Attending academic conferences has many benefits: keeping up to date with the latest research (often well before it’s published), having a chance to meet people who are influential in your field and, yes, networking. But all too often, conferences go by in a blur, especially if you are also presenting. So much pressure, so many new faces, so little time. What can you do to make the most of the networking opportunities they offer?
Make a plan.
When you receive the list of sessions, identify which are “must-sees” for you. As you do, underline the names of people whose work looks so interesting that you would like to speak with them in person. Make a note about why: are they using a new or intriguing methodology, working with same population as you, or coming up with exciting results?
Next, see where the free time slots are in your schedule (coffee breaks, lunch, dinner, evenings, sessions that you can afford to miss), and start filling this time up with appointments. It’s easier to do than you might think. If the programme doesn’t include contact information for speakers you want to network with, try their university’s staff Web site, Google, or social media.
Don't ask for too much, and be sure to offer something in return. For example, ask if you could meet up for 15 minutes during the afternoon coffee break on Thursday, and promise to bring a copy of your latest journal article or information about a research grant programme that might be of interest. And when it comes time to meet, be prepared with a couple of good questions.
It isn't always obvious in advance whose work will pique your interest. If a presentation makes you think, note down the details of the person or team giving it. If possible, approach the speaker after the session and ask if you can meet up later that day or tomorrow.
Also try to have a look at the person’s staff bio and CV before you meet, as there may be a great conversation-starter there that you can use, or an unexpected connection that will break the ice.
If you want to talk to people about your programme or a research project, make sure you have something they can take away with them. If you can get glossy programme or research group brochures printed up, that’s fantastic—but an A4 page with key details and contact information that you’ve printed yourself will also do.
Business cards are important too: your own, and the ones you can collect from others. But don’t just stuff them in your bag, jot a quick note on the back (“research on looked-after children,” “former aeronautics industry, now at MU, knows Bill S.”) so that when you get home it will be easier to remember why you wanted their contact details.
Finally, organise and use your information about new contacts, preferably while you’re on the train or flight home. A binder with business-card pockets can be helpful, or you can create a computer file, type in all the information, and make a list of who you would like to contact. Be especially sure to email a thank-you to anyone who took time to meet with you.