In my last piece,  I discussed ways to think about when to start attending conferences and how to find ones that will be beneficial. This time around, I want to address what to do and what not to do once you have decided to take the plunge and go to a meeting. Below are some suggestions for how to make the most of it without sabotaging your career opportunities. (One issue I will not address here and will leave to yet another piece is how to go about preparing for your own talk, as that merits its own separate discussion.)
While an important part of going to conferences is to present your work and hear updates on other people’s research, it would be wrong to think that formal presentations are the only key component of professional meetings. In fact, at least as significant if not more are interactions that happen in between sessions and during social outings (e.g., receptions, group dinners). Accordingly, it is important to think about these consciously while working on your plans for a meeting.
A bit of preparation before showing up at a conference can go a long way in making it a positive experience. Nowadays, the program is usually available online ahead of time and is worth checking out both for presentations you might want to attend and people you would like to meet. Although you may be inclined to fill up your schedule with formal talks you want to hear, it is important to leave room for one-on-one meetings.
What is the likelihood that you will get to meet your academic hero or colleagues whose work is closely related to yours simply by chance? Without preparation, unless it is an especially small meeting or you know you are on the same panel with some of these people, the odds are low. Get in touch with those of interest before the event to improve the chances of getting on their schedule. Be sure to do this with enough lead time as people’s agendas often fill up quickly. After all, not only will there be many others who want to see the more senior researchers for scholarly purposes, conferences are often the place where academics catch up with old friends from graduate school and elsewhere, leaving little room on their schedules last minute.
Another reason to get in touch ahead of time is to confirm that the person will be at the meeting when the program suggests they may be. Recently, a graduate student from another program contacted me to say that she would be at my presentation at an upcoming conference and was looking forward to talking with me then. I was able to clarify to her that I could not make the session – my co-author would be giving our paper. However, I was happy to arrange a meeting with her on another day when I would be around. Since sometimes only one of multiple authors shows up to give a talk, planning to meet someone right after a panel without verifying who will be giving the presentation may lead to disappointment.
Even if the person shows up as expected, the time right after a formal presentation may only allow for brief interactions since there will likely be others waiting in line for their chance to talk to the speaker. As to approaching someone right before an engagement, it is often not a good idea since the person may be in the midst of last-minute preparations for the talk and should be given room to put any finishing touches on the presentation.
If you are too shy to make arrangements to meet someone, you can let your professors know that you are especially interested in meeting so-and-so and request that they introduce you. To help facilitate this, you may want to remind your mentors why this meeting is particularly relevant for your professional development.
Whatever the means by which you meet people of interest, you should be ready to have things to say. Since you are the one seeking out contact and you are the one who knows of the other person (while the reverse may not be the case), it is up to you to have a topic of conversation ready. While it is flattering to have people come up and say hi, it can be awkward when they then have nothing to say. For example, you could mention a recent piece of theirs you particularly enjoyed and then link that to your work in some manner to signal your areas of interest and how these connect to the person’s research.
While setting up meetings ahead of time can be very fruitful, there is also much to be said for the serendipity that occurs at conferences. Be open to being introduced to folks and also do your best making introductions among others. Some of the most helpful connections I have made at conferences have come out of friends or acquaintances introducing me to someone who happened to be nearby and us realizing that our work had considerable overlap.
It is not easy to go to a meeting where you may not know anybody, but it can be a good opportunity to make new connections. A student recently asked me what he should do at an upcoming meeting for dinner since he did not know any of the other attendees. While it may be a bit intimidating at first, last-minute dinner plans that emerge among attendees can be excellent opportunities for meeting new colleagues. Often folks will start organizing dinners spontaneously as an extension of informal conversations happening close to dinnertime. As a friend of mine pointed out years ago: rarely is it worth passing up an invitation with the hopes that the opportunity to dine with someone more important will come along later. More likely, you will have passed up a perfectly good opportunity to spend time with some interesting people and instead may end up being stuck with no plans at all.
Conversations at dinner – like chit-chats in the hallways after sessions or at receptions – are prime opportunities to make new contacts and possibly even long-term friends. Equally important, these situations can be helpful for figuring out who does not play nice. It is worth remembering that today’s graduate student peers are tomorrow’s members of hiring committees and grant review panels. Impressions made during informal gatherings, whether positive or negative, are at least as likely to stick with people as those made in more formal settings. If you are rude and make obnoxious dismissive comments to others, this may not do you much good when, in three years, the target of your negative remarks is on the personnel committee in a department where you are hoping to land a job.
Too many people naively think that what happens at a conference gathering stays at a conference gathering. Not so. What one says and does under such circumstances is just as likely – if not more so! – to make lasting impressions as what happens during more formal interactions on panels. Of course, this is not meant to scare you from these get-togethers. The goal is simply to recognize the reality of the situation and remind you that whether at a talk or at a reception, you are still at a professional meeting and thus should behave accordingly rather than confusing it with what you might do at the surprise birthday party you just threw for your best friend. In time, some of these people may indeed become very close friends and then your meet-ups will start resembling the informality of purely social get-togethers. But do not mistake initial professional meetings for such casual gatherings.
All-in-all, conferences can be rewarding at many levels. They allow you to let people know about your work and get feedback on it while also hearing about exciting new research by others. They also give you the opportunity to meet new colleagues, make new friends and catch up with old ones. What you get out of a conference attendance is largely up to you. With some planning, an openness to meeting new people and the realization that you are in a professional setting, you are likely to come out ahead with the experiences accumulated at a conference.