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Networking: how to ‘market’ yourself at conferences

In the last post in this series on academic conferences, we addressed the etiquette behind the use of social media. Shifting gears a bit, let’s have a think about the importance of networking with your colleagues. Before going to a conference, it’s really worth thinking about your goals. Are you hoping to present research and get feedback? Are you looking for a graduate program, or perhaps even a job or internship? Are you an artist looking for commissions?

Networking! One of the most useful skills researchers can learn to do well. Image: British Science Association
Networking! One of the most useful skills researchers can learn to do well. Image: British Science Association

Some helpful tips to guide you through the networking maelstrom include:

  • If you are interested in a particular graduate or internship program, or job, consider contacting relevant advisors/employers ahead of time to set a time to talk about the program. Similar advice applies to discussing your research – if there is a particular scientist you really want to chat with, contact them ahead of time to make a plan to meet up. Prepare a short list of questions/topics for discussion, to maximize efficiency. Don’t expect people to hunt you down. Coffee sessions and beers in the evening can be the perfect time for a casual/formal chat.
  • If you are an artist, have a small portfolio along with you that showcases your work.
  • Similarly, if you’re a researcher, carry a researcher, carry around your work! One thing that works well is having images/results/article drafts etc. saved onto a tablet or laptop that you can easily whip out to show your work off. It’s worth saving these onto the device rather than relying on the cloud, as you might not have wifi all the time.
  • Consider printing up a small number of business cards with your contact information (more on this below). Several default templates can be found on the internet or pre-loaded onto your word processing program of choice. Sites like Vistaprint provide this service well for extremely low cost.
  • If you are on the market for a job, internship, or graduate program, dress appropriately. A faded Jurassic Park t-shirt and camo shorts may be comfortable in the field, but (fairly or unfairly) can give the wrong impression to potential colleagues. Don’t overdress, but certainly dress somewhat professionally. For men, clean jeans with a buttoned down collared shirt and a blazer works; ladies, it’s all personal preference regarding clean jeans and a blouse versus slacks or dresses. And it goes without saying, but here’s a kind reminder for everyone to groom yourself (you’d be surprised). At the end of the day though, it’ll come down to community expectations.
Preparation will always win..
Preparation will always win.. Image: PhD Comics

Top tips for first-time attendees

To help settle some of the jitters you might have, here are our top tips for first time attendees. After all, we were all first timers too, once!

  • Don’t be a “derp”. And please, for the love of god, don’t be rude to your colleagues or anyone else. Honestly, be courteous and respectful of others’ science, their opinions, and their sense of self. This is by far the most important rule, at conferences and in your everyday life. Need we say more? You can still have a good debate or argument without coming across like a douche.
  • Don’t be a fanboy. Or fangirl. Enthusiasm is great, but scientists are people, and that dinosaur hat and t-shirt and all the salivating might be pushing it sometimes. Take a deep breath, gather your nerves, and share that enthusiasm in a respectful way. Focus on your relevant interests to engage in a meaningful conversation, to be taken seriously, and of course to still have fun. Professional conferences can be different from fan conventions in this way–people are there for professional reasons (mostly), so please be respectful of that purpose. That said, most researchers are a friendly lot, and are happy to engage with anyone interested in the field. At the end of the day this isn’t a “Comic-Con” thing – it is still a job meeting. Consider breaking the ice by offering to buy a beer, as long as the timing and venue works. Scientists never turn that down.
  • That being said, be careful with alcohol. Although many researchers enjoy their beer (or wine or tequila…), many choose not to drink. It’s your choice! If you do choose to drink, watch your consumption, and drink responsibly. Don’t be “that person” who has a few too many and says something embarrassing or offensive, or gets into a bad situation. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. These are scientists, and as long as questions are presented in a non-confrontational manner (see above point about not being a douche), most researchers are happy to explain their reasoning and supporting data. Some of these questions can help you further your research into new avenues that may seem simple but are much needed in your niche community. And remember, science thrives on open discussion!
  • Budget your resources, both time and money. Conferences are busy places, there are talks going on in every room, and there are also the concessions and exhibitor room. This rule is good for everyone, no matter your level of conference experience.
Budgeting properly for food is important. Image: PhD Comics
Budgeting properly for food is important. Image: PhD Comics

Following that, here are some simple tips to use before the conference, during the conference, and  after the conference.


Before the conference:

  • Some schools offer travel grants to attend these conferences. Yes, you will have to do the legwork to secure these funds but it can help you get to there and ease the financial aspects of conferences.
  • If you are comfortable doing so, consider  fundraising outside of school. Talk with donors or check out websites like GoFundMe.com or IntelliSmart.org to crowdfund your conference attendance. Many people like to contribute to science, and if they will get recognized in groundbreaking research they may want to support you!
  • Another tip would be get a map of the city you are going to so you can plan travel around the city (e.g., bus or train lines). Many of these maps can be loaded onto smart phones.
  • For your lodging, ask hotels for student rates or travellers rates. Some conferences have special accommodation rates too.
  • If you are on social media, look for travelling buddies to help cover gas. Or, split a hotel room.
  • If you have a poster, looking into your printing options. If you are at a university or other institution, you may have free or low-cost options available via departmental or library printers. Or,  look into fabric posters. Check websites like www.spoonflower.com, which allow you to print on fabric instead of paper at a fraction of the cost, without losing resolution on your figures.

 

screen-shot-2012-05-21-at-12-45-48-am
Are you ready? I mean, are you READY? Image: PhD Comics

During the Conference: 

  • If the conference has free food and drink as far as snacks goes, great – load up! Most of the time, they do not, however. This is an excuse to go out and sample the many different foods the city you are in is known for. A lot of the meal places that are around the conference have special deals; look for food trucks also. Try and meet new people over lunch! Food is the way to a researcher’s heart.
  • Some conferences also have a “Dealer’s Room” a place where you can find some sweet deals on shirts, books, and other items. Check that area out on say the last day of the conference where things can be reduced in price to make a quick last buck.
  • Budget your time carefully. If you try and see every single talk in a session, you are going to be burned out by the second day. Select just those talks that might be of interest to you (while also stretching your knowledge by sitting in on talks outside of your immediate interests). There’s nothing wrong with a mid-afternoon power nap.
  • Check out the posters before the official poster session time. This way you can figure out which authors you want to visit with during the session, and you also can avoid the crowds of the poster session itself. This will allow you more time to more effectively and efficiently read the posters. Of course, if everyone starts doing this then it kinda defeats the point. Also note that in this case, you might miss the opportunity to have a chat with the presenter, so make a note of which you might want to return to during formal presentation times.
  • The gist is even if you are at a conference, you should still take in some of the sights and have fun.

 

A few more general points about being prepared for networking:

  • Do not forget to send out thank you notes to people who you met up with. If you got their contact info, send them a wonderful thank you note. This helps to foster relationships. If you are a prospective graduate student this allows your future advisor to know you better as not only a fellow researcher but possibly their student in the coming years. This is part of the ongoing theme of this post of enhancing networks through communication.
  • If you’re giving a presentation (poster or platform), have multiple backups. Save a copy to a flash drive, keep a copy on your laptop, and put a copy on the cloud. Consider also publishing your poster! This is free and easy via platforms like Figshare, ScienceOpen and F1000, and they become citable and re-usable instances of your work.
  • If you can, bring business cards. It will make you look prepared and professional when you discuss your (or someone else’s) research and plan to get in contact. Nothing is more disruptive than trying to find a pen and a piece of paper to write down someone’s details [edit: except maybe the Spanish Inquisition].
  • Bring a small notebook to write out thoughts from the talks, posters, and conversations in which you participate. This is actually a neat idea for inside and outside of conferences. Or consider live-blogging for note taking, or just using a laptop more in general.
  • For all attendees, having readily accessible comfortable and professional clothes is a good choice for versatility between attending talks, social hour, and potential networking meetings. Remember, it can get cold in those conference centers, so a spare jacket or sweater is very helpful.

Well, that’s the end of this mini-series! We hope you’ve found it useful, and feel a little bit more equipped to take on the conference world! At the end of the day, just enjoy yourself. Conferences might be a professional domain, but that doesn’t mean presenting and networking can’t be fun.

Note: This post is written by researchers who frequent the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and Geological Society of America meetings, but it is applicable to most conferences, in our experience!

Additional resources

Discussion about live-tweeting at conferences

How to build scientific communities

SVP Social Media Policy link

Cool article on networking at academic conferences by Nature

How to get the most out of your academic conferences

Tips on preparing for academic conferences

Reach out to us: Tell us how we can make this post even better!

Contact us at:

Rob Gay – @paleorob

Taormina (Tara) Lepore – @OutboundTreks

Franziska Sattler – @ohyeahfranzi

Nathan Van Vranken – nvanvranken@sbcglobal.net

Andy Farke – @andyfarke

Jon Tennant – @protohedgehog

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