A guide for conference (and other professional shindig) networking for awkward introverts

Probably one of the biggest misconceptions about academic life is that you won’t have to interact with people. For the socially-compromised or socially-eschewing this sounds like a haven; you get to do your work, no one bothers you, and you don’t have to deal with any other people that you don’t want to deal with. From the first day of grad school, you know that this is a lie. A bald-faced lie that is Vin Diesel levels of baldness. At no times can this be more apparent than a professional gathering such as a conference or a workshop. You are thrust into a building with people that may number from the 10’s to the 1000’s, for several days. You know very few of these people, although you may have seen their faces many times before. You are expected to be on your “A” game the entire time. You are forced to wear pants. For introverts, the socially awkward, and people who hate pants, this is pretty much hell on earth. But not only is it a necessary evil, it is also something that can be very beneficial for networking. Given that SRCD is coming up, and I know many SRA emerging scholars attend SRCD, I figured this post would be appropriate. I will say that this has been discussed previously, but I wanted to touch on some things I felt were incredibly important to me as someone who is, by nature, both socially awkward and introverted.

First, I can not emphasize enough just how important networking is important as an academic. It gives you access to potential resources that will help you, such as datasets or people with specific skills you can collaborate with. Perhaps that person by poster 57 is working with a dataset that has the EXACT variables that you wanted, but don’t have in your own data. Perhaps the symposium speaker is presenting on a statistical methodology that you were always thinking of incorporating into your paper, but didn’t really know how to do. Such contacts can be invaluable to your career. In addition, networking can give you information about future job positions or postdoctoral positions. I recently attended a workshop that has a storied history of linking graduate students with future postdoctoral mentors. Finally, networking allows you to become a more integrated member of the academic field you may be planning to spend the rest of your life in. Given that some of these fields (specific subject or methods related fields within larger academic fields) are very close-knit, it is important to integrate yourself with these fellow academics in particular. Although broad-scale conferences like SRCD may not be the most optimal environment to do this in, every conference (and networking opportunity) can help.

Who to approach (and where) – or “I don’t know any of these people and I really just want to go back to my hotel room”

During my salad days as a bright-eyed grad student, I went to a conference in which I attended a symposia lead by a very famous adolescence researcher. My intention was to talk with him after the symposia, impress him with my specific questions (more on that later), and then leave him with some lasting impression of me. As soon as the symposia ended, about 15 bright-eyed grad students, all with similar intentions, lined up to shake his hand and meet him. After our extremely brief encounter, I left knowing that he would never remember who I was. Here is a protip: well-established researchers will probably not remember who you are or what your name was, so trying to reel a “big fish” as a novice networker is pretty much futile. Such researchers typically have extremely busy schedules filled with meetings; they also have plenty of people in their own networks that they want to be in touch with at the conference. Unless you have an “in”, or are just an incredibly charismatic and brilliant person, you probably shouldn’t waste your time. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, or that you won’t get anything out of talking with them (you will), or that repeated meetings won’t eventually allow you to build a working relationship with these people. But your time may be more valuable elsewhere. Mainly, early faculty and your fellow emerging scholars.  They are much more eager to talk, in part because they are building up their own networks and looking for collaborators. They also are very enthusiastic about publishing and producing studies that will help their careers in a way that well-established researchers are not as concerned about. They also most likely have more time (e.g., less meetings, less obligations) to talk.

I’m not one of those people who can just start engaging in a random conversation with someone at any old place. Personally, especially in my early networking days, I found it the easiest to talk to people at poster sessions, because the entire purpose of these sessions is to tell others about your project. Scoping out specific posters that you want to see will help you think about exactly what you want to say to people, giving you a nice conversational framework. People are also excited to talk to you about their posters – there is nothing more boring than standing in one place for an hour and a half watching a bunch of people pass you by! Although symposia are also nice places to talk to people about their work, they are less of a “captive” audience (they have places to go), and they may be less able to talk. Don’t be offended if they seem busy – they are!

That said, if you do end up striking up a meaningful conversation with someone (like at a poster session), or if you want to talk to someone but they are not available, don’t be afraid to ask them if they would like to grab a coffee sometime during the conference. It shows that you are interested in their work, and that you are committed to possibly working with them in the future. If you REALLY want to talk to someone (a certain researcher you want to discuss things with) don’t be afraid to email them before the conference and ask if they are able to meet (I have done this too). Such meetings can be very helpful. In order to make the meetings productive (and to be more comfortable talking with people you barely know), I found it crucial that I had a list of things that I wanted to discuss. This brings me to the next point:

The conversation – or “how do I not stand there looking like a scared kitten while thinking about what to say”

The most important thing that helped me early in my networking career was tailoring game plans to specific situations or specific people. This meant coming up with a list of questions that I wanted to ask; having a specific plan made me feel more confident in approaching others, because I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and didn’t have to think about it much. For example, when I met with the person who I emailed before a conference (a rising star in the field I was interested in), I had a specific list of questions in my head. When approaching people at symposia or posters, I would come up with questions before I spoke to people in order to facilitate conversation. We are all here for research and we all love discussing it, so don’t ever be afraid to ask someone about their work! That said, these questions don’t have to be all planned out ahead of time. However, coming up with questions to ask is a lot easier, at least for me, than thinking about the myriad of other things I could say to spark a conversation. These questions can be anything from specific studies (questions about methodology, variables), broader questions about the field (this would be for more well-established people in the fields; I especially like questions such as “Where do you think the field of (x) is going next? I’m interested to see if there is anything new I should think about when planning studies”), or potential collaborations (e.g. “Your data is perfect for a study that I have wanted to do for a while – is it available to collaborators?” or “This seems like a perfect methodology for what I have been trying to do – could I get some more information about this approach?”)

