Many graduate students tend to think that academic conferences are only about their conference paper. They turn up to give their paper, and leave (or act like a tourist for the rest of their time there). Networking at the academic conference is an afterthought, if the student thinks of it at all.
This is a failure to understand that there is much more value to an academic conference than the paper. As I say, “the action is in the hallways, not on the panels.” Networking effectively at an academic conference is crucial to helping you highlight your scholarship and getting the most out of your time there.
There are usually plenty of opportunities to socialize. Many organizations and universities host receptions, sometimes with an open bar and food—and the conference organizers usually hold a main reception.
That being said, many people find networking difficult. Here are a few steps you can follow to ensure you’re going about it correctly.
Identify in advance who you want to meet.
Look at the conference program online, and note relevant panels and speakers. Attend those panels, ask a question, give your name and institution, and talk to the speakers afterward. To break the ice, compliment them on their work and ask them questions about their research.
Get your own business cards.
You can obtain these for free or at a low cost, and your department might even pay for them. If you meet someone you want to remain in contact with, you’ll be able to offer him or her your business card at the end of the conversation, and they will usually give you their own.
Develop a 30–second elevator speech.
Always introduce yourself when you meet someone, including your full name and institution and a very brief introduction to who you are and what you do. For example:
I am Nigel Ashford at the University of Staffordshire and I work on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
This begins a conversation where you can discuss your background and work in more detail while getting to know the other person better as well.
Always wear your name badge on the right.
This way, when someone shakes your hand, he or she can easily see both your name and your face. This eliminates any need to guess at where your nametag is and helps them to remember you.
Pay attention to your body language.
Smiling will create a more positive atmosphere. Maintaining good eye contact is a sign of interest and respect. Folding your arms, on the other hand, demonstrates disinterest.
Give people your undivided attention.
If you like someone’s work, give him or her sincere praise. When networking at academic conferences, ask people about themselves and their work, rather than just talking about your own interests in accomplishments—and make sure that you ask your questions in a way that comes across as open and friendly rather than hostile.
Listen and understand what the other person is saying before you respond. Do not interrupt.
Introduce people to each other when networking at academic conferences.
You may meet someone who is doing work on a different area than you. Perhaps you have a friend or acquaintance who works in that same area. Connect the two together.
Another way of connecting people with each other and the opportunities around them is to share information with other graduate students about events and receptions.
Develop a post-conference plan.
Committing to following up with the people you meet at the conference is just as important as talking to them in the first place. Decide who you want to keep in contact with and then send them a draft paper of yours, or comment on their work.
Even if networking at academic conferences doesn’t come naturally to you, you will be far more productive—and have a much more enjoyable experience—if you push yourself to invest in those around you.
Learn more about the Hayek Fund.
The Institute for Humane Studies offers grants for graduate students traveling to and attending conferences.