Deciding on the conference
Though conferences vary in topic, type, location, and specialization, the two most common categories of conferences are ‘Themed’, and ‘General’, which differ most by the number of attendees, and the breadth of research. ‘Themed’ conferences usually have around 100-250 people and focus on one particular topic, while ‘General’ conferences can be anywhere 500 to 1000+ people, with a much broader research scope. Because of these differences, each type of conferences comes with completely different functional and social aspects (we’ve simplified some below as positives and negatives):
Themed conferences are smaller events, and typically focus on one topic, relating to a specific field of research, scientific question or study system.
+ Opportunity for early career scientists to showcase work to peers of specific research field
+ Regular social interactions with the same people make networking easier at smaller conferences
– Not much exposure to broader fields of research
General conferences are much larger events, usually organised by a scientific society, with multiple parallel presentation sessions on a wide range of research topics.
+ Very generalist, with the opportunity to see a cross-section of scientific research
+ Exposure to multiple bleeding edge research techniques and analytical methods
+ Chance to see how some of the ‘big’ names in science present their research
– Large number of people can make networking more difficult
We think the trick isn’t to go to only small or large conferences, but actually to try a combination of both:
Choose a themed conference that fits your key interests and research questions, and use the close social environment to network with peers in your specific research area.
For general conferences, choose one that best encompasses your research interests, and perhaps has some relevant seminars and keynote speakers. Use these big conferences as an opportunity to get inspired, and see how some of the most prolific scientists present their work.
Social networking at conferences
So you’ve arrived at your chosen conference, picked up your name badge, and flicked through the list of speakers in your handbook. The next hurdle is navigating the social aspect of conferences.
As a scientist, having a network of peers is crucial for your future academic career, and important to consider as you transition from being a student to an early career scientist. Because science is a collective activity, conferences are some of the best places to find potential collaborators. Building your network of collaborators also has the added benefit of increasing your chances of finding out about potential PhD or Postdoc positions. However, not everyone has the same natural disposition to talk with people they don’t know. If you’re a little introverted, there are a few things you can try that might make the process of meeting people easier:
Get introduced through someone you already know - often your supervisor or colleague will be familiar with a particular researcher that you’d like to meet, and you can use this prior connection as a way to get introduced in person.
Make a connection beforehand - if there’s someone you know is going to the conference that you’d like to meet, sending an email in advance can work as an icebreaker.
Visit the posters - posters are one way of meeting new students, and if you’re an early PhD or Master’s student it’s highly likely you’ll meet others in a similar position.
Advertise an open initiation - posting about your planned visit to a conference on twitter can make others attendees in your twitterverse aware of your presence, and facilitate interactions with people that might only know you through papers or your twitter account.
Hopefully these suggestions give you good place to start when it comes to socialising at conferences. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, so if you have other suggestions that you’ve found to work well, let us know!