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Scientific conferences: networking for introverts

Posted by , on 23 February 2022

As lockdowns ease and the prospect of attending a conference in person rises on the horizon, it might be time to take stock of what conferences offer that virtual meetings have fallen behind on: networking. Although networking is an important part of the conference experience, it can be daunting for some. I hope that these “Top ten tips” can help make networking a more enjoyable experience for those that aren’t feeling so confident. I don’t – by any means – consider myself an expert but I think that because I’ve actively had to work at my networking skills in my role as a Reviews Editor for Development, I’ve thought a lot about how to improve. I hope to share what I’ve learned through trial and error.

1. Cut yourself some slack

First, and most importantly, go easy on yourself! I can’t stress this enough. Big conferences can be overwhelming – even if you’re a natural communicator. It can be difficult to interact, especially when you are new to the field, jet-lagged, speaking a language that isn’t your mother tongue in a noisy room where other people might be speaking with unfamiliar accents. All these components can add up and it’s difficult! However, as with most things, the beginning is always the most challenging; it will get easier with time and better with practice.

2. Plan ahead

If you’re interested in speaking to someone in particular you can email them in advance of the meeting to arrange a time and place to meet. This way, you don’t need to worry about bumping into them by chance or spending time hunting them down. You can also use the conference Twitter hashtag, or a meeting app, to let other people know you’ll be at the meeting.

3. Start small

When meeting new people, don’t feel like every interaction needs to be revolutionary. For example, don’t feel pressure to start a 40-minute conversation about the minutiae of your research project, ending with a collaboration or a job offer. Set small goals. Sometimes, it’s enough just to introduce yourself to someone and catch up with them again later. Once they know who you are, you begin to lay the groundwork for a longer-term relationship. It’s enough to say who you are and that you’re looking forward to/enjoyed their talk. You can then leave it there for the time being.

4. The first impression

That being said, an introduction is quite important and it’s often the hardest thing to do. Personally, it’s something I still struggle with a lot and for many people with speech problems, such as stammers and stutters, saying your own name is often a trigger. Overall, my advice here is to practice and find something that works for you. If your introduction doesn’t go as planned, just carry on with the conversation; there’s no harm done, it just means you spend a bit of time correcting any misunderstanding. Don’t put pressure on yourself (remember Tip 1 above).

Some advice from Twitter

5. Keep it light

For me, one of the barriers to starting a conversation is a fear that I’ll be perceived as ignorant or stupid if I don’t know something or someone that I feel I should. This can be especially prevalent if you’re not confident about the scientific topic of the meeting. In these cases, make some small talk and find some common ground until you feel more comfortable. There are supposedly six degrees of separation between everyone in the world. I expect in scientific circles – developmental biology in particular – it’s probably half that. You’ll probably find it won’t take much time to find a colleague or institute in common.

Some fail-safe questions, which are obvious to some, include:
  • “Have you been to this meeting before?”
  • “Where are you coming from?”
  • “How was your journey here?”
  • “Do you get to spend some time visiting the local area?”
  • “What other meetings do you plan to go to?”
  • “Is anyone else from your group here?”

On the other hand, there are some questions I’d advise people to avoid, primarily about assuming someone’s academic position. I think it’s important to address our unconscious biases; even if you’re fairly confident of someone’s position (for example, if you’re attending a meeting for graduate students only), it’s still better to treat everyone equally.

Instead of…Why not try…
“Are you a student/postdoc?”“What is your background?”
“What do you work on?”“What are you interested in?”
“What’s your project?”“What are your research questions?”
“Who’s lab are you in?”“Where are you based?”
“Who is your supervisor?”
“How long have you been there?”

6. Be genuine

I find developmental biology amazing and I can sometimes find myself getting a bit over excited. I used to worry that this would come across as being unprofessional but – as the cliché goes – be yourself. We are people first and scientists second. Commit to things that interest you and don’t feel apologetic for things you are (or aren’t) enthusiastic about.

7. Team up

Networking with a friend, colleague or even someone you met on the conference bus, can be a useful way of meeting new people without the pressure of trying to keep a conversation moving by yourself. You can ‘tag out’ and get some time to find your feet. Just make sure you don’t end up too reliant on support or only staying part of a group because you want to develop a unique identity and stay approachable (see Tip 8 below).

8. Be approachable

A reciprocal part of being a “good networker” is allowing others to network with you. Be conscious and aware of your surroundings; open the conversation circle when new people want to engage in your group discussion, or move aside if someone wants to listen in on a poster talk. Although travelling as a lab is great for bonding, and meeting old friends can be the personal highlight of a meeting, be careful not to come across as cliquey or exclusive. Talk to poster presenters and ask them questions – you never know what opportunities might arise out of a chance encounter.

9. Participate

Presenting a poster or a talk, or being a meeting organiser, is a great ice breaker and provides an opportunity for people to initiate a conversation with you.

10. Know when to call it a day

At the first opportunity for networking, it could be that you’ve been travelling halfway around the world and been awake for more than 24 hours. Know when to stop and get some rest; the harder the push yourself the more exhausted you will be and the harder it will become to keep up a conversation. Sometimes, knowing your limits is a really useful skill and there’s no shame in leaving the welcome drinks a little early.

Share your own wisdom

So, those are my suggestions! Do you have any other tips for networking? Share them in the comments below!

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