Top tips to help you break in on the conversations at academic conferences.
Carolyn Beans, contributor
At my first academic conference I didn’t introduce myself to anyone. As a first year graduate student I directed every bit of bravery toward my talk, which left nothing extra for approaching the scientists I admired.
At the next conference I fully intended to introduce myself to every evolutionary biologist in sight. But at every coffee break and social mixer most professors were locked in conversation with each other. To talk with these scientists, I needed to break in on the conversation—a seemingly impossible task.
I found, however, that with a few tricks and a lot of preparation, introductions at conferences become much less intimidating. Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years, which I wish someone had told me before I headed out to my first big meetings.
1) Jump in on the conversation—Even though you may feel awkward, silly, or rude, you must join in on conversations. The first time I approached a scientist at a social mixer, I waited for what felt like 20 minutes for her to turn from her colleague and acknowledge me. I actually considered backing away slowly and then making a run for it. In reality, the wait was probably about 20 seconds. Ten minutes later she invited me to give my first guest lecture.
2) Have an opening ready—Immediately launching into your elevator talk seems unnatural. Instead, open with a question or observation about a scientist’s work. Then he or she will inevitably ask what you study. Cue elevator talk.
3) Get over insecurities about your work—Maybe you hate your elevator talk because your research isn’t going well. No one is more empathetic about failed experiments and underwhelming results than professors who have endured decades of them.
4) Practice ahead—Practice introducing yourself and transitioning into your elevator talk with your fellow graduate students before heading to the conference.
5) Use connections—If you can’t bring yourself to break into a conversation, ask a professor you do know to make the introductions.
6) Email ahead—Check out the program as the conference approaches to see who is presenting. If there is a professor you are especially eager to talk with, then email him or her to ask about setting up a time to meet. You can also use social media to connect with many delegates. Emailing ahead eliminates that uncomfortable introduction period. Also, for large conferences, scheduling a meeting ensures that you actually find the person you’re looking for.
7) Book a room nearby—Networking can be tiring for even the most extroverted conference attendee. Last summer I stayed in dorms located a solid twenty-minute walk from the conference venue. When networking fatigue set in, there was nowhere to escape unless I wanted to miss out on a good portion of the afternoon. When a classmate and I confessed our exhaustion to our professor, she suggested that next time (if we could afford the expense), we should book a hotel room close by. This gives you a place to break away for a quick 10-minute recharge without missing much of the action. There you can take a few deep breaths and enjoy some silence. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll want to listen to some music to pump you up for more. My personal favorite songs for conference confidence boosting are ‘Lady Don’t Tek No’ by Lyrics Born and ‘As Cool As I Am’ by Dar Williams.
So at your next conference, prepare ahead, book a recharge room, blast some tunes, and then go meet your future postdoc adviser.
Carolyn Beans is one of the winners of this year’s Nature careers columnist competition. Her first Nature column, Roadside Science, is now available to read online. Watch out for more posts from Carolyn here on the blog and in the magazine.