10 Tips for Easier Networking at Scientific Conferences

By Samantha Yammine

This is the second post of my two-part series on Networking, kindly sponsored by GIBCO to help scientists get the most out of their upcoming series of Stem Cell Roadshows in Toronto, New York, and Houston! (click links for free registration)

In my last post, I mentioned how vital networking is for advancing your scientific career no matter where you aspire to take it, and how reframing your perspective on what networking is can make it easier and more productive.

While I’ve been lucky to be able to attend over 20 nationwide and international conferences and symposia as part of my graduate training thus far, I only started actively networking at these events and making new, meaningful connections in my later years. Given that job prospects are such a crucial part of graduate student satisfaction and well-being, I wanted to share some of the best tips I’ve learned from personal experiences and observing others.

1. Look up the speakers and other attendees in advance and make it known you’re attending.

I like to make a short list of people I want to connect with at the event, and if there are any people attending I have specific questions for I reach out in advance to introduce myself and ask if they’d be willing to meet up to chat during one of the breaks.

If you feel comfortable, let your professional network know you’ll be attending the event by talking about it with friends, sharing it on social media like LinkedIn and Twitter (and even Facebook if you have a lot of peers on there). Engage with the event hashtag by letting people know you’re looking forward to attending (bonus if you briefly add in what you’re most looking forward to), and comment/like other people’s posts and tweets about the event too. This means that people will get familiar with your name and face, and you’ll recognize some people too so that the awkward time at the event social when you’re alone and can’t find a friend is, well… a little less awkward.

2. Dress however makes you most comfortable and confident.

There’s a lot of conflicting (and often problematic) advice about how to dress for professional settings, and honestly I think a lot of it misses the mark. Definitely note the industry standard, but don’t be afraid to express your personal style. When it comes to style, whatever you feel good and comfortable in is usually the best choice. I’ve attended some events where I was nervous about being perceived as too young or inexperienced, so I felt more comfortable “dressing the part” for those. But I’ve recently started seeing my level of experience as an advantage and so now purposefully dress in a way that I think best represents myself. I think this serves as a good litmus test to select for people I’d be comfortable working with. In any case, it’s all about the personal brand you will feel most proud walking into the room.

In my first two years as a graduate student I couldn’t afford a lot of fancy clothes, so put together one really fun business casual outfit that I’d just wear at every event. For multi-day conferences, I saved this outfit for the day I was presenting or meeting with the most important people, then dressed a bit more casual other days. And a visit to the thrift store can be really helpful to find some more interesting pieces that can help you stand out from the crowd without breaking the bank. If you’re not one to experiment with fashion, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple — a crisp white shirt is always a good look!

While fashion can be a way to bring people together based on similar preferences, it can also really isolate people. If you want to make people feel more comfortable networking with you, it’s best not to comment on their appearance and instead focus on what they say and do.

3. Prepare a quick sentence of how you’ll introduce yourself.

Think of the different people you want to speak with and what you’d want to get out of a conversation with them. For example, I usually want to network with people to talk about science communication, my research, or science policy, so I have different quick ways to introduce myself that prime the conversation for one of those three things (and different combinations of each of them).

You usually only have a few minutes with someone in a coffee line or in between talks, so you want to make sure that you get yourself across clearly and succinctly. This doesn’t need to be a pitch, but rather a play on the improv rule of “adding information.” You want to make it as easy as possible for people to continue conversation with you, so giving context about yourself provides more prompts for small talk that is a little less … dull.

4. Ask questions after people speak

Here’s another time when improv rules become relevant to networking (did I mention networking is a form of improvisation?!). See, normally you don’t want to put the burden on the other person to continue conversation by asking continuous questions — most people don’t enjoy impromptu interviews — but you are allowed to break this rule after someone has given a presentation. In fact, it is a compliment to receive a question after a presentation, and it gives people the opportunity to talk more about something they were passionate enough to present.

Whether you’re comfortable asking in front of the crowd or you go up to the speaker 1-on-1 afterwards, if the person you want to chat with has given a presentation, it’s wise to have something to say about it when you do talk to them. If you do ask questions in front of the crowd in the main question period, that also gives people more reference points for you, making it easier for them to talk with you about your work and professional interests.

