Conference Networking Tips & Tricks for STEM students

by: Rishi R. Masalia, Pre-Professional Advice Editor

“I understand that networking happens at science conferences, but how do you actually go about doing this?”

As doe-eyed graduate or undergraduate students we step into the world of science and naively think it’s a meritocracy, or a world where scientific ability solely drives success. But it’s important to realize that many established scientists and managers are far more comfortable collaborating with, or hiring, someone they know, over a stranger who looks good on paper.

It’s not only what you know but also who you know that drives how well you do in the long term.

Clichés are clichés for a reason, even in science. So remember, it’s not only what you know but also who you know that drives how well you do in the long term.

So how do you get better at “knowing” people? In the business world, they call this “networking” and it’s place where power suits and outgoing personalities reign supreme. In science we commonly refer to networking as “collaborations”, and just like any lab skill, you can become better at networking through practice, and the best place? Scientific conferences.

Conferences are great for networking because they bring together scientists from across the world, each with varying backgrounds and fields of expertise. You can talk to people at poster sessions, after a presentation, or over a beer—giving you ample opportunities to test out new methods to improve your conversational science and expand your professional network. Unfortunately conference networking can be daunting, especially if you’re shy or new to the conference world. So here are some tips and tricks from myself and fellow graduate students Jeff Cannon and Tara Bracken to give you that extra bit of confidence next time you’re out and about talking science shop.

The Elevator Pitch

This is applicable to more than just conference networking, but a good graduate student always has two research elevator pitches. The pitch for those in your field, and the pitch for those outside, lasting 1–2 minutes and 20–40 seconds, respectively. An elevator talk to those in your field starts with your research question and gives a bit of insight into your methods and any results, while a pitch to those outside your field starts with broad impact of your topic and should end with your research question, results here are not as relevant.

Poster Sessions

Every major scientific conference will have a poster session. Regardless if you’re presenting a poster or are just pursuing, this is your best conference opportunity to network as the purpose of a poster session is to talk about science.

When Presenting a Poster

  • Don’t be afraid to discuss more than just what’s on your poster. If a collaborator or faculty member you’ve previously had conversations with approaches your poster, don’t be afraid to steer the conversation towards future collaborations or post-doc opportunities. Posters are good conversation starters, but don’t have to be the main course.
  • There are hundreds of good tips and tricks for poster creation, but my favorite is adding an “About the Author” section. Here you can put a picture of yourself and your contact information (Email, Twitter Handle, Website…etc). 90% of the time you’re not physically standing next to your poster, and this addition will help others find or contact you about your work.

When You’re Not Presenting a Poster

  • Go through the conference program of poster abstracts and mark (yes, physically mark) all the posters that sound interesting to you. This will help you enter the poster session with a plan, and not waste time aimlessly wandering.
  • When approaching a poster – if it’s a topic relevant to your work, try to have a question ready. Or simply open with, “Hi, what is your work about?” The better you get at conversational science, the more confident you’ll be talking to others.

Conference Fatigue & Conference Strategies

Conferences are science marathons, and even with free coffee and snacks there are only so many science conversations your brain can handle before you start to tune them out. My advice is plan the talks you wish to see in advance giving yourself enough break time for your brain catch up.As a first or second year graduate student, your conference strategy should revolve around talks as a passive way to broaden your scientific thinking. Yet as you progress to your third year, your conference strategy should change to that of networking. Stop seeing every talk you can, and only focus on the talks of people you wish to meet. Further, you shouldn’t feel guilty for missing a talk or entire session to grab a coffee / beer with an former or future collaborator.

The Cold Call

In my opinion approaching a scientist you don’t have a direct connection with is the hardest aspect of networking. To speak with someone in particular, you first need to know what they look like, and know something about their work. If you’re an upper level graduate student this usually comes from reading their papers or paying close attention to their conference talk. Second is the approach, the best method for me is a direct walk up and a polite, “Excuse me Dr. Whomever” followed by your name, university and a discussion based question.Example 1: “Hi Dr. Whomever, my name is Rishi Masalia at the University of Georgia. I loved your talk on <insert topic>. Has your lab ever considered looking at this in relation to drought resistance (my topic of interest).”Example 2: “Hi Dr. Whomever, my name is Rishi Masalia at the University of Georgia. I loved your talk on <insert topic>. I was wondering if your lab has found similar trends in other species?”Here, discussion based questions should revolve around something you’re somewhat familiar with, and require a long(ish) answer, where you can inject follow up questions. My advice here may be daunting and tough to implement, but it’s worked for me consistently in the past.

Don’t Undervalue Student Connections

It’s easy to forget that faculty are not the only people at conferences worth communicating. Though still in training, your fellow students are the foundation for future scientific advancement. Connections and friendships formed at conferences can and will become future collaborations at different university, industry, or governmental positions.

Follow-Ups

People have short memories, so don’t forget to establish a follow-up correspondence with those you’ve met at conferences. For me, I usually do this through social media, unless our conference conversations suggested something as formal as an email. The social media follow up is great because you don’t have to actually say anything – you are simply reintroducing them to your name and face. If you’d like to add a message, it should be short and simple, “I enjoyed our conversation at the ___ conference, looking forward to talking with you again.”Student Follow-ups: Twitter, LinkedIn, and on rare occasions Facebook.Faculty Follow-ups:  Twitter, LinkedIn

Get a Science Twitter

Not every graduate student will agree with this piece of advice, but I strongly stand by it. While It’s true that not every scientist is on Twitter, some are, and the trend is growing. University and department research programs, businesses, and grant agencies all have Twitter handles and constantly bombard my feed with up-to-date science information and award opportunities.Twitter also allows you to “passively network” at a conference. By this I mean you can interact with with scientists either at the conference or abroad, through the conference hashtag, while doing other things – like attending talks, or chatting with other scientists. Finally, Twitter allows you to ask questions, have discussions / followups, and plan “tweet ups” with scientists at a conference, all facilitating your network goals. If you want more information on the “dos and don’ts” of a Science Twitter, check out Ian Street’s post.

Odds and Ends: Conference ProTips

  • Wear your ID badge. Conversations will go more smoothly if the person you’re speaking with doesn’t feel awkward for not immediately recalling your name.
  • This is fairly basic, but ask intelligent questions. Do this at poster sessions or at the end of talks. My favorite strategy for this is to hang back after a session and ask the speaker your question directly.
  • Business cards. This one again has mixed feelings and it’s something I personally don’t do, but I’ve seen them used very effectively at conferences. They are good for follow ups, and save you that awkward “no” response when someone asks for one.

About the Author

Picture MeRishi R. Masalia is a PhD candidate in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Georgia studying the genetics of drought resistance in sunflower. Rishi has taught six semesters of undergraduate classes at UGA, and advised numerous grad and undergrad students through the rigors of professional development, teaching, and work-life balance. Currently he serves as the Pre-Professional Advice Editor for the Athens Science Observer. He can be reached at masalia@uga.edu, or followed on Twitter @RishiMasalia. More from Rishi Masalia.