August Comte, the father of sociology, defined society as a social organism possessing harmony of structure and function, and according to Talcott Parsons, society is a plethora of complex human relationships, often summated as ‘a web of social relationship’. Thus, communication, relationship building and networking is, but human. That said, professional networking needs more preparedness to be effective and achieve the desired goals.
Conferences provide excellent opportunities for professional networking. However, often with hundreds or even thousands of participants, it might be overwhelming to determine where to start from and who to begin networking with.
My first mantra: Conferences with a broad focus might be tempting to attend, but you would hardly be able to make any meaningful connections there. Rather, choose to attend conferences, national or international, which match with your study interest, with the intention of connecting with more researchers, academicians, corporates et. al. in your domain area. Also, instead of trying to meet every person or impress only the big names, reach out and introduce yourself to peers or alumnus, who might be a good conduit to their bosses/seniors in the sector and with whom you can continue building strong business relationships.
Second, will you be a participant to the conference, or a presenter of a paper/poster? If it is the latter, it further helps you to streamline and know about the experts you would intend to connect with. Ahead of time, please check the conference website to know about the advisory committee and sponsors, and if available, the list of participating organizations. This will give you a fair idea about the drivers of the conference and its objectives. Also, check if the conference is linked with any campaign and if you can be a part of their bigger efforts. With my research focus in cervical cancer prevention, I recently participated in the HPV 2017 Conference in South Africa. While I was registering to the conference, I also took a lifetime membership of the International Papilloma Virus Society. This not only helps you to be abreast on the recent happenings, but also facilitates you to be connected to who’s who in the sector, beyond and even after the conference. Most of these memberships costs quite a bit, though might have discounted rates for students. It is always a good idea to undertake this investment or convince your department to provide you with a conference scholarship, inclusive of these costs.
Social media is an increasingly popular way to introduce, interact and share thoughts. So once you have a broad list of sessions you’d like to attend and people you’d like to meet, make that extra effort to catch up with them over tea/coffee, lunch breaks and during built-in dinner, which some conferences specifically host to promote networking. Be sure to collect their email addresses and positively reach out to them via personalized email, connect with them through Twitter, Researchgate, and/or LinkedIn. Figure out how you can truly help them rather than trying to get something from them. If possible, and depending on the hierarchy, set up a 10-15 minute meeting over coffee or a drink. You can also use social media to connect with and compliment the speakers. That is always a good way, pre and post conference, to remind them about you. Many of the conferences these days have a Facebook page, too. Check on that, and if you could be a member of the Facebook group, that is an added advantage.
Prioritizing is another important step. With multiple sessions occurring at the same time, do not mind skipping a panel discussion or a session and catching up in the break room. This way, you’ll have more individualized time with people – e.g. a speaker who’s just arrived, a participant who has stepped out, or a sponsor whom you want to ask if they have any research funding for students. This time, at the HPV 2017 conference, I observed and especially interacted with people who stood by my poster. I understood that they were interested in the kind of work I was doing and that helped in initiating a dialogue.
Last, but not the least, have concrete goals in mind. While you are figuring out who to network with, it’s a good idea to have a fair idea of what you want to get out of the meeting. Be prepared with an elevator speech, and be sensitive and open to other people’s pitches instead of just trying to push your own agenda on the other person. Limit your introduction to a succinct two minutes, during which you say your name, where you study or work and about your research interests. Even if it entails some personal costs in printing, do that and carry your business cards, even better if you can print your abstract (if you have any) in postcard/A4 size paper, which is handy enough to carry along. Many participants might not have the time to listen to your presentation or read through your poster, and might prefer to read your piece at a later time. Also, carry couple of resumes, to be handed over to specific people, if such a need arises.
…and above all, be in touch with the people you have interacted with during the conference after you depart. If you have promised them to send literature or connect them to your faculty adviser or department, do that at the earliest within one or two weeks. Trust, these simple tips will help you realize a much higher net-worth of networking in each conference that you attend.
Tapati is a socio-behavioral scientist in community health. She is currently in her second year doctoral studies at the School of Public Health and majoring in Health Behavior. Her research emphasis is on multi-level community engagement in health policies, particularly in resource-limited country settings. Whenever she can take a breather from her pedagogic assignments, she engages in painting or creative writing.