My name is Bill and I’m an Introvert™—and a shy one at that. While it’s nice to have a conference presentation line on your CV, and you may get helpful feedback on your poster session/panel/colloquium paper, you often glean the most value from an academic conference through the fellow academics you meet. We often use the term “networking” to describe this.
If you’re anything like me, networking is usually not something you look forward to. Meeting new people can be intimidating and exhausting, despite its importance. With this in mind, I’d like to share a few observations and networking tips for introverts based on my own conference experiences.
Networking Tip 1: Stop “Networking” at Academic Conferences
I personally don’t care for the term “networking.” I don’t think it’s inherently bad, but I have noticed its tendency to make academics roll their eyes and imagine glad-handing sycophants looking to score a business deal.
That’s not what happens at academic conferences. So if the term bugs you, think of it instead as unpredictably making connections with future colleagues and friends.
I don’t have a catchy one-word term for this, so make up one and feel free to share it.
Networking Tip 2: Realize That You Have Something to Bring to the Table as an Introvert
Whether or not you choose to think of it as “networking,” it doesn’t negate the fact that meeting other professionals can be difficult when you (like most academics) are an introvert. It is difficult to approach people who are not likely to approach you—especially if they are senior academics whose work you admire. You might you feel reluctant to approach them because you don’t want to impose.
But if we universalized our tendencies to avoid putting ourselves out there, nobody would know our teaching or research. That would pretty much defeat the entire purpose of being in academia.
Don’t fall into that trap. Be confident in your ideas, and show curiosity about the work of others. After all, by demonstrating interest in other people and their research, you’re being complimentary.
Networking Tip 3: Develop Your Networking Plan Before Your Academic Conference
Get the best idea you can about who is attending and contact people ahead of time. Why put all the pressure on yourself to approach someone with whom you’ve had no contact?
We have the wonders of the Internet to help establish connections ahead of time. Even introverts don’t mind emails. If you see some presenters or attendees whose work interests you, let them know you’ll be around and ask whether they will have time chat briefly, grab coffee, or even have lunch.
Academics almost universally like to know someone is interested in discussing their research, so even if you don’t get the chance to meet a prized party at a particular conference, the door can be open for future opportunities once they know you exist.
Networking Tip 4: Overcome Your Fear
Try to have a “wingperson” at the conference in the form of a fellow student or faculty who already knows you. You can do fine flying solo, but it wouldn’t hurt to have someone with you to break the ice during introductions. It can be especially helpful if this person already knows some of the people you want to meet.
In other words, don’t make your conference attendance a secret to your department. Let everyone know, use social media, etc.
Remind yourself that the people you’d like to meet are interested in your interest in them. Think about how you’d feel if people wanted to talk to you about your work. Maybe you’ve already reached that point! Even if you are not, it is easier to get to that point and stay there when you make yourself known.
All it takes is the willingness to introduce yourself, to share your “elevator pitch,” and to ask people questions about themselves.
Set reasonable goals. If you meet two or three new people who share your research interests, that’s usually a success. You don’t need to meet everyone or work the entire room. Even if you don’t land a fantastic discussion with a potential colleague, your willingness to approach people with these tips in mind should help you in the long run.