As a Ph.D. student, I have the opportunity to attend many cool conferences and co-located events (e.g., ICSE, CSCW, ICSME). However, beyond visiting beautiful places around the world (Switzerland, India, Canada, and Italy soon), I really enjoy meeting and connecting with people. In my experience, most people I’ve met at conferences were really great, super nice, and were very happy to talk to me, even though they didn’t actually know me or had any immediate outcome in mind. In this post I provide pointers—especially intended for new grad students—for meeting people at conferences.
1. Stop “Networking” and Just Meet People
At one of the conferences I attended recently, I was approached by another Ph.D. student. After he introduced himself, he allowed me to introduce myself, and then asked about my research topic. After describing my research topic, he politely left. The problem here, in my opinion, was that except getting to know my name and my research topic, we didn’t actually have a real conversation. And to be honest, the encounter didn’t leave enough of an impression and in the future, it would be hard for me to remember meeting him.
My main takeaway is that you should not focus on networking at conferences. I feel this is one the biggest mistakes people do, as they approach networking in a technical and goal oriented manner (saying things like “I have to talk to 50 strangers at this conference”). The goal should not be to (shallowly) meet X people in Y amount of time. Instead I suggest to genuinely be interested in meeting and connecting with other people. Have a proper conversation - you may never know where this conversation will go. I have had many amazing conversations (not necessarily research related) with people I just met, people who later became my colleagues or dear friends.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Approach People
A good way to meet people, especially for new students, is through an introduction. An introduction can be done either by your supervisor, one of your colleagues, or one of the newly met people. However, since not all supervisors might do this, you should introduce yourself. If you already have some experience and know the community, make sure to help newcomers.
A very common way to meet people at conferences is to just approach them. I suggest the following: Start by introducing yourself, and get to know their name and where they come from (you can use the conference-issued name tags). Next, ask if they are presenting or have presented a paper at the conference. If they have a paper, you can ask them to tell you about the paper. If not, you can ask about their research interests. If you attended their talk, you should definitely mention that, and use their presentation as a way to start a conversation. Notice that this is not a script, but rather suggested guidelines to start a conversation.
Remember that the main point of conferences is meeting people from your research area. This means that everyone has a common goal, so there is no reason to be afraid to approach people! Most are probably anxious as well, and would be thankful for a conversation.
“Students are sometimes afraid to talk to professors, but they shouldn’t be. Many professors are very approachable. Some may be busy, so if they seem distracted don’t take it personally. On the other hand, some students only approach well-known people, rather than being open to meeting anyone.”
— Margaret-Anne Storey
3. Attend Social Events, Not Just The Conference
When attending conferences, I recommend taking part in the various social events (official and unofficial). Most conferences will arrange a least a few organized social events: a dinner, a banquet, a hike, a bicycle trip, etc. However, there are also unofficial social meetings, such as groups of people gathering together for dinner. Attending these events will allow you to better connect with and get to know various people. Besides, these events are extremely fun (and usually lead to memorable moments).
4. Take Advantage of Social Media
Following and participating in the discussions happening on Twitter is another good way to get to know people in the community, and its research themes. The basic information on Twitter can allow you to know the names and faces of some of the people, and make it easier to approach them. In some cases, Twitter may also be used for coordinating social gatherings (e.g., when a group is organizing to go for dinner). However, using Twitter should not be a replacement for meeting people face-to-face.
Most conferences nowadays have a presence on Twitter, and often people are live-tweeting during the conference. Using the conference or event hashtags (e.g., #icse14, #icsme14) and tools like TweetDeck are a very convenient way to track all the related tweets.
5. Don’t Be Afraid of Lack of Experience
A common fear among newcomers is the lack of experience in research or in published papers. However, this should not be an issue at all. The research community is very welcoming, and the people you’ll meet will most likely give you some suggestions and guidelines. Moreover, they probably had similar challenges before and know how you feel. Don’t hesitate to be open about your lack of experience or the fact that you are a newcomer (e.g., a new student). Remember to be yourself.
“One thing that worked very well for me at ICSE 2011 was that I knew in advance which cool people would be there. I was interested in and impressed by their research, and made it a point to try to meet and talk to them. When you’re interested in what someone does it’s also much easier to come up with questions to ask them. This leads to much better conversations.”
— Leif Singer
I hope you’ll find this post useful. If you see me at a conference, please come by and say hello. Also, a recommended book is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.
How was your own experience with meeting people at conferences? Do you have a cool story where something happened only because you pushed yourself out there?
P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter.