Academic conferences provide multiple opportunities for researchers. They are a chance to learn about new work being done in your field, they offer a platform to present your work and gather feedback, and they allow you to meet and network with other researchers., In addition, one of these people could one day become a research partner, colleague, funder, or employer.
Conferences can be intimidating, especially if you’re at an early stage in your career. If done properly, networking at academic conferences can be extremely beneficial to your career as an academic.
Here are our best tips to help you get the most out of these networking opportunities.
Networking before and after the event:
Tip 1: Define your networking goals
Ask yourself the following question: What are you hoping to achieve by networking at this event?
- Are you hoping to get your name out there as a researcher in your field?
- Are you looking for feedback on the research you’re conducting?
- Are you looking for a research partner?
- Are you looking for a new job?
- Are you in need of funders for your research?
Defining your goals is the first step toward achieving them. These goals will impact how you spend time at the conference. They can influence which presentations you attend, which participants you gravitate to during breakout sessions, and the type of conversations you initiate.
Tip 2: Network online using the event hashtag
Networking can begin way before the event date if you take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. Most conferences have a custom hashtag that allows participants to discuss topics relevant to the event online as they make plans for their attendance and presentations.
Use this hashtag. It will group all of your event-related posts together, making them easily accessible for others interested in the conference.
Post regularly using this hashtag and get your name recognized! By posting relevant, interesting, engaging content on social media that uses the event hashtag, you will begin to build your professional brand, creating name recognition for other participants. It’s also an opportunity to learn about some of the other presenters and attendees and connect with them before the event even starts.
Tip 3: Stay at the hotel recommended by event organizers
Most conference organizing committees will select a hotel and negotiate a group rate for out-of-town attendees to stay. This hotel will be advertised on the event website and in pre-conference communications sent out by the organizers. It can be tempting to choose a different hotel that’s closer to other places you want to visit in the city, or that is part of the reward points program you participate in, but don’t.
Most conference presenters and attendees will stay in the recommended hotel, creating a potential networking opportunity every time you step into an elevator or take a seat in the lobby. Plus, many of the event-related social events will take place at the hotel or use the lobby as a meeting spot, making this both a convenient and strategic choice of accommodation.
Tip 4: Research the other attendees
The conference website will usually keep a list of researchers who have registered for the conference. Look into who they are, where they’re from and what they’re researching, while keeping your goals in mind.
Perhaps you have a lot in common with these people. Perhaps they could be a valuable source of feedback on a problem you’ve been facing in your research. Maybe they work at the institution of your dreams and could help you make connections at that university.
When you discover people who could help you achieve your networking goals, make a list and try to connect with them before, during, or after the conference, or at one of the social events that takes place after hours.
Not only does being aware of some background information about the people you’re surrounded by help you determine who to approach, but it helps ensure you don’t miss an opportunity to advance your goals through the connections you make.
Tip 5: Connect with them in advance
If your research uncovers attendees whose work you admire or who could provide interesting insights into something you’re working on, don’t be afraid to reach out. They are an academic just like you, and they’ve been in your shoes before.
Send them an email or social media message, and try to set up a time to meet over a coffee or glass of wine to discuss their work, your work, or just your area of focus in general.
Tip 6: Plan your presentation schedule with consideration to networking time
Keeping networking top of mind, plan your presentation schedule with consideration of the information you’ve gathered researching the other attendees.
Choose your presentations based on what you’re hoping to learn at the event, but also be strategic. Leave holes in your schedule to make room for networking. After all, you have networking goals to meet! Go to the presentations that interest you – you are there to learn – but always remember that networking is one of the most valuable elements of the event you’re attending, so take advantage of the networking sessions that are provided.
If there’s a keynote speaker you’ve been wanting to meet, or another researcher who will be presenting at a poster session that you’ve been hoping to connect with, be there to watch their presentations.
This will provide the opportunity to learn more about their work, ask questions, and hopefully connect with them for a conversation when the presentation concludes. Even if you don’t get the chance to speak with them one-on-one, these conferences include multiple networking opportunities, and knowing about their research gives you a natural conversation starter when the opportunity to meet them arises.
