The richest people in the world look for and build networks. Everyone else looks for work.
As academics, conferences are a necessary, useful, and exciting part of the parcel. They are an opportunity to learn about research going on in your field, a chance to show off your own research, and probably do all of this in a very nice location (I imagine this is true for non-academic conferences also).
So whilst at a conference, it is important to get the most out of it. Conferences can be very tiring; 9am-7pm days are not atypical, 5 days a week, maybe a ‘pre-conference ice-breaker day’, fun runs, evening events, dinners, ceilidhs…
This leads me to a very real reason for conferences: networking. Conferences are a chance to network – a word that may have certain connotations, commonly that networking is all about using someone for something they have that you want.
But networking doesn’t have to be like that. Instead of thinking about what someone wants from you, maybe think about what you have to offer, and they way in which you view networking may change. Often you have a lot more than you may give yourself credit for. You may have some interesting samples, some technical expertise, a different way of looking at things…
A benefit of looking at networking in terms of what you have to offer someone, is that if they don’t want what you have to offer at this moment in time, they are not rejecting you. They are just declining to accept what you have offered.
Imagine Professor Fab. Professor Fab has something you want (equipment, data, knowledge, money, wine…). How easy is it to go up to Professor Fab and ask for some of that? Not very. It can also come off a bit desperate, and you can be rejected. No one wants to be rejected (I don’t think so anyway?).
So imagine situation 2. You are you (all easy to imagine so far), and there is Professor Babe. Now if you offer Professor Babe something (equipment, data, knowledge, money, wine…) its a bit easier, and if they decline, they are only saying no to the thing that you have offered at this moment in time. They are not saying no to you full stop, and that is much easier.
OK cool, so we have a new way to think about networking, by going in to it from the point of what we have to offer rather than what we want from someone, but what about the first bit – the bit where you have to talk to someone you don’t know?
If its Professor Excellent-in-my-Field you want to talk to, then an email before the conference asking to meet for a coffee and a 5 minute chat is not a bad way to go. One email, don’t be creepy. They might say yes, in which case yay! If they say no, or don’t reply to your email, then you are no worse off than if you didn’t ask.
For striking up any conversations there are 3 types of people that you can approach for a conversation: individuals, ‘open’ pairs, and ‘open’ groups of 3. How can you approach them? Small talk is great (though it can be awkward, see previous post!). Talk about the coffee, the sandwiches, the venue, and if you’re British you will probably talk about the weather. Networking, at conferences or elsewhere, can be thought of like a first date without the awkward ‘oh my god how do we say hi/bye? a handshake? a hug? a kiss on the cheek?!’. Start with safe topics and build up from there. You probably wouldn’t ask you first date whether they want to marry you or not and whether you want your family home in the countryside or the city. In the same way, when you’re networking, don’t ask them right away about a potential collaboration. Work up a rapport first, probably over several small interactions, possibly a conference dinner, potentially some wine. Much in the same way as dating, you will work out whether the bond built is worth pursuing. Do you trust this person? Would you like to work with them? You may not have anything to offer each other right now, but maybe in a few months time maybe you will, and building up a relationship first is key to successful networking.
So you’ve managed to build a relationship at a conference, congratulations! Now comes a very important step: follow up. Send an email, say how nice it was to meet them, and attach any papers or links that you promised them. Maybe even ask how that upcoming family holiday went. Maintain the relationship that you have built, and work that network.