How to thrive at a conference on your own

I’ve never been to a conference this formal, but it was the only best stock photo I could find before I gave up looking
  1. Start networking before the conference
  2. Say yes to everything
  3. Master the ‘cold approach’
  4. Get phone numbers
  5. Actively network horizontally, passively network vertically
  6. Go to many conferences to let your network ‘snowball’
  7. 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.

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!

I hear axe throwing is a great way to bond with other people; conference social organisers take note!

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 long as you introduce yourself better than Channing, you’ll be alright

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.

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.

“Hey, your PhD sounds pretty cool and related to our stuff, let me introduce you to my supervisor, Professor BigCheese”

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?”.

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.

A bit cliche, but definitely true of conferences

Final thoughts

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.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store