Crash course on socializing at a scientific conference dinner

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You didn’t meet anybody new at the last scientific conference.

You paid high registration fees, travelled to the other side of the world, listened to boring talks, nobody came to your poster.

At least you met interesting people at the conference dinner, didn’t you?

Well, it’s kind of hard when you are hanging out all the time with the people of your own group.

Attending a scientific conference is a great opportunity to meet new people and do some networking. A large network will come in handy to land new projects, collaborations or jobs to progress in your scientific career.

You cannot change anything from past conferences. Luckily, there’s a new one in a few months and you are going to get your stuff together and make the most of it.

But do you know how? Do you know how to network at a conference?

If you follow these tips you will be a master of socializing at scientific conference dinners.

Socializing Before a Scientific Conference

Yep, you need to do some homework. Your social success should not depend just on your personal skills. Planning ahead is key.

What we want to do is to know who will attend the conference and decide if we want to meet them. Additionally, we want to let others know that we will also be there.

Create Or Join The LinkedIn Event Of The Conference

One problem with registering to a conference is that you only know the speakers, but not the list of attendees.

LinkedIn allows you to join or create an Event. You will not only see relevant information of the event, but also those that like you are attending.

As an extra incentive for stalkers, you can check the LinkedIn profile of the attendees to decide beforehand if they are worth having a chat with.

Find Or Create A Twitter Hashtag For The Conference

Twitter is a not only a great way to get visibility as a PhD student. It also helps to find people who tweet about conferences and even announce they will join them.

To recognize which tweets belong with which event, people include in their tweets an unique hashtag.

Somebody has to decide which one is the official hashtag of the event. So if the organizers haven’t done yet, be proactive and propose them with one. Encourage them to promote the hashtag in the event website and in their mailing list.

Once people start using the hashtag, you just need to do a Twitter search based on the hashtag and find who is interested in the event and what’s being said about it.

Extra tip: if you are not attending the conference, checking tagged tweets a hashtag is a good way to follow in real-time the discussion about the event via Twitter.

Contact Some Of The Attendees

At this stage you know who the speakers are as well as some of the attendees. Now you have an idea of some of the people you would like to talk to and socialize at the conference dinner.

It’s time for cold emailing.

Use for your email a self-explanatory title (don’t just say “Hello”). Use something like “Meeting at conference XXX dinner to discuss BLABLA?”.

The first paragraph of your email is your elevator pitch, short and to the point. After reading the first paragraph, the scientist you are hitting on should already know if he wants to meet or not. Leave the details for the rest of the email.

Elevator pitch: “I am a PhD student at Prof. John Doe’s group interested in parallel DNA sequence alignment. Would like to meet at the conference dinner to discuss a possible collaboration to implement your alignment algorithms in a massive parallel study?”

The rest of the email could contain some of your achievements. Describe also what’s in for the other person to meet with you.

Socializing During A Scientific Conference Dinner

The conference dinner arrived. It’s time to seduce everybody with your Pierce Brosnan’s charms.

You might have arranged some meetings already. Attend those first and say “thanks for making time for me”. But leave room for meeting strangers. You don’t know where a pleasant surprise might be waiting for you.

What To Wear: Good Clothes And The Badge

There is a lot of advice on what and what not to wear in academia. This is of great importance when giving a talk, attending a conference or having a job interview.

The best dressing advice you can get: “dress a bit better than those around you”.

During the day you should check how the speakers and other attendees dress. You need to up-dress them, but just a bit.

Is it a conference for hardcore nerds that wear shorts and Metallica t-shirts? Then cool sneakers, jeans and a polo t-shirt will do.

Most people dress neat with quality trousers, shirt, blazer and no tie? You wear the same plus a tie.

You should also have your badge visible. It encourages people to read it, pronounce your name, your university and then ask what you do. And hey, they might even remember your name after two glasses of wine.

Sit With People You Don’t Know

Meeting new people is key to expanding your network. This time you are not going to sit with your boss and the rest of the colleagues from your group.

Always start with a “May I join you?”. Unless they are morons or the seats are taken they will always say yes.
Sit With “Young” Scientists

It’s easy to feel infatuated by the charisma of that big professor in your field. Approaching a hot-shot is and getting something out of him would pay off being at the conference.

Unfortunately, reputed scientists have a busy agenda and they tend to talk to peers of the same academic rank. If they talk to lower ranking people is with lack of interest or just to reinforce the impression that they know it all.

Then you have the young scientists. They are of your same age, more open-minded, with smaller egos and with fewer people to talk to.

If this is not enough I give you two more reasons: young scientists are the ones doing the most innovative research and the ones more interested in collaborating with you.

Ask More, Listen More, Talk Less About Yourself

The goal of networking is getting people to like you. And the key to get people to like you is to shut up and listen to what they have to say.

Don’t you find annoying that guy that can’t stop talking about himself and the things he does? Guess what? People won’t like you if you keep talking about yourself.

Doesn’t it feel good when people ask you things and want to know more about you? Doesn’t it make you feel a bit important? That you are worth listening? Guess what? People would like the same from you.

The key is to be genuinely interested in the other person. This means letting the other person do the talking and when he stops, you should keep him talking by asking questions like:

  • What is your research about?
  • Do you have some exciting results so far?
  • How is it to do research in your group? Pros, cons?
  • How is it to live in your city?
  • What were the toughest moments in your PhD? How did you get out of The Valley of Shit?
  • What are your scientific plans?
  • Do you read Thesis Whisperer? Or are you more of a Next Scientist kind of person?
  • Have 2 Elevator Pitches Ready

    Most people will reciprocate and ask things about you. One first thing they will ask is what you do, what your research is about.

    Here it is convenient to have not one, but two elevator pitches of your research. Use each one depending on who’s asking. (An elevator pitch is a 30 to 60 second description of your research, it should include what you do, why and how you do it)

    First elevator pitch: your grandma should understand it easily. This one you will use for non-experts in your field.

    Second elevator pitch: include all sorts of complicated jargon and be so scientifically correct that your PI couldn’t find a single flaw in your speech. This is for experts in your field.

    Don’t Only Talk About Work

    After a long day of presentations, poster sessions and work chit-chat at the dinner, it might be time to skip work and have some fun.

    Try to shift conversations towards non-work related topics like hobbies and anecdotes. You can use the previous tips on how to listen to others and start asking more personal things.

    When the bar opens, offer yourself to get some drinks for your mates.This will keep the spirits high and fuel a long night of fun discussions.

    Finally, I would like to share some advice by a PhD student that attended too many conferences in UK.

    Try to drink some glasses of water during your alcohol intake. This minimizes the chances of enjoying a hang over and maximizes the chances of being fresh like a rose for next day’s talks.

    Now back to you

    What do you think of all this advice?

    Do you have other tips to get the most of a scientific conference dinner?

    What are your success stories networking at a conference?

    Author Bio:Julio is a PhD student in Metabolomics and Metabolite Identification at Leiden University, The Netherlands and has been blogging and using social media for several years, both for fun and for professional purposes.

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