A week or so back I wrote this post on conferences: what to do, wear and pack. I asked around before writing the post (especially via Twitter – you can follow me @what_emma_said) to get some top tips from those far more experienced in these things than myself. My work friend Steve wrote so much on the art of networking we decided to put it as a separate post. Steve obviously knows what he’s talking about since he scored himself a postdoc before finishing his PhD. It’s given me confidence to go out there and start approaching the great and the good in science, I hope some of you find it useful too.
Networking by Steve Jones, find Steve at http://www.squaregoldfish.co.uk
As PhD student or early-career scientist, you will be frequently told that conferences are the perfect opportunity to get to know the more established scientists involved in your field. This is where you should be making contacts that could lead to future collaborations and even employment opportunities. While this is absolutely true, and the scientists in question say in all honesty that they’re more than willing to talk to new scientists in the field, actually making it happen is a little more tricky. This can be down to you, but more than likely it’s caused by the people you’re trying to talk to.
The Bad and The Ugly
Your personal issue is mostly likely the one that virtually everyone faces: summoning up the courage to walk up to a complete stranger who knows way more than you about your mutual subject and attempt to engage them in some kind of conversation. That can be a big hurdle to negotiate, especially if you’re fairly reticent (and I’d wager that accounts for most of you). It can help enormously if you are at the conference with your supervisor or another person you already know well from your institution, since they can often do the hard work for you – tracking down people they think you should know and introducing you properly. This is a valuable service, and one you should take every opportunity to exploit – it will get you over the starting line with the minimum of effort on your part. However, even this has its limitations, and the following scenario is all too familiar:
You’re wandering around during a coffee break, where everyone else is in small groups talking about who knows what and there’s no way you can just insert yourself into one of these groups uninvited. Suddenly your supervisor spots you and says “Do you know Keith? Come and join us.” So you approach the edge of the group, the whole “Keith – student, student – Keith”/”Nice to meet you” thing happens, and then you stand there like a lemon while the group immediately returns to whatever it was they were talking about before you made the group slightly larger and a little more awkward.
Even if you do pluck up courage to ambush someone and talk to them, it may not go that well. I vividly remember introducing myself someone who made a half-hearted attempt to make small talk while looking over my shoulder. And this sums up why it’s easy to fail at networking: the people you want to talk to have other reasons for being there. They want to catch up with friends and colleagues that they already know, and to get the latest news and updates on collaborative projects they may be involved with. So while they will be mostly polite and try their best to talk to engage with new people, their focus is inevitably elsewhere. So how can you get them to focus on you for at least a short while?
The key to a good networking experience is making it mutually beneficial. Give someone something of interest to them, and they’ll happily talk to you for as long as it takes. Remember that we’re all scientists because we’re curious people, so providing a new perspective on a subject will always capture the imagination. Find some aspect of your work that relates to theirs, and express your interest in the link. Alternatively, if your target has given a talk you can start with a question that gets you deeper into the topic than their ten minute slot will have allowed. This will show that you’ve got some thoughts of your own to bring to the conversation, and also that you appreciate their work and are interested in it (let’s face it, no-one is immune to this kind of ego boost). If you can get that bit right, the conversation will gain its own momentum and any trepidation you were feeling will quickly be overtaken by your interest in the subject.
Even if you have the best topic of conversation in the world, you’ll still have to pick your moment to get the best out of your encounter. If you manage to get a presentation slot of your own, you’re more than halfway there. The people likely to be interested in your work will see your talk and may well approach you with questions. In that case you’re ahead of the game! If they don’t, you can go to them knowing that they’ll already know a bit of what you do, and the odds are they’ll take the chance to learn more. (Note that if you have a poster this is much less likely to happen – the ‘top’ scientists tend to skip poster sessions in my experience.) Grab any chance where your target doesn’t look too busy (walking between talks, in the food queue, whatever), and say that you’re interested in their work and have some ideas to discuss. It can still be nerve-wracking, but at least you’ve got something concrete you want to say. They may take on the discussion there and then, but if not they’ll almost certainly agree to talk to you later. If you can’t seem to find a quiet moment to approach, tell your supervisor (or someone else that you already know) that you’d like to talk to your desired person and they’ll usually do their best to engineer a situation where you’re together – either a direct introduction or by getting you together during a meal or coffee break. Once that’s happened you’re under way.
You will find that most of the people you meet at conferences have a good memory for names and faces. (Make sure you develop one too – there’s nothing quite as awkward as meeting someone you think you don’t know only to find that you spent three hours with them at the last conference.) Once you’ve had a good chat with someone, they’ll remember who you are and talk to you the next time you cross paths. The chances are good that they’ll have also discussed your work with other people who in turn will want to talk to you. Once that ball is rolling, your future conferences and meetings will suddenly become much easier.
At some point there’ll come a time when you’re an established scientist and new PhD students will nervously approach you for a talk. This will happen more quickly than you expect and without you really being aware of it, but do try to remember you first stuttering attempts to get to know everyone and give those who come behind you a helping hand whenever you can.