Tip 7: Prepare an elevator pitch
An elevator pitch is a short explanation of what a person, company or product does. They should be under 30 seconds long (about the same length as an elevator ride). For academics, this is a succinct way of explaining who you are, where you’re from, and what you’re working on.
Here are some helpful templates you can use to create your elevator pitch.
Having an elevator pitch prepared is key to building your professional brand. When you’re creating a name for yourself, it’s important that others know who you are and what you do, and you usually don’t get much time to share that information. When you have an elevator pitch,
you’ll always be ready to share the most important information about yourself anytime you’re given the opportunity.
Tip 8: Be ready with some conversation starters
Are you a person that freezes under pressure? When you meet someone you admire, do you get tongue-tied and lose the ability to come up with anything interesting to say?
While it may seem silly, academics can often get star-struck when they come in contact with a researcher whose work they’ve been studying for years or even decades. To ensure you make the most of your networking opportunities and start these conversations with an interesting thought that won’t make you cringe when you get home, prepare some conversation starters in advance of the event.
Have a short list of things you can bring up to spark a conversation that helps you achieve one of your networking goals. Don’t be afraid to refer to that list when you see a networking opportunity arise and start to feel your nerves kick in.
Tip 9: Follow up with connections after the event
Keep a list of the connections you make before and during the conference, and collect their contact information, including social media handles. Take some high-level notes to remind yourself of who these people are, what they do, where they work and what they’re studying. This information will help you initiate meaningful conversations if your memory gets fuzzy down the road.
If there are any of these connections that are working on a research project that’s of particular interest or in line with your field of study, keep up-to-date on their work. Not only will this be beneficial to your own learning and breadth of knowledge, but it will help you skip the fluff and get down to what’s really important when you connect with this person again.
Reach out to these contacts via email or send them a message on social media. Keep in mind that one of the reasons they participated in the event was networking too, so they’ll most likely be pleased to hear from you.
Networking at the event:
Tip 10: Introduce yourself to new people
It can be intimidating to be surrounded by experts in your field. Some of these people are probably researchers that you’ve admired throughout your studies and career path.
There are likely people at the conference you’re attending that you already know, and it can be tempting to stick with them so you don’t have to put yourself out there. Resist that temptation. Putting yourself out there and making introductions with new people is one of the most valuable things you can get out of an academic conference.
Tip 11: Attend as many social events as possible
Many academic conferences organize social events that take place after the presentations conclude for the day. These could take the form of city or landmark tours, group outings to a bar or restaurant, parties, wine tastings and more.
Try to attend as many of these events as possible. Connecting with people after the pressure of the event is over will help you build connections and share experiences that extend beyond the research being discussed. This can help you build professional relationships, but also friendships and mentorships that could last throughout your career.
Some of these events will be invite-only. Do your research before the event and ask about social events during networking breaks at the conference. Try and get on the guest list of any private events.
Tip 12: Wear your badge
Your conference participant package will most likely include an identification badge. This includes basic information about yourself: your name, your organization, and often your area of research.
Wear this badge every day and make sure it’s visible. Remember all of that pre-event networking you did on social media using the event hashtag? The people you’re surrounded by at the event are the same audience that was reading the content you posted. They’ve read your name, now don’t let that effort go to waste and make sure they know it’s you!
With so many people sharing interesting information, it can be difficult to hear and retain the name of every person you come in contact with. If they are wearing their badge, you will always know. Once I was at a poster session, listening carefully to a conversation that was happening nearby. I didn't want to interrupt, so I took note of the names displayed on their badges and reached out after the event to continue the conversation. If their badge was missing or flipped around, I would have never known their names and that valuable interaction would have been lost.
Tip 13: Attend any poster session or panel discussion that’s relevant
Poster sessions and panel discussions provide excellent networking opportunities because they’re focused on a common area of interest and they are interactive in nature which spurs interesting, often provocative conversations.
Not only do these sessions provide the opportunity to connect with others through the subject matter being discussed, but they allow you to see what that researcher is all about through their responses to questions and challenges that come up during the sessions.
Poster and panel discussions are a perfect venue for you to start conversations. Don’t be afraid to make eye contact – this can be a conversation starter all on its own.
Use the conversation starters you’ve prepared to get the discussion going and show them you know a few things about their research. And even if you don’t – there is nothing wrong with starting conversations when you don’t know much about the topic. It shows that you’re interested and eager to learn.
Tip 14: Ask questions
While panel discussions and breakout sessions are more conducive to networking than oral presentations, you can create a networking opportunity anywhere you go, simply by asking questions.
Most oral presentations will provide the chance for attendees to ask questions at the end, so be prepared with some questions that will spark interesting conversation and make yourself memorable.
I was once at a keynote presentation and I posed a question to the speaker during the Q&A. This was earlier on in my career and it took me a lot of courage to stand up and speak in front of a 250-person audience, which included well-known speakers. Asking this question put me in the spotlight for a few seconds, which was scary. But because of it, I gained confidence in my speaking abilities, I inadvertently introduced myself to hundreds of people, and the answer provided insight to other participants who later came and spoke to me as a result.
Tip 15: Repeat names out loud when you meet someone new
You are going to meet a lot of people in a short amount of time. Make the most of the networking opportunities given to you by ensuring you remember the people you connect with, starting with their names. It has been scientifically proven that repeating things out loud helps you remember them, so when a person says something like “Hello, I’m Jennifer,” replying with “Nice to meet you Jennifer,” can really help you remember the contact’s name down the road.
Whenever possible, use the name aloud a few times. This will increase your likelihood of remembering even more.
Tip 16: Be cool
This is a big one. Academic conferences are strange environments, and they can bring out the self-doubt, impatience, and awkwardness in anyone.
Keep calm and remember that the researchers surrounding you are only people and they have all been intimidated by other academics before. It’s important to relax.
If you find yourself starstruck over a researcher that you’ve long-admired, approach them prepared with your elevator pitch or a pre-planned question about their work. This will help you stay cool and articulate and leave an impression of calm, collected confidence.
When you’re waiting for an opportunity to speak to someone and you see them being surrounded by others seeking the same chance, it can be tempting to follow them around or hover over their conversation waiting for the right moment to interject. Don’t do that. Wait until a natural time arises for you to start a conversation.
Whether these opportunities come up at the event or during a post-conference social event, it’s important to retain the ability to speak concisely and intelligently. Having too much to drink is the easiest way to lose that ability. Keep your alcohol intake in check.
Tip 17: Be prepared to exit conversations gracefully
Just like you prepared conversation starters and an elevator pitch to get discussions started, being ready with natural conversation caps to end them gracefully is another way of maximizing the value of your networking opportunities.
Sometimes conversations drag on longer than you’d hoped, and you only have a certain amount of time to use for networking. Be prepared with a few pre-planned conversation caps that will enable you to gently and respectfully end the conversation and move along to another person you’re hoping to connect with.
Tip 18: Ask about next steps at the end of a discussion
One of the most graceful ways to end a conversation is to ask about the next steps. Does this person want to connect again at a later date? Perhaps the conversation can be more impactful if it is followed-up when the research being discussed is complete? Setting an expectation around when you will reconnect with the person you’re networking with creates an easy-out of the current conversation while giving you an idea of where that connection could lead.
Tip 19: Connect with others on the conference app
Conference apps are used by conference organizers to help event participants keep track of important information like their personal schedule, times and locations of keynote speakers, breakout and networking sessions, and descriptions of the work being presented and topics being discussed. They also enable attendees to interact and connect.
The networking opportunities facilitated by these apps are most impactful for hybrid events, because they allow remote participants the chance to connect with researchers attending the event in-person.
Networking is about making as many genuine touch points as you can, and nurturing those contacts over time. Eventually, the connections you make while networking at an academic conference can compound and open doors that may not have been expected.
Networking can be challenging at the beginning, but the more you practice, the more natural it will become.
Do you have any networking advice that we’ve missed in this article? If so, let us know!