How to thrive at a conference on your own
For students, conferences are an important part of academia: an opportunity to meet the names on the papers in the flesh, get your work out there, foster collaborations, and even make friends. But they can also be nerve-wracking: you barely know anyone, and few people know you. You don’t want to make a fool of yourself, especially in front of people who might hire you in a few years. These issues are magnified when you have to go to a conference on your own, without your supervisor or labmates.
I go to every conference on my own. My supervisor and my lab don’t work in my area (except on my project), and so we don’t go to the same conferences. Aside from the lab where I did my MSc, when I started to go to conferences I had no one to hang out with (or hang on to). So far I’ve been to 4 conferences, and feel like I’ve made a pretty good go of it; I now have quite a few friends in my field (or at least, people who tolerate my presence). At conferences coming up, I’ve made plans to meet with colleagues to catch up and chat science, which all feels a bit adulty. Oh and if you’re wondering: no, I don’t yet have any publications, so there isn’t much reason for people to force themselves to make friends with me! As someone who’s seen a bit of success in conference networking with the odds reasonably stacked against me, I thought I’d share some tips that may help you if you’re in a similar situation. These tips will probably help even if you don’t go alone.
Disclaimer: My experiences are obviously shaped by my demographics, and I recognise that this advice may not be suitable or feasible for many people. I am a cis-gendered, white, male from the UK, which affords me privileges in social interactions that others may not have. On the other hand (and without wanting to turn this into a sort of ‘oppression Olympics’), being autistic and from a working-class background (neither parent went to Uni) I faced my own challenges. These tips will reflect all of this.
Anyway here are the tips:
- Start networking before the conference
- Say yes to everything
- Master the ‘cold approach’
- Get phone numbers
- Actively network horizontally, passively network vertically
- Go to many conferences to let your network ‘snowball’
- Realise that you have a great growth opportunity
1. Start networking before the conference
Humans love familiar things, a phenomenon called the Mere Exposure effect. If you can get yourself on people’s radars in any way before the conference, it will really help. Twitter is great for this: if you have a decent Twitter game, use that to your advantage. If you have a talk, tweet about it. follow the society organising the conference and reply on their updates. Direct message colleagues and ask if they would like to chat about their recent grant /paper. You can do this even if you’ve never messaged them before. This can of course also be done by email.
I leveraged this at a most recent conference, where I tweeted:
11 likes and 1 retweet hardly broke the internet, but I had 2 people message me this way, and meeting them introduced me to their labs and supervisors (more on this later).
And when the conference is over, follow the people you met on Twitter, and shoot them a message or email saying it was great to meet them (unless it wasn’t!). They’ll be more likely to remember you.
2. Say yes to everything
Many conferences have events, from early career researcher networking drinks, to the gala dinner, to canoe safaris (I am going to a conference in August that has such an event; academia really is hard sometimes :P ). If you can, go to these! Even if you think the event is not your kind of thing go anyway. The goal is not the event, the goal is to make friends. Who cares if the Gala dinner sucks? You can joke about how bad it is with the strangers (read potential friends) at your table. These people are kind of forced to sit with you, so introductions are easier!
3. Master the ‘cold approach’
Master the art of approaching people who don’t know you and starting a conversation. This is terrifying, but I’ve found this to be an invaluable life skill in general, so it’s well worth spending time and effort on. At a conference, you also have the advantage that you’re surrounded by people who have often quite narrow interests that they love to talk about, so you can always default to asking them what they do.
As for the first thing you say to them? One that works surprisingly well is the simple “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met, I’m Richie” (It works best if you insert your own name and not Richie). Remember, one reason people come to conferences is to meet people, so they’ll likely be happy to meet you. This isn’t speed dating, no one is expecting you to impress them. If you want to approach a person but find that nerves have rooted you to the spot, count to 3. On 3, walk up to the person and say hello. I use this a lot. Cold approach skills can be practised anywhere, so this is another thing you can do pre-conference to prepare; I started by making simple 1-minute introductions to people in the communal kitchen in my office.
Update: Commenter Joanna Bryson had the great suggestion that one Icebreaker is to seek out people who asked good questions in talks. These are often the most interesting, engaged people at a conference, so definitely the kind of people you’d want to talk to.
4. Get phone numbers
So your socialising is going well, and you’ve made some friends. They’re staying in a different hotel to you, so you separate, but plan to go for dinner later. An hour later you realise you have no way of contacting them! This is why it’s important to get numbers. It might seem weird to ask if you’ve only just met them that day, but people generally understand. Plus, this means you can now drop them a text next conference and see if they want to meet up! After my first conference on my own, I got put into a group chat of ECRs, many who I’d met, but some I hadn’t. Now every conference in my field we all use that group chat to arrange to meet up. Bonus: if you forget their name you now have it written down permanently.
One other quick practicality of exchanging numbers with others is that it’s a good safety measure. You are on your own, possibly in a foreign city, so it’s good to have someone to message if needed.
5. Actively network horizontally — Passively network vertically
I don’t know if these are real terms or I just made them up, but I like to distinguish between active networking, where you are approaching people and intentionally introducing yourself, and passive networking, where people come to you, or you are introduced to others. I also distinguish between horizontal networking, which is among peers, and vertical networking, which is where you try to meet people ‘above’ you in rank, like big-shot professors.
Most people at conferences spend most of their time trying active vertical networking: tracking down the big names. This is obviously the hardest one to do, so I advise against it. It can be discouraging because they often have something they’d rather be doing that talk to you. A better approach is active horizontal networking: befriend other PhD students and postdocs. They might not be as ‘useful’ to you careerwise (also: ditch this mindset if you have it), but they’re in a similar boat to you and would likely love to talk to you. Actively network horizontally. And if you want, they can then introduce you to their supervisors, which gives you a natural way in. This is what I mean when I say to passively network vertically; let others help you meet the bigger names. This is a strategy I discovered by accident but works quite well. Plus, you’ll probably have more fun with other grad students anyway!
6. Go to many conferences to let your network ‘snowball’
Building a social network can take time and this is no different in academia. And as mentioned above, the more people see you, the easier it is to befriend them. Going to many conferences not only allows you to practice your skills, but each one allows you to build on the last. A few minutes of awkward small talk this year becomes a more jovial “how have you been?” the next year. I have been to the annual European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association meeting 3 times now, and each time I go I meet people I saw at previous events, deepen friendships and meet new people through them. Friends beget friends beget friends and so on. What you want is “Hey! I think I met you at the last ___ meeting right how’s it going?”.
This can also make you feel more comfortable with socialising, as the conference feels more familiar the second time, even if its different people in a different county. You start to feel the other attendants are ‘your people’ which makes them easier to approach. These things get easier if you take the time to build them.
7. Realise that you have a great growth opportunity
As a PhD or postdoc, one of your goals is to develop into a fully independent researcher. Going to conferences on your own is an important step in this journey! Sure, you could go with your lab then strike out on your own, but the temptation to remain with your group or supervisor might be too tempting. Going on your own forces you to do it, like being taught how to swim in deep water by being thrown in by your dad (or maybe that was just my dad, but I’m sure it built character). It drives you to constantly make new friends just to avoid being awkward and alone.
One last thing: when you see someone alone at a conference, go talk to them! introduce them to your group, invite them for dinner with any group you find yourself part of. If you know someone that does similar work to them, offer to introduce them. This has happened plenty of times to me, and I am eternally grateful to the many people who have been kind to me at conferences over the years. If we all do this, no one will be alone, and we’ll all have a better time.