Crash Course On Socializing At A Scientific Conference Dinner

This post is by Julio Peironcely, founder and editor of the Next Scientist blog. Julio is a PhD student in Metabolomics and Metabolite Identification at Leiden University, The Netherlands and has been blogging and using social media for several years, both for fun and for professional purposes.

This post developed out of a conversation on Twitter about the difficulties of socialising at