As you begin your professional career, you may begin to notice that people like to meet. It’s one thing to read papers from people, but it’s another to meet these individuals face to face, discuss problems, and simply get to know them. Professional conferences provide a wonderful venue for meeting people, especially when you are a ‘newbie,’ in the field.
How to choose a conference
When you begin your career, it’s likely that no one knows you. Graduate students are, to most professionals, the babies of the field. And, for the most part, no one is interested in babies. The babies simply aren’t interesting; they bring very little to the ‘professional party.’ If you go to the very large professional conferences such as the Institute of Food Technologists or the American Psychological Association, you may well be wasting your time and your money. These conferences have thousands of attendees, and as a young scientist or graduate student you’re likely to get lost.
For your initial forays into professional conferences, you’re better off going to more local meetings. For one, it’s less expensive to drive to a local meeting than to fly to a national meeting. Second, the people at the meeting are your neighbors. You already share a geographical bond. And, for the most part, locals are always interested in networking with other locals. Most local professional conferences are more informal, friendly, and far less competitive. It’s not a ‘meat market’ at home as it is in a larger conference.
After a year or two at your first job, or after publishing a paper as a graduate student, you might want to venture off into one of the smaller, invitation-only conferences. As a newbie, you won’t be invited by the conference organizer because you’re unknown. However, by becoming friendly with someone established in the field, preferably someone who goes to these conferences and publishes papers, you can comfortably work your way into the conferences themselves. Despite the ‘by invitation only,’ all professionals realize that they need new blood. The professionals in the field who go to these conferences often welcome newbies far more graciously than do the same professionals who find themselves at the larger conference.
Working the conference
The majority of what goes on in professional conferences really occurs informally in the hallways. That being said, what is the optimum plan for working a conference? Can you really work a conference, or is it mainly the luck of the draw? What are the suggested strategies to increase success at conferences?
It’s best to register early for the conference and show up early, even perhaps a half a day or a day early. This advice may sound a bit unusual, even out of touch, given the very hectic schedules that most people lead, especially young professionals who have so much to do. Yet, there is a reason. Arriving a day early allows you to walk around the conference before it is set up, so you have a sense of the rooms and a feel of the atmosphere. You will feel more comfortable if you walk the floors of the conference ahead of time. You’ll learn where the places are to sit and have coffee, so that when you want to meet someone you know where to meet. This is invaluable. You have a limited time at this conference, so going in with knowledge of the terrain will help you.
Furthermore, by arriving a day early you can get a sense of what the rooms look like, and, with that sense, you can decide where you want to sit. Further, you also get to bond with other people who arrive early and/or exhibitors if the conference is a large one with commercial exhibitions attached. It is a wonderful opportunity to hear the latest scoop about what’s happening.
What to do at a professional conference
How should you behave? It’s important to remember why you are at the conference, and what you want to accomplish. Yes, the conference is about you. But, no one appreciates listening to a graduate student or a young professional go on and on about his work and his deserved, future place in the galaxy. For one, you are probably young, and you haven’t done the important work in your life. If you have, you’re wasting your time at the conference anyway. Second, other people want to hear themselves speak, and you are getting in their way.
It’s best to ask questions, and then to shut up. It helps to nod, to pay attention, and to realize that if you are going to succeed at this conference you want people to have a positive attitude towards you. It doesn’t help to be the ‘know-it-all,’ the one who is doing it right while everyone else is doing it wrong.
Listening isn’t everything, however. You don’t want to be a passive listener. A good strategy would have you identify around 10 individuals who you know about, but who you may not know. For each of those individuals, write down the particular interest of that person, write down 1-2 questions to ask that person, and then write down 1-2 points of your own to add to the answer. The person may not even attend the conference, but it’s not important. What is important is the exercise itself, play-acting, simulating an encounter and a conversation, preparing a question, and then preparing your own 30 second ‘elevator pitch’ about your own work as it connects with the expected answer you will receive. This ‘inner game’ is far more important than you realize. By becoming a master at the inner game, by interviewing professionals in your field in your mind and preparing your own additions to the answers given, you’ll go a long way towards making the most of the conference.
Conferences are important. Very important. Do your homework. Play the inner game. Don’t look at conferences as a necessary evil, but as a happy hunting ground where you will ‘bag’ your future. With this in mind, go to as many conferences as you can. They’re worth it – especially at the start of your career. Oh, one final thing: watch your manners.
This post is an expert from Howard Moskowitz’s book, You!.