from personal experience here: as a grad student, I basically never drank alcohol. And I met plenty of people, and hung out with them in bars. It was fine. I only really started drinking beer as a postdoc.

I can’t promise that every interaction you have will be positive. It’s possible that someone you want to talk to will be rude to you. Maybe even rude to you because you’re a student (nobody’s your “superior”, but some people think they are). Don’t let it get to you, and don’t take it personally. Some people are jerks (and some are just having a bad day, or whatever). And don’t let it color your perception of any larger group. Plenty of famous ecologists are really nice and approachable.

So, for anyone out there who will be at Evolution 2012 in Ottawa or the ESA meeting in Portland and wants to talk to me: please do!

*Oh what the heck, here it is (5:46 mark).

23 thoughts on “Advice: how to network at conferences (UPDATED)

  1. Excellent advice.
    I especially concur with “Attend some small conferences or working groups”. I push my students to do this, because when there are 15-40 people working on your subject, and everyone gets to to talk, it’s really easier and more constructive. No way you’ll speak to Prof Famous at the 1000+ people conf. Also, if you go regularly to one or two such small meetings, people will recognize you.
    Another piece of advice: don’t think of your own research as boring others. We are all (mostly at least) geeky people with an interest in the details of our sub-field, so if you work on the same kind of stuff as I do, and you found a subtle bias, or are generating new data, or don’t understand weird results, that’s cool for me, I want to know.

    • That last piece of advice is great. After all, if you think your own work is boring, or you give that impression, you’re not being modest or charmingly self-deprecating. You’re signalling to others that they shouldn’t care about your work or talk to you about it. Because after all, if you think your own work is boring, why the heck should I think otherwise?

  2. Jeremy, somehow I can’t imagine you sitting quietly at dinner, no matter how many luminaries happened to be at the table.

    • Yeah, I probably deserve that snark. In fact I’m sure I’m do. But in my own defense, you probably can’t imagine me just drinking soda in bars either, given that I’ve become a beer nerd. People change.

      Believe it or not–and I’m sure you don’t believe it–I’m actually somewhat uptight and shy around strangers. You just don’t see it because you’re not a stranger. Around my friends I’m relaxed, talkative, and opinionated–too much so.

      And over the years I have kind of learned how to be less shy around ecologists in general. Basically, I’ve learned how to translate my confidence in my abilities as an ecologist, and my confidence speaking in front of an audience, into a sort of social confidence. But that’s still a work in progress–I’ve kind of overcome my shyness by approaching conversations as lectures, which isn’t really ideal. Hopefully someday people who know me will still find it hard to imagine that I was ever uptight or shy–but not because I don’t ever seem to shut up.

  3. “don’t ever feel obliged to drink alcohol … No one will hold it against you or think you’re weird or anything.”

    Also speaking from personal experience: not always true. In my 4.5 years as a grad student I have twice been confronted (once fairly aggressively) about not drinking alcohol in social situations during ecological meetings/workshops. Nice that it never happened to you, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ever happen. Better advice: have a planned, neutral, conversation-stopping response just in case someone does confront you.

    • By faculty? That does surprise me. Your suggested way of dealing with it seems reasonable. I suppose you could try just saying nothing and changing the subject too.

      But I still do think what happened to you is unusual (or are all the people I know just unusually nice and polite?). So I’d still advise you not to let a generalized worry about “what will people think if I go to a bar with them and order a soda?” hold you back from engaging in social interactions you’d otherwise want to engage in (and I know you weren’t suggesting otherwise). Similar to how you shouldn’t let a generalized worry like “What if Dr. Famous thinks I’m dumb?” hold you back from talking to senior faculty you want to talk to. Some people are jerks about alcohol, or jerks to students, or just jerks. You can’t let worries about encountering such people dominate all your interactions.

  4. As a wildlife student that finds it a bit awkward to approach people at conferences, I really enjoyed the advice. I’ve tried to employ some of it before. While attending a conference I approached a few presenters after their lectures and found them very happy to speak with people. Doing this led to various connections for volunteer work. I highly recommend it.

  5. My longstanding strategy, especially at ESA, is to ask questions during question periods. That way, not only is it easier to come up to people afterwards, but they actually come up to me! And thinking about what question you might ask helps keep you listening actively.

    I’ll admit that I naturally ask a lot of questions and turned it into a “strategy” when I saw the effect it had. But I think anyone can learn to do this.

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  11. Very nice advice. The funny thing is that introducing yourself to a stranger, even a senior professor, was not frightening for students from Latin cultures in the past. However, I have the impression that they are becoming more and more shy, as their Internet social lives become dominant over their real social lives. Young fellas just don’t know how to approach the elder anymore! I wrote advice on the same topic in my blog last year, after coming back from two conferences and observing the students’ behavior.

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