MakeWriteLearn -- How to Conference: How to deal with "networking" at academic conferences

How To Conference, Pt. 1: Networking

Conferences can be fun and exciting. You get to travel, meet new people from all around the world, reconnect with old friends, and learn about bleeding-edge work. If you are a student, you even get to do all of this for free [1]. But, conferences can also be nerve-racking — for newcomers and veterans alike. I should know — I’ve conferenced quite a lot. Here’s a picture of all my conference badges, even, for proof.


Yeah, you’re impressed now. Anyway, in attending all of these conferences, I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade to mitigate the awkwardness and maximize the fun (#academichacks).

So, I thought I’d break down some of the things I’ve learned about conferencing for all of you fledgling and aspiring conference-goers. Some of you veteran conference-goers may even find an interesting tip or two. In this series, I’m going to cover various aspects of conference going: including session attendance, presenting and balancing productivity with fun. But this first post, I’m going to talk about that most dreaded of all conference activities: “networking” [2].


Ugh, “networking”. Anyone who has ever conferenced has felt the awkwardness of a coffee break where you know no one else. Everyone somehow seems to be engaged in conversation, and you’ve already talked to your one or two friends today and don’t want to seem clingy. At this point, it is easy to disengage from all social interaction by going to a corner and pulling out your laptop. After all, you have so much Important Work to get done (those e-mails aren’t going to recheck themselves).

But, while you’re doing this Important Work, you’ll also feel a twinge of FOMO and guilt — you’ve heard that conferences are about “networking”, so you know you should “network”, but it’s just so much more comfortable pretending that you’ve other stuff to do.

To be clear, I’m not here to advocate your becoming a social butterfly. I am a very happy introvert and encourage all of my introverted brothers and sisters to revel in their desire to be alone. I just want you to do so strategically, so that you don’t have to feel as much FOMO and guilt.

Anyway, here are 9 weird tips you should keep in mind if you want to be a pro academic networker. #3 will blow your mind.

Set up meetings with elusive people ahead of time

Famous people attract a lot of attention. So, it’s not easy to meet them. This is true in academia just as it is in entertainment, albeit at a much smaller scale. So, if you want to meet that best paper award winner or that Stanford professor, you should be more intentional than just making a B-line for them during the breaks. If you just stumble into them during a break, you might exchange a word or two. But, chances are their attention will be drawn in multiple directions. Famous people, too, have other people they want to meet — old friends, collaborators, other famous people. What you actually want is not just face time, but their attention and respect.

A good way to get their attention is to set up a meeting with them well ahead of the conference. Send them an e-mail about wanting to meet them at this conference. Offer a few concrete, specific times that they can mark off on their calendars. Don’t make it too long: ask them for 10 minutes at most.

Note that this won’t always work. If you’re a first year graduate student who has no published work, it may be hard to get the person you want to meet to respond to your e-mail. You can improve your chances in two ways: (1) publish good work that commands attention, or (2) if you know someone who knows the person you are trying to meet, get your contact to send that person an introductory e-mail and take it from there. It’s actually not as hard as it seems.

To get their respect, come prepared. By prepared, I don’t mean with a list of questions to ask about their research. That can get annoying. I just mean have a plan. Ten minutes is not long, and you want to make a lasting impression so that you can meet with them the next conference, too. Talk to them about what excites you and how their work inspired yours. Ask them about what they wished they knew in grad school that they know now. Inquire about who else you should get to know and see if they can introduce you. This last one is actually really effective: it gives them a convenient way to end the conversation without feeling rude, and introduces you to someone else who is probably also great.

Give the people you meet your respect and attention

This seems self-explanatory, but it’s surprising how many people do not do this. Conferences attract many people: graduate students, industry practitioners, established professors, and journalists to name a few. So, you may occasionally encounter people who are not that interesting, or people who you see little “value” in meeting. But, give those people your respect and attention nonetheless, even if only for a few moments. Not just because you never know who they know. Not just because conferencing is about the long game, and that many of the people you meet this year will be there in other conferences you go to next year. But also because if you want to be a person that people want to know, you do not want to build a reputation for being an ass. Just be a pleasant person. It’s not hard.

So what does it mean to give someone your attention and respect? Make eye contact occasionally. Answer their questions, unless you’d really rather not (e.g., if someone asks you “academia or industry?” and you really don’t want to repeat your thoughts for the 15th time). Maybe ask them a question, too. I’m not encouraging small talk here. Everybody hates that. So don’t ask them “how are you enjoying the conference?”. Instead, ask them “what’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen here?”

A good example of what not to do is look around the room for other people you want to talk to while you are talking to that person.

Join public discussion forums

Social media is reshaping the academic conference experience in subtle ways. Especially, in my experience, Twitter. Academics love Twitter.

Many conferences nowadays have a hashtag (e.g., #chi2016) where attendees post (meta) content about the conference. This is a public forum that anyone can contribute to and read, so you should take advantage of it. A witty tweet can be an ice breaker, for example. One word of caution is that because Twitter is a public forum, you can also potentially embarrass yourself. But, in general, I’m pro-embarrassment. Better that than be too afraid to join the conversation at all.