What about post-question conversation? Some conversations may gel pretty naturally, for others, you may be hard-pressed to think of other things to say once you’ve exhausted the questions you wanted to ask. Don’t be afraid to simply thank the person for their time, and get their contact information in case you want to know more. Using the excuse that you “have to go” is perfectly fine – you are at a conference, after all! Just a simple phrase like “Well, thank you for answering those questions for me! I have to run, but I’d love to get your contact info because I may have a few more questions later/want to get your paper or poster/ love to follow-up on our conversation about potentially working together” can do the trick.

What about the reverse (people asking what you do/study)? Previous networking guides have recommended that you perfect an “elevator talk” – a short (less than 15 second) pitch about what you do research on. These are extremely useful for a litany of reasons – they force you to think critically about what you do, how to explain it in a very simplistic way, and start as a brief “abstract” for potential conversations with other researchers with similar interests. They also convey that you can competently and confidently talk about your own work, which is an important skill.

Miscellaneous Tips (Do’s and Don’ts)

DO: Get contact information. This will help you to follow up afterwards, and will give them something to remember you by. Even if it’s a business card, an email address, or a social media account exchange, this exchange of information helps solidify a relationship.

DON’T: Run to your phone every time you feel awkward. This completely shuts you off from others, and they will not want to interact with you.

DO: Follow up after! I have to admit being notoriously bad at this, because I am simply notoriously bad at replying or following up on ANYTHING social (sorry, everyone who texts me or emails me ever). This is why it is important to get THEIR information (rather than just give them yours), because you will be committed to emailing them, even if it is a simple “hey, I’m (NAME) and we talked about (X) at the conference (time/date reference to jog memory). I just wanted to say (thank you for answering my questions/ask another question/continue conversation about potential collaboration/other)”. You may feel equally awkward by following up; but think about how you would feel if someone wrote to YOU valuing your time or input – it would probably feel pretty nice, right? Follow-ups are crucial for building long-lasting collaborations.

DON’T: Stalk people. I’m serious. I’ve heard stories.

DO: Be on your best behavior. You will see these people again. They may or may not remember you, but it is better to be a benign ghost that is forgotten (in which case, you have a second chance for a first impression!) than a malignant specter that people will remember not-that-fondly (in which case, you have to OVERCOME that first impression, which will be harder)!

DON’T: Feel that you have to make “small talk” or keep a conversation going. Bowing out gracefully (“I have another meeting, but it was great talking to you!”) is better than awkwardly fumbling for things to say.

DO: Know your limits when it comes to things like happy hours or receptions with alcohol. There is a reason alcohol tends to flow at receptions; it’s called the social lubricant for a reason. For some people, alcohol allows them to overcome the initial awkwardness they feel when initiating conversations with strangers. For others, it turns them into people that others don’t want to initiate conversations with. If you don’t know which one of these you are, don’t drink. If you think you know which one of these you are, ask someone else and take their word. If you are CONFIDENT in knowing which one of these you are, act accordingly.

DON’T: Stick with one person or your own cohort like a school of fish. This will feel the most comfortable for you, especially when you are in a large place with no one else you know. But these cohorts (or these individual people) will not be there at every conference. You may have conferences where you are on your own, and you do not know anyone else. Force yourself to network and make new contacts.

DO: Practice outside of conferences! For some people, social skills are just that; SKILLS that need to be acquired (rather than natural abilities that are endowed upon gregarious, extroverted individuals). The more you practice, the better you can become. For me, this involved a lot of “pushing myself out of my comfort zone” and fighting my natural urge to simply eschew anything social. At the risk of sounding too socially awkward, I have found a number of tips online that are helpful for both professional networking and everyday life.

DON’T: Simply leave if you’re in one of those situations where you are at a poster and want to talk to someone but they are engaged in a conversation with someone else. Just make eye contact with the person that you want to speak to in order to let them know that you want to talk to them. Don’t get discouraged, even though you may have to awkwardly stand around for a couple minutes trying not to listen in on someone else’s conversation.

DO: Smile, look presentable, eye contact, all that stuff that makes first impressions go smoothly, makes you memorable in a good way, and makes people feel more comfortable with potentially working with you or hanging out with you in the future.

Networking, for some people, is a necessary evil. It becomes more necessary as one progresses throughout the early stages of their career, but it also can become less evil. With this in mind, let every conference serve as an opportunity to continually hone your networking skills; although it took me a while to get the hang of it, I have started to feel much more confident in my own abilities (I mean, I’m writing this guide, so I better be). That said, feel free to say hi to me at SRCD, or any conference you might see me at. I’ll be the one lamenting the fact that I have to wear pants.

By Arielle R. Deutsch

Image by igor_kell/AdobeStock

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