5. Tweet about the event.

While at the event, share things you learn and see on Twitter and use the conference hashtag. Chances are a lot of people you’d want to meet are on there, too — from PIs to writers and industry professionals. View all of the tweets coming out with the event hashtag to stay on top of what’s going on at the event, including any meetups or secret coffee stations!

While you shouldn’t say anything on Twitter you wouldn’t be comfortable saying in front of all of the conference attendees, don’t be afraid to inject a bit of humour into your tweets or use fun GIFs to make them stand out.

You can start practising this by tweeting about #StemCellsOnTheRoad and getting to know other attendees!

6. Talk to people at exhibitor booths — they work in similar industries so will have unique insight!

This is one of my favourite things to do at conferences and I think it’s one of the most under-appreciated opportunities! Companies and organizations usually send their most passionate and dynamic employees to represent them at a booth at conferences. They are usually friendly and there are lots of conveniently positioned icebreakers at the booth to make for some fun and low-stakes networking practise.

If you visit booths of companies or organizations you’re interested in one day working, the representatives can also serve as a helpful resource for information about the company and who might be helpful to reach out to.

Plus who doesn’t love free pens and chocolate?!

7. Smile & say hi to people in lines, when waiting for the next speaker, etc

After only ever going to science conferences for my first few years of grad school, I found myself at a conference for healthcare investors and instantly noticed something different: everyone was friendly!

Okay, not everyone… but the social norm at this conference was to chat with the person in front of you in line and even the person sitting next to you in between sessions. Even though I didn’t know anyone going into the event, I made a lot of contacts by the end of the day and felt I knew enough people to stay for the social.

At scientific conferences, especially the larger ones, I find most people keep to themselves but are friendly when spoken to. And smaller events like the upcoming Stem Cell Roadshow are the perfect size for getting comfortable introducing yourself to new people during the breaks.

The one very important rule about striking up a random conversation with someone — there’s a time and place for every conversation. The bathroom usually isn’t either.

8. Don’t be afraid to be yourself — a bit of small talk and a bit of shop talk is a memorable combo

It’s cliché but don’t be afraid to be true to who you are. Not only does that make you more memorable, and allow you to relax and enjoy the experience more, but it also can serve as a helpful litmus test. While I don’t recommend extrapolating one individual’s behaviour to an entire company’s work culture, if you can’t be yourself around your future boss then that may be something important to consider.

9. Make plans to follow-up … and actually do it

All of the above are starting points for fostering new professional connections, but the follow-through is where a lot of people slip up. I usually end conversations by exchanging business cards or asking what the best way to stay in touch with them would be. When we part ways I usually make a note in my phone or notebook about their contact preferences and then after the conference is over I follow-up.

If you’ll be sending them a LinkedIn request (which I recommend you do for everyone you meet), make sure to add in a brief note reminding them of your meeting and something interesting you’d want to chat more about sometime. Depending how brief the meeting was they may not have caught your name, and a lot of people have a policy of not adding people unless they explicitly know them.

If you get busy after the event and can’t follow-up right away, still do it. It’s better late than never and chances are they got busy after the event anyway. Once I had waited so long to follow-up that I just waited until the next conference where I thought they might be and emailed to say, “hey was cool meeting you at ____, hope to see you at ____ so I can update you on ____/ask you more about your progress with ___!”

For folks you met on Twitter but not necessarily in person, you can send out a Tweet saying, “was great Tweeting with you!” and tag the people you engaged with most. It’s a nice way to acknowledge other people on the same medium as you and adds to a sense of community.

10. Stay in touch with people you met long-term through social media

Once the baseline connection has been established using the tips above, you’ll want to “keep the connection warm”, as they say. There might be some people who you do actually meet with again afterwards, perhaps over coffee or phone, but for the majority of connections you may want to just keep the door open for “planned happenstance” without having to come up with reasons to remind them of your existence. In those cases, updating your LinkedIn profile and posting from it — whether it’s an update or exciting new thing you’ve done — is a simple and high-throughput way to stay relevant. Most people on LinkedIn don’t actually post on it, so chances are that even if you only share a post every now and then it’ll get seen by a lot of people in your growing network.

What are your favourite tips for networking in the sciences? Join the conversation using #StemCellRoadshow across social media. And if the Roadshow is heading to your city, make sure you register and get ready to start practising these new networking skills there!