“What’s The Point Of Attending A Conference?”

At this time of year, members of the academic community are preparing speeches for the variety of conferences this summer. So what does the keen doctoral student want in attending a conference? What’s the point? Maybe:

  • Acknowledgement and approval
  • Funds – or at least to knowledge of where to find funding
  • Feedback
  • Collaborators
  • Shared data 
  • Citations in other people’s research papers
  • Potential future job offers.

A good start is to prepare a strong, authoritative, punchy presentation or poster that commands respect, engagement and discussion.

Next is to be targeted in deciding who to speak to and what to achieve. Too often in the past, I have gone to events unprepared. And frankly, I’ve discovered to my vexation that if I didn’t know what I wanted, I’d come away with nothing but a handful of pleasant conversations! It’s such a waste of time, money and effort – a return flight to Beijing, Sydney or New York, a hotel room, conference attendance and nervous energy if all you leave with is a scattering of business cards and a steep bar bill.

Just in the same way that 90% of a great presentation is in the preparation, so 90% of great networking is in how you prepare. What you need to know:

  • What do you want to achieve? Be clear. Set yourself a target. It might be in terms of simple numbers – 5 university professors/heads of labs/clinicians/investors, specific targeted people, people from specific areas of research. And what do you want them to think/say/do? Have a look at the above list.
  • Set up a spreadsheet that you fill in each night of who you’ve met, which department of which university/organisation, what you spoke about, what to do next to follow up.
  • The dress code – a great way to stand out is to dress appropriately though at a level just above the norm. Find out from the organisers what the expected dress code is.  Get a haircut, polish your shoes and iron your shirts/suit. Look your best self. 
  • The list of speakers – you won’t know the attendees until the conference itself though you will know who’s speaking and what they’ll be presenting. Identify the Great Man/Woman giving the keynote speech. Prepare a good question if the topic is something you know about. A great way to get known.  At the very least, find out who they are, what they do and their background from their Linked In profile.
  • Prepare business cards – if possible with a decent photo (to identify you from the crowd) and what you specialise in. In handing over your card, it is likely the other person will hand over theirs. This means you have the perfect opportunity to connect and follow up via Linked In.
  • Is the hotel near the venue? You don’t want to leave just as your conversation with someone influential is getting interesting because you’re worried you’ll miss the last bus back to your room.
  • Overcome your natural reserve and get ready to speak to strangers. You don’t know who knows who. You might get great introductions standing in the line for coffee at the break or in the evening at the conference venue bar. Make yourself available. And please, don’t just huddle up with those you already know!

The objective is to know you’ve represented yourself and your research in the best possible light to the right people. Be prepared, like the scouts.

I’d welcome any comments and ideas of your own that help you prepare for successful networking at conferences.


About anrah

Anrah is a business development consultancy specialising in helping senior women in engineering and science, their teams and doctoral students increase 'presence', improve communication and generate impact to win stakeholder buy-in at the highest level.
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