When scientists hear the word networking they often think about situations that they might encounter at conferences. There are concrete steps that you can take while at a conference that can maximize your chances of networking success. Several built-in networking opportunities exist within the schedules of conferences that make it easier to network. The major activities that occur at conferences are talks/presentations/symposia and poster sessions and these provide great venues in which to meet fellow scientists. If you are participating in a talk session, you have a built in excuse to introduce yourself to your fellow presenters and the session chair. When attending talks, think about good, solid questions that you could ask the speaker and go for it! Now the speaker will recognize you and so will everyone else who was in the audience of that session. If you are presenting a poster, get to know your physical neighbours during your poster session. If you are interested in a particular poster, engage the presenter in a conversation. Write down important suggestions, comments, questions, and feedback on your own work and the work of others. These will spark new ideas and lead to interesting conversations. Offer to share articles, information, and resources with others when these things naturally come up in conversation. Be open to possibilities for collaboration and picking up research tips and tricks from others.
There are other “structured” events where you can network at conferences besides talk and poster sessions. Many conferences are organized by a scientific society. At annual meetings, the society will often hold business meetings. If you can see yourself becoming involved in the governance of the society in the future, then attending these meetings is a great start. Many graduate students that I know are not aware that they can attend business meetings, but if you are a member of the society your participation will be welcomed! Most conferences also offer an impressive array of workshops. These are excellent opportunities to network while getting involved in topics that interest you. I make it a point to attend professional skill development workshops and workshops targeted towards women in science and early career scientists when I attend conferences. Some conferences will offer social events for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and if you are new to networking these events are less intimidating and offer you an opportunity to network with your peers. If you are interested in a career in industry you will want to talk to people in the exhibition hall who are representing equipment and chemical suppliers, publishing companies, etc. in order to build relationships in those areas. Be selective in the events that you attend in order to avoid burn-out. If you decide to go to an event I find it easier to go early to the event as it is less intimidating to network when fewer people are present.
If you are attending a conference with people that you know, resist the urge to always huddle together. Try to circulate and mingle at events. Ask colleagues to introduce you to new people and return the favour by introducing them to people that you know. If you see someone standing alone, be inclusive and welcoming and ask them to join your discussion. Talk to people in the refreshment line during breaks. At meals you can be brave and sit with people you don’t know.
Networking is a long term process. You don’t have to do all of the above at every conference that you attend. Decide ahead of time what you want to accomplish in terms of networking and do your best. In my next post I’ll talk about the importance of maintaining the relationships that you have started to build. What can you do after the conference is over to continue to strengthen your network?