How to be better at networking at conferences

By Claudia Bonfio, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK

Personal2For a young undergraduate student, attending a conference could mean visiting a new country, having fun (and drinks) with other group members and grabbing as many gadgets as possible from sponsors’ stands. For an academically-grown up postdoc, together with attending great scientific talks, attending conferences means networking with people in the same field or outside of it, to create new collaborations and partnerships.

When I attended my first academic conference, I felt like the black sheep; in order to not be completely alone, I spent the whole time in my supervisor’s shadow, too shy or clumsy to introduce myself to anyone or even just take part to conversations around me. I was lucky he was there though, or I would have spent three days in complete silence. Once back home, I promised myself that I would never feel like that again.

Over the next few years, I luckily learnt how to deal with my insecurity, and also how to make new friends and start new conversations during an academic conference. Just last year, I went alone to four different conferences… and I survived! Of course, it always feels a bit awkward when you don’t know anyone, but as soon as you start to talk to someone, it all gets easier from there. However, since I have gone through it and (I think) I succeeded, I decided to share with you my top five tips to be great at and enjoy networking at academic conferences.

1. Choose a conference you like

At some point during your PhD your supervisor will forward you an email about a conference he suggests you to attend. It will probably be a small and focused event when you are at the beginning, and a larger and broader conference when you are a self-aware young expert in your field. However, if you find by chance an interesting conference you would like to attend, be brave and suggest it to your supervisor. Also, if you apply for (and win) a travel grant, you will not need to use your supervisor’s money, it will boost up your self-confidence… and it would look nice on your CV!

2. Identify your targets

The best way to start networking is to find out who you want to meet and talk to. Have a look at the event website and programme a few days before the conference, so that you know which sessions you really want to take part in and which posters you really want to look at. You could even email someone and set up an informal meeting during a coffee break to have a chat. Otherwise, once the conference begins, you can just pop in and find the speakers you want to meet in the lecture room before their talk or find the poster you are interested at and introduce yourself to its presenter.

Someone could be quite nervous before an oral or poster presentation, so don’t be too intrusive, just say few details about yourself and wait for them at the end of the session.

3. Be social, create your own network

Some events are widely publicized and followed on social networks like Twitter. If you don’t like to go hunting for new people to talk with, encourage them to find you! A few hours before your talk, spread the voice about it on your personal account, providing all the useful details (and don’t forget the hashtags!). Same thing about a poster, share the title of your project and be precise on your location. Everyone interested in your results will show up to meet you, so that you will end up expanding your network and strengthening your presentation skills. It will be like killing two birds with one stone!

4. Join group activities

When I say “group activities”, I mean any kind of activity that is organized for participants. It may be a guided tour, a board game night (could be very engaging!) or an outreach event. Recently I went to a workshop where I took part in my first “speed networking”, an activity that allows participants to interact with others, in a series of brief one-on-one information exchanges. Before doing it, I was very sceptical, and I was almost convinced to not take part to it – luckily I did! I ended up meeting all the participants in half an hour and screening those I was more interested to talk with over dinner… and it was incredibly funny!

5. Even if you are not alone, be alone

Sometimes you attend a conference together with your group, or your supervisor. Of course, knowing someone will make you less nervous and more relaxed, but it should not hold you from meeting new people. Take the opportunity to go around alone during the poster session and discuss with presenters. Or share the table with few strangers during lunch breaks… you can easily find your colleagues at any time, if you don’t find anyone interesting. But sometimes, among those strangers, you really make new friends!

1About me
I am a Postdoc at the MRC – Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where I study the chemical origin of extant life. I have experienced interdisciplinary research across Europe and US and tutored high school students and undergraduates in Chemistry. A strong believer in science communication, I spend my spare time attending career events and watching TED talks to improve my transferable skills. Find me on Twitter (@ClaudiaBonfio)!

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