Some younger conferences might even be broaching other social media platforms: Instagram, for example, or even Snapchat. Keep an eye out and enjoy “networking” from the comfort of your phone.

Converse like a human, not like a reviewer

Avoid grilling the people you stumble upon about their work. Seriously. Don’t try to spot flaws in an informal description of someone’s research. No one’s going to think you’re brilliant. They’re just going to get defensive. At that point, the conversation either becomes an argument or uncomfortably awkward.

Being inquisitive has its time and place, of course. You might genuinely have research questions that would like to discuss, especially because a project has implications for your own work. The key is to not catch someone off their guard. If you want to do deep dive into someone’s research and really get into the details, set up a private meeting with that person later on. Perhaps you two can get coffee and really dig into the work. They’ll know what to expect and also know that you are coming from a good place.

Participate in workshops

Many conferences have a number of half-day or day-long workshops. Generally, these workshops are organized around a specific sub-theme related to the broader discipline of the conference. For example, there might be a workshop on social factors in video games at a conference about video games.

Workshops are great for networking because they collect a group of like-minded academics for specific, organized socializing. Many workshops, for example, have little breakout sessions where attendees discuss how their own work relates to the broader theme of the workshop. This can be a good, low pressure way to meet new people: you can both bond over the fact that conferences are so awkward.

To participate in workshops, you may need to submit a short “non-archival” paper on the order of 1-3 pages [3]. Check the main conference website for a list of workshops that will be held during the conference.

Become a student volunteer

Almost every conference looks for student volunteers (SVs) to help do things like direct attendees to the right room, deliver a microphone to people who want to ask a question, help with setting up A/V, or handing out registration badges. If you are new to a conference, student volunteering is another great way to network.

SVs get to meet the conference organizers, who are typically well embedded within an academic discipline. Some of these organizers may even be the famous people you want to meet. Student volunteers also get a lot of face time with other conference attendees while they are on-duty. Perhaps most importantly, SVs get to meet other SVs from other universities all over the world. Never underestimate the benefit of meeting and building a relationship with your peers and underclassman from other universities: many of these people will be the professors and industry research lab heads of tomorrow.

In addition, you typically get other benefits as an SV: for example, a discounted or waived conference registration fee, partial or full lodging support during the conference and exclusive access to some conference parties.

Ask others about unofficial events, get-togethers and parties

I recently learned from a friend that until his third or fourth year in graduate school, he thought that there was no more to conferences after the last session of the day. No, no, no. In fact, most of fun happens after the last session of the day — there are usually at least a few unaffiliated parties thrown by industry sponsors or academic institutions with a historically strong presence at a conference.

Some of these parties and events may be closed: only the invited get in. Those are typically lost causes and I suggest you stay away from them. Who wants to crash a hoity-toity closed party anyway? But many are semi-open: not exactly public, but open to anyone in the know. Ask around. Other people you meet may know of these semi-open parties and most people are willing to share information about where and when.

Send follow-up emails to people you met

Once the conference is over, you might consider sending a quick, short follow up email to people with whom you would like to build a lasting relationship. It shouldn’t be long — just a few words about how you enjoyed meeting with them and discussing whatever it was you discussed. It doesn’t even have to be an e-mail — it could even be a message on Twitter or Facebook or any other platform of your choosing. These notes can help people remember you — after all, they probably met dozens of other new people during the conference.

I typically make a list of everyone new person I meet at a conference. In the process of making this list, I usually also remember to send a follow-up note to a few of them. You may not want to do that — I get it, it’s a bit impersonal to systematize social interactions. But I do find that it helps.

One strong connection is better than many shallow ones

I think when people think of “networking”, they think of meeting as many new people and reconnecting with as many old acquaintances as possible. This is why it is easy to feel guilt and FOMO pangs when you’re stuck wandering around by yourself during a coffee break. But, in my experience, a few quality connections are far more important than many shallow ones. These strong connections, built up over time, are what underly both important professional opportunities and fun social experiences. Knowing hundreds of people vaguely gets you only a series of quick, shallow conversations.

My heuristic these days is to make one strong connection. If I can make one strong connection with someone I only vaguely knew or never met before, I have succeeded at “networking”. I find that this heuristic makes the whole idea of “networking” far more palatable. It also eliminates nearly all of the guilt of spending a night alone in my hotel room watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones on a sweet HD TV.

Parting Words

I hope this post helps someone out there deal with conference “networking”. I know, it sucks. Hopefully this post will make it suck a little less. Anyway, I’ll be covering other aspects of conference-going in my next post, so stay tuned!


[1] Assuming your adviser has funding and is nice. If not, apply for fellowships.

[2] I’m going to put “networking” in quotes this entire article because hell if I know how to define it. Meeting new people for professional gain? That sounds like the worst.

[3] What does “non-archival” actually mean in the age of the internet, anyway? Basically anything can be cited.

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