Making connections at conferences can be essential for developing networks, collaborations, and ultimately for strengthening your research.
Here, we ask Dr Zania Stamataki and Professor Julie Williams CBE FMedSci FLSW for their top tips on networking with confidence and achieving your goals.
Dr Zania Stamataki is a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow at the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, University of Birmingham, and a previous participant of our SUSTAIN programme.
During your career there will be times you are excited to attend a conference and feel comfortable to network with confidence. However, this may not always be the case. At these times, it’s difficult to approach a conference with clarity, confidence and ultimately enthusiasm. To make it easier, I remember these key messages.
Good connections lead to good collaboration
Approach networking events as an opportunity to build connections and rapport rather than a chance to set up a collaboration. It’s commonplace to have a shortlist of attendees we want to speak to, share knowledge and hopefully collaborate with, but it is unlikely that the event itself would be the right place to delve into the specific details of our work. A successful collaboration is built upon a good common understanding and connection. Use events and conferences as a kick-start to build these foundations and follow-up new connections for further discussions after the events.
Have a short, accessible summary of what you do
Have a short summary of your research that anyone can understand rehearsed in your mind. For example, “My group and I are working to prevent liver disease using immune cells”. By making your subject concise and approachable you allow for natural connections in the conversation that can lead to fruitful discussions. This is more effective than quoting your official title and institution (this will already be on your name badge!)
Conferences are a community
Joining group discussions during ‘networking sessions’ over coffee or cake can sometimes feel intimidating, or even an inappropriate time to introduce yourself. Reading body language is a great way to approach a group discussion in these situations. For example check the delegates’ posture - are they talking in an “open” conformation with space for one more to join, are their feet facing outward inviting you in? Ask politely to join a group in conversation at the table.
In turn, if you notice someone struggling to join your conversation, take the initiative to invite them. A conference by its definition is a ‘meeting of people with a shared interest’ so it is important to have a sense of community. If you identify the potential for good connections to be made for others, try and facilitate this.
Find time to consolidate and debrief
If you have travel time following an event, use this to consolidate the day and make a note of any key points you have taken away. This may be a keynote speaker’s research, a poster you have seen, or the names and research interests of people you have met. This not only helps consolidate the event in your mind, but also gives you a hard copy summary for later.
Ignore the gremlin on your shoulder
It’s important to remind yourself that everyone is busy. So when that senior researcher you met and who was interested to hear more about your work at a conference doesn’t immediately reply to your email - don’t feel disheartened. More often than not the reason for their lack of response is technical or timely, such as emails being redirected to spam folders or opening your message on their journey home when they are about to miss their station. Don’t be embarrassed to send a follow up email or if you can, give them a call.
Professor Julie Williams CBE FMedSci FLSW is Professor of Neuropsychological Genetics and Associate Director of UK Dementia Research Institute, at Cardiff University, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh Government and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Have desired outcomes and an action plan
A conference is a fantastic opportunity to put a face to a name and a voice to a conversation. A face-to-face interaction is a much more powerful means to form lasting relationships. Before attending a conference spend some time thinking about what you are aiming to achieve by being at this event. One way to do this is to break this goal down into 2 or 3 key and attainable actions to ensure you reach them. Not only do you need to know what you want to achieve but also how, for example, what are the key questions you need to ask to achieve that goal? It is important to keep in mind however, that you are at a conference and not a meeting - be flexible.
Engage with senior researchers
As you become more senior in academic research, you enjoy having the opportunity to share your knowledge and experiences with the next generation of researchers. Finding the courage to approach senior academics with confidence can be a daunting task, but you will find that they are far more supportive and interested in your research than you may have previously thought.
Be confident and passionate about your ideas
Enthusiasm opens doors. This can be a challenge, but trust in yourself and your research is often the first step to spark a keen discussion. In science, we frequently have to work with strong personalities and strong ideas – don’t leave your ideas and opinions unspoken for fear of disregard.
Working with others is an enriching experience that creates invaluable opportunities to share important ideas around a research area. An event or a conference is the perfect environment to form amazing connections that naturally allow quality science to rise to the top. However, maintaining these connections, like any successful relationship, takes time and persistence. The best collaborations have clear roles for all parties involved, strict deadlines and face to face meetings where possible. Conferences are the perfect opportunity to discuss these challenges and aims.
We hold career development events across the country for pre- and post-doctoral researchers in biomedicine and health to give practical skills and the chance to network with colleagues. Find out more about upcoming events and other opportunities in our career development section.