How to Make Friends and Meet People at a Scientific Conference

By Joanne Kamens

science networking event

There is essentially no better place for a scientist to make new relationships than at scientific conferences. Conferences provide the opportunity to meet people who are interested in the same things you are on a deep level. Right away you have something in common. Namely, the scientific question you are interested in and this is a great ice breaker. Of course, real relationships go further and grow over time, but being interested in the same phosphate of your favorite kinase is a good start.

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Perhaps you think that meeting other scientists is not a priority for your career. Actually, it is crucial for all scientists, academic and non-academic, to always be meeting as many other scientists as possible.

  • You never know when you will meet a potential collaborator

  • Some of these people you meet will review your papers or grants in the future, and don’t be surprised to know that people think more favorably of scientists they know personally

  • Scientists in your field will know about grants and projects that might help your work

  • Tenure can depend on your national recognition and the more people you know, the larger your profile in the community

  • Job hunting outside of academia is all driven by personal connections

What can you do to get the most from the time and money you are spending on a conference? One thing to consider is the size of the conference. Large conferences have many opportunities but can be overwhelming as far as meeting new people. At large conferences, look for smaller events or meet-ups to connect with others more easily. Attend special interest group sessions that match your interests. I favor small conferences where the attendees stay onsite and eat together because scientists have time to really connect with others whose company they enjoy on a professional and personal level. 

Here are some tips to get out of the rut of hanging out with only your lab mates (let’s face it, you see enough of them). 

Before the conference

  • Make sure you have a business card  even students and postdocs. There are many inexpensive/free places to order cards. There are a few good reasons to have a card but two of the best are: if you give someone a card they are more likely to remember you if you follow up and if you give someone your card, they have to give you theirs!

  • Think about how you want to introduce yourself and what you do. You can probably use some scientific terms when socializing at a conference, but start with a more general intro until you know if the person you are talking to is really in your direct area. 

  • Review the conference schedule and attendance list. Plan the sessions you will attend. Research the speakers in advance and make a note of those you would like to try and meet. Don’t worry about contacting someone much more senior than you  meeting scientists at your level of training is always a good idea.

  • Make contact with other attendees in advance. Join a LinkedIn group (or make one!) or find the conference's Twitter hashtag. Use social media to let others know you will attend. Meet some people online to follow up with in person. Email lab members that have moved on to see if they will attend.

  • Make a date or two for beer, coffee or meals with colleagues you know will attend the conference. Invite others to join you. A fun, memorable meal is a great way to build relationships.

  • Make a list of experimental problems or questions you are pondering and be ready to talk about them. People love to help especially when solving problems.

 During the conference

  • The conference may start in the airport. If you see someone traveling with a poster roll, say hello.

  • Keep your cards handy and make sure your name tag is always visible. Some people learn names by seeing them. It is OK to ask someone to see their name tag if you are one of those people.

  • Meet people in sessions by sitting next to someone and introducing yourself. Put your phone away! This is a natural time to meet someone since you are both interested in the same talk. Read more on this advice to “never leave an empty seat” here.

  • If there are communal meals, sit with people you don’t know and put your phone away (did I say that already). Start with, “Is this seat taken? Can I join you?” Next talk about the food and then move on to science. More great tips on conference meal etiquette are here.

  • Don’t only talk about science and work  casual socializing is how people build relationships that are memorable. It isn’t always appropriate to walk up to someone much more senior than you, but you can safely seek out scientists your own age. Some will be friendly so stick with those.

  • Don’t miss social opportunities, but don’t overdo it (some of my best studies were designed over late night poker games at Gordon Conferences). You don’t want to be so exhausted that you can’t get a lot from the presentations and programs.

After the conference

  • Follow up with the new people you met at the conference. If you promised to send a paper, send it. If you had a nice time, send a note to say so. If you read a paper that you think would interest them, send it and ask for their input.

  • Connect with people you met on LinkedIn, especially if they are not in academia. Make sure to learn how to use LinkedIn properly. Then, follow LinkedIn to see when your connections post. Stay in touch by liking, commenting and re-sharing their posts. LinkedIn users notice this sort of connection. You can also see and offer congratulations on job changes and promotions. 

  • Follow academic scientists on ResearchGate and/or via Pubmed alerts. Congratulate your connections when they get a new paper published.

  • Stay in touch enough to plan to meet up at the next conference. Once is just a meeting, but having lunch twice turns a stranger into a friendly colleague.

Recommended Reading & More:

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Topics: Science Careers, Networking, Conferences

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