Saturday, July 3, 2010

Conference networking

Probably the most frequent academic job advice I hear dispensed is that networking is absolutely critical to getting hired/tenured/promoted. (Probably a close second to having lots of good publications/grants). I think there's a lot of truth to this advice, and certainly networking is good for other areas of intellectual and social life.

However, I've heard people lament that it's very difficult to know how to network at conferences. I too found this difficult at first, so I began reading a lot of books on the topic, observing successful shmoozers at conferences, and really just practicing every chance I can. So I'll share a few tricks I've learned in case they're useful to others.

There are three things to consider when networking at conferences:
  1. Who to talk to
  2. What to talk about
  3. How to join an existing group of people (maybe containing someone identified in #1)
Prof-like Substance has a post about strategizing on whom one might want to talk to. I think it depends a lot on the venue and what your aims are. Before I go to a conference, I look over the program and try to guess who might be attending and potentially worth talking to. I also read the talk titles and see which ones overlap with my research. One recent conference I attended had an entire session devoted my current research area, so I made sure to chat with everyone presenting in that session. I also discovered one of the researchers is at a university somewhat close to mine, so I made sure to spend extra time talking to them to feel out future collaborations.

I always make sure to talk to peers and friends to recharge. Even when the senior academics are nice people, as a junior academic it's can still be daunting to approach them cold.

As for what to talk about in general, that's a bit trickier, and perhaps deserves its own post. If I am talking to a senior researcher then I'll often ask specific questions about the field, like, "I heard about this new journal. Is it worth publishing in?" Sometimes I just chat with people about conference-related things, like their thoughts on the plenary speaker that day, the food, travel war stories, etc.

How to pick a group of people to join is the easiest, surprisingly. I learned a great analysis trick recently which I'll try to recreate with my mad clip art skillz.

Imagine you're at a coffee break and you don't know anyone. You see this distribution of people:

Clip art from Clip Art Heaven

When I saw a similar graphic, I was asked: which is the easiest group to join? Which is the hardest? What's amazing is once I learned about these people configuration patterns, I started spotting them all over the place.

Usually, (B) is the easiest to approach, because she's just standing alone holding a pie. (C) is also alone, but she is busy trying to review a journal paper and each a sandwich before the break is over. Just looking at postures, (C) is giving off a "don't bother me" vibe, and (B) looks like she wouldn't mind chatting with someone.

The next easiest group to join is (D). The two people are talking to each other, but they are holding very open postures. Their bodies are turned half toward one another and half outward. This is one of the best groups to join, because they are open to others. Contrast them to the two people in (A), who are so intently chatting they are nose to nose. This is not a pair to disturb unless you have a really good reason to do so. Similarly, (E) looks very closed as well, but it might be possible to join.

Last is group (F), which is the hardest to join. These four people are all turned inward toward each other, and look to be fairly close knit. If you don't know anyone in this group, it's probably good to not try to break in right now.


  1. Those are some mad skillz! I have found another trick that is mostly psychological but helps me. If I am feeling nervous in these situations, so I try to pretend that everyone WANTS to talk to ME. Then I just go bust into a group. Surprisingly, it usually works.

  2. That's a good trick, I'll have to remember it for next time. (What's that phrase? "Act like you belong and you do."?)

    I have noticed at least for some Big Famous People they seem to expect a lot of people will want to talk to them, and they are ok with people clumping around them to do that. Usually in such groups there's at least one other nervous person in the clump that you can share smiles with, and that helps too.

  3. Great post!

    I am an introvert, and used to have weak social skills. I am still not too strong on the social side of things, but it is definitely possible to improve with practice.

    One important topic area I use is to comment/ask questions about the person's latest paper (if it is someone whose research you had already heard of). Most people are happy to discuss their own work in detail, and you can learn a lot in the process as well.

    I find that networking is much easier for the less socially skilled at small meetings. In my experience, people are much more approachable then, since they either know pretty much everyone there, or almost no one.

  4. Thanks! Definitely true on all points. Practice really helps, and learning tricks here and there.

    Small meetings are better, definitely.

    I also think attending the social event on the first night (and arriving early) is good. Then there are lots of other people standing around awkwardly too who you can befriend and then interact with throughout the entire conference.

  5. Wow, this blog post is awesome! As an introvert, I often find networking hard -- and it's especially hard for me to help the grad students I advise about how to network more effectively. So this is pure gold. Thank you so much for a thought-provoking, useful post.