Friday, December 7, 2012

Conference networking

Why do so many people have a hard time networking at conferences? Isn't that the reason we're all told to go? And no matter how hard people try, most trainees I've talked to always feel like they're wasting their time talking to whoever is next to them. Why is that?

I suppose part of the problem is that everyone expects immediate returns from networking. While that may rarely happen, networking is more of a long-term investment than that. You're not going to get a job offer because you chatted with someone over a buffet table. But they may remember you when it comes time to look for abstract reviewers.

Or, if you're bold, you can follow-up when it makes sense. Quick examples - when an assay doesn't work, when you have an interesting piece of data that may fit with someone else's data, when you hear information that may be interesting to someone, when you like someone's talk. I have sent video links that stemmed from a conversation I had with a Nobel laureate about my kid's education. I've sent information about new aquariums to members of the Academy, and corresponded with Senators about healthcare reform. I've also emailed an NIH director I met at a workshop wishing him luck when he announced he was heading back to academia.

Remember as you network that everyone at these meetings is looking to make connections. They just might not know that they want to connect to you. Your job is to be nice, humble, and honest. If a connection happens, it should be organic and not forced.

Which is also why I never look at someone's name badge until AFTER I start talking to them. Yes, I talk to the old guard. But I also talk to their trainees, their techs. I've even gotten information about grant opportunities from conference security. My approach to networking is to gather information, but also listen to what people are saying. I never ignore people and often start working a room by chatting to someone who is acting like a wallflower. Many times they appreciate the gesture and open up. Or introduce me to their friends.

I am fearless in what I'll go to - I've gone to conferences as the only representative from my university and have no problem being in a room where I don't know a soul. Strangely, some of my best personal and professional contacts have come when I start the night not knowing anyone, but end the night dancing at a bar with a group of new friends. Most importantly, I'm not shy about asking for, and listening to, advice from those that have come before me.

Bottom line - get off your butt and just do it. Yes, it will be awkward. But that's OK. Everyone knows it's hard, and very few people are good at meeting new people until they practice. Therefor, my advice is to practice early and often. Eventually it'll get better.

And you may even benefit professionally.


  1. Thanks so much for this post. I am a new faculty member (just beginning year 2) and I really hate networking and meeting people. Not really sure why, as I'm typically relatively social... maybe just the intimidation factor (and imposter syndrome!). But today I was at a one day conference on my campus that brought together the top people from across campus in a particular subject area (in which I am quite interested). It turns out the Chair of Important Stuff in Important Faculty just received funding for a project similar to one I have been running for the past couple of years. I thought about your post and got up the courage to speak to him after the event and it was great! He was really excited to hear about what I had done and how it came together and wantes to meet to look at collaborative opportunities. It was just a small step, but I am happy to have made that connection. Thanks for the encouragement to network. :)

    1. Awesome! I feel great knowing that I helped, and the story highlights exactly why it's so important to network. And BTW, that was not a small step you took - it was HUGE! And hopefully rewarding.... :)

      It's not easy to do, but I do feel networking is important. Even if it doesn't lead to a collaboration or job offer people will start to recognize you as someone who is approachable and easy to talk to. Those are traits that are sadly few and far between, and will help to set you apart from the crowd.

      Good luck in year two. If all goes according to plan I may need to get some advice from you soon.

  2. I'm just going to have to bite the bullet. Now that you all have mentioned it, it does feel like I have "imposter syndrome" as well. I feel like if I try to start a conversation someone, that I won't be able to keep up with their knowledge. I realize that there is much to be gained from interactions like these at conferences, but it is just hard for me to think that I can keep up with them. I'll make this my New Year's Resolution this year! Thanks for the encouragement!

    1. The more I talk about it the more I realize that almost all new-ish faculty have imposter syndrome. And those that don't suffer from insecurity are almost certainly doomed to failure either because they don't treat others nicely, don't learn from their mistakes, or don't listen to sage advice from people who want them to succeed.

      As for not being able to keep up with the knowledge, you'd be amazed 1)how much you know and 2)how much your experiences can relate to the story or research they are discussing. The details will almost certainly be out of your grasp unless you're talking to someone whose research is VERY similar to what you've done. Most likely there will be differences (after all, you want to live in a unique research niche, so it is prudent to be a little further away from the crowd), but the key to making these conversations is to be engaged and ask lots of questions. Sure, you may run the risk of looking like an idiot, but more than likely you'll be able to show just how interested you are in their work. Not to mention the fact you'll definitely learn something new from a true expert in the field.