Networking Hacks

Simple strategies to network at academic conferences

Academic conferences can be overwhelming for master’s and PhD students. However, conferences are important events to share your research and expand your network. The following tips help master’s and PhD students to network and make good use of their time at academic conferences.

Preparing a good conference presentation

Starting with the most obvious part: the conference presentation. There is most likely a reason for you to attend a conference: In 90% of the time, academics attending conferences are there to present their work.

Conference presentations are often 15-minute presentations of a research paper or ongoing research. They can, however, also be poster presentations. Or they involve participation in an academic panel discussion.

Needless to say, the conference presentation should be well prepared. You want to make a good impression. So if you have no or little experience in public speaking, it is a good idea to practice your presentation in front of peers or friends beforehand.

Connecting with other conference sessions or track presenters

Most conferences operate in terms of sessions and tracks. Conference tracks are the broad themes of a conference. Sessions are more thematically-focused events within tracks, in which usually 3-5 academics present their work.

When submitting a conference abstract, you often have to indicate in which session and/or track you want to present. If your abstract is accepted, this is a big benefit: you will be grouped with other academics who focus on similar themes and topics.

Don’t just run out of the room after your presentation! Show your face, and be present in your session and track.

Tracks often span more than one day. Thus, presenters in the same session or track will start to recognize each other, making it easier to start small-talk and connect.

Coffee breaks between sessions are informal mini-networking events. Don’t be shy and talk to the person sitting next to you. Or approach another presenter and compliment them on their research or ask a follow-up question.

Joining the conference’s early career activities

Most conferences organize special activities for PhD students and other early career researchers. Sometimes, these are special sessions for early careers to present their work. Other times it is purely a networking event or a session on for instance academic publishing.

Participating in these kinds of activities is beneficial. They can be useful content-wise. But also to meet others who are at the same career stage as you are.

Conferences can be huge and disorienting. Meeting others who may also feel lost, is comforting. You can learn from each other, share experiences and discuss your research in a more informal setting. Sometimes, conference ‘buddies’ can turn into lifelong friends.

Not to forget that in a few years, early career scholars will also move on with their careers. This can involve climbing the academic ranks, or embarking on careers outside of academia. In any case, firm relationships are always an advantage, as you never know what the future holds.

Connecting with your academic ‘heroes’ during academic conferences

Every conference has a few star-academics: the stars or heroes of your academic discipline. Not only is it at times very funny to see the persons whose work you are reading so much (and may worship). You might also want to connect with them.

Make sure you connect with your academic hero appropriately. Keynote speakers, for instance, are approached by many people. And often it can be quite annoying for them. So make sure that you have something interesting to say, instead of just complimenting their work.

Established academics who present in a conference session are generally easier to approach. Attend their session, watch their presentation, and potentially ask a smart question in the Q&A.

After the presentation or during the coffee break, you can approach your academic hero and introduce yourself. If you have a nice conversation, make sure to follow the post-conference networking guidelines below.

Networking during the conference dinner

Frankly, conferences can be socially exhausting. Especially for introverts. This means you need to be smart with managing your energy. Some events, like conference dinners, seem like great opportunities to skip and catch up on sleep.

However, don’t skip (all of) this event!

Networking often happens outside of the formal program.

As a master’s or PhD student, you may feel uncomfortable networking. Or even feel like you don’t belong. It is okay to feel that way, but you do belong! And as many disciplines are ‘small worlds’, it is important to show up.

If you know someone more senior, maybe your supervisor or a colleague from your department, ask them to join them at the conference dinner. (Or any other social event for that matter). They will have their networks already, and you will be able to meet a new set of people.

If you don’t know anyone, be proactive and ask someone who seems friendly from an early career activity or your conference session to attend the conference dinner together.

There is a high chance that the other person is relieved that you asked, as they may feel similarly anxious. And you do not have to show up alone.

Post-conference networking

The conference is over and you are back home. What a crazy, inspiring and exhausting few days! But it does not end here. There is one last thing you should do a few days after the end of the conference: Connect!

Connect with your fellow session and track presenters on LinkedIn, follow them on Twitter or connect with them on any other academic platforms.

Don’t just send a connection request after a conference, but add a line or two reminding the person where you met exactly (which track, which activity), compliment their work and say that you would like to keep in touch.

In some cases, it is also smart to write an email. Imagine you had an engaged discussion with someone about a specific theoretical framework. Write the person an email and send them one of your publications if you have some. Or send them a brief description of your PhD. Or an interesting article that you came across, and fits the discussion you had.

Keep your communication friendly, and kind but short. Do not put pressure on the receiver to reply (immediately). Just start the conversation, and clarify that you are interested in staying in touch and exchanging research findings in the months to come.

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