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From PhD to Life

Conferences are for networking


One of my intentions for the summer is to step up my networking. I want to reach out to more people, both those I know and those I don’t yet know, to have conversations about their work and mine. I’d like to know more about the professionals who work in and around universities, especially as it relates to graduate education. This means speaking with coordinators of graduate-level programming, career services folk, researchers and policy analysts, and independent consultants, among others. I’m already part of this broader community, and I’d like to learn more about it.

I had this intention vaguely in mind recently when I attended the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the annual gathering of more than seventy Canadian scholarly associations. I went to Ottawa because I was invited to speak at the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education’s graduate student pre-conference; I stayed to network.

When I was a graduate student myself, I never went to Congress. My doctoral research was in American and Russian history, so the Canadian Historical Association never had any draw for me or most of my colleagues. The first time I went to Congress was last year, when I was part of a panel discussion organized by Mitacs. I didn’t stay very long, travelling to and from St. Catharines, Ontario in one day. This year I lingered on after my presentation, originally planning on hanging out out with my parents. Instead, I spent most of three working days at Congress.

What’s striking for me about this experience is how little time I spent at actual conference sessions, and how much networking I did instead. During my PhD student days, going to a conference meant, well, going to the conference: attending sessions, sitting through lunch-time keynotes and dinner-time award presentations, joining in evening group activities. When coffee breaks ended, I hurried into a session. I remember once skipping an afternoon to go to the Columbus Zoo. I felt like I was breaking a rule — and probably only did it because a professor of mine instigated the outing. I realize now that I treated conferences like they were courses: a graduate student doesn’t simply skip classes; why would I act differently at a conference?

I’m embarrassed to write this, because I suppose many — most? — of you will be shaking your head at me. “Conferences are for networking, silly!” Well, I didn’t fully grasp what this meant until now, not really. I thought networking was when you showed up and paid attention, then conversed intelligently in the breaks. I didn’t understand the importance of the beer tent. Yes, Congress has such a thing. (Ha! Another thing I didn’t know about.)

Now that everyone’s back home, I’ve got follow-up emails to write and conversations to schedule. I’ve learned an important lesson: Going to a conference means so much more than going to the conference.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Jano Klimas / June 17, 2015 at 19:24

    How to make the most as a junior researcher?

    June 15, 2015 – The conference of the College of Problems on Drugs Dependence took place in Phoenix, Arizona. When I learned that my paper was accepted, I decided to make the most out of the conference. I wanted to network. I found a blog by NICOLA KOPER especially helpful. She described how networking at conferences has resulted in more than one seminal and persistent research collaboration, and in joint publications. Koper also offered four tips on how you can make the most of conferences and use them to elevate the quality of your research programme. Here’s how I used them to make the most out of my conference.

    Make the rounds at meals

    Talk to the person before and after you in the coffee line. Talk to people you don’t know, make photos with them. But remember that some conferences have a policy of no photography of presentations or data allowed.

    Lunch early and create more time for standing by your poster. But stay out late, people will remember you.

    Go on the field trips

    Field trips are gold mines for networking, if you can do them. Re-discover your interest. Engage playfulness. Enjoy the process. Connect with your curiosity.

    Spend time with your students

    They’ll appreciate it. This tip is more applicable for senior investigators. Other senior tasks are to attend steering committee meetings and to prepare talks or presentations.

    Go to lots of talks

    Talk to the speakers after their talks. Before the conference, prepare a list of people + match ideas or questions that you can ask.

    Remember to balance the talks with quality networking time. How to (create the opportunities for) meeting people? Dance, don’t fight it.

    Hang around; position yourself strategically so that you get a maximum exposure to random bystanders. Leave your bag in your room. Retreat and be quiet. Tiredness as well as weather affects us all. Take time to rest. If the climate differs from your home-country greatly, come early, adapt, adjust and fly.

    Aim for at least one quality conversation per day. You can’t talk to 1000 attendees every day, but you can probably manage to talk to one of them every day. Pre-conference meetings are good for this too. Smaller audiences create more opportunities for mingling.

    Go mall. You will meet more people than if you rush through the hotel. Opportunistic networking is equally helpful as targeted networking for creating new relationships.

    Use discussions with your friends as spring boards for approaching new people and groups.

    Three things in life are certain: Death, Taxes and Late-comers.
    Stand by your poster for as long as possible. The late-comers have typically more time to talk to you.

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