Networking at conferences – breaking the ice, without being a sleazebag?

Last week we posted on tips and tricks for presenting your work at conferences – especially for postgraduates and early-career researchers.

Another benefit of conferences is networking.

With conference season upon us, in AUSCCER discussion has turned to how to network at conferences – especially for postgraduate students and early-career researchers.

We absorbed some terrific advice from the geography postgrads at Manchester University: I recommend reading their comprehensive list of suggestions.

Another key dilemma we discussed is: how to make the most of networking at a conference, without coming across as an opportunistic sleazebag?

Dinner and cocktails, IAG conference 2011, UOW

Attend pre-conference workshops wherever possible

You’ll meet a smaller group of people with similar interests to yours. Much easier to break the ice when there’s a common interest. And, you will be able to reconnect with these same people over morning tea when the ‘big’ conference begins.

IAG 2011: Subterranean geographies field trip

Ditto official field trips. Who knows who you’ll sit next to on the bus. It’s how I met Gerard Toal and Anna Secor– at a political geography conference field trip in the West Bank in 1998, when I was a bumbling postgraduate (I’m still bumbling, but now thankfully with tenure…). We ended up backpacking for a while together after that trip. Although I rarely see them, living here in Sydney a rather long way from Washington DC or Lexington, I’ve valued their advice and views ever since.

Wallflowers anonymous

I know this is easier said than done, but if you feel isolated and alone try to overcome this as soon as possible on the first day. There’s only so many times you can check facebook on your phone. I recall attending conferences as a PhD student and not talking to anyone until the second day. Eventually striking up a conversation, I wished I had grown a spine earlier. Once you’ve had a pleasant chat with at least one person then the whole event seems friendlier and more open.

AUSCCER's Natascha Klocker and Kate Roggeveen at IAG 2011

Lining up for registration on the first morning is a good opportunity: talk to whoever is next in line… don’t try to make a deep academic insight, just normal small talk! And when you’ve got your name tag and calico bag, if the conversation has lulled, simply say “see you around” and find a nice nook in which to study the program.

Networking at conferences is not like picking up at a bar. There are no perfect ‘pick up lines’ and better to say hello and chat about the weather than try make a clever or witty comment. BUT just like picking up at a bar, if you do try to strike up a conversation and all you get in return is negative body language, then back out… quickly!

Quality over quantity

My PhD supervisor always advised to network and collaborate academically with people you like – your friends. Simple. No point in trying to establish a collaboration with a nasty or unfriendly person, no matter how close their research area is to yours, or how eminent they are in your field. Academic life will prove far more rewarding if you build a network of connections on the premise of friendship and respect rather than opportunism.

Shadow your supervisor for a little while, if need be. They should introduce you to their friends. You can quickly gain connections with like-minded folk by going for a coffee, lunch or beer with your supervisor and their existing “inner sanctum” of colleagues.

Business cards?

I’d be interested in hearing others’ views on this. I always take a bunch of business cards to conferences, but rarely hand them out – and often only when reciprocating after someone else has given me theirs. Are social media such as facebook, twitter and LinkedIn replacing the need for business cards? It could be a function of generational difference. I sit on the fence. Take some cards along, but don’t expect to hand out loads of them.

Tweet your thesis topic – short and sweet

Can you capture the essence of your thesis topic in 140 characters or less? Try it. I still find it difficult to talk about my research succinctly. Try telling someone about your thesis verbally, maximum two sentences.

When you strike up conversations at a conference, invariably you’ll be asked about your research. Make your reply short, but engaging – as with tweets. If there’s a genuine point of connection, you’ll end up talking for longer. If not, that’s ok – and you won’t have bored or annoyed someone with long or convoluted explanations.

Don’t expect instant fame

The Mancunian geographers emphasised this point too: if you come home from the conference having only met a few people, it’s OK. It takes time and many repeat visits to the same annual conference to build a friendly academic network. Better to form a few promising connections rather than try and make everyone know your presence at your very first conference.

If there are key people whose work you’ve already read and admired, watch their presentation and ask a succinct, friendly but engaging question. You might preempt a possible question before the conference, based on recent work of theirs that you have read. Invariably that person will come and have a chat after their paper, if you hang around a little while afterwards.

Do you have comments or suggestions? Do you take business cards to conferences? How do you break the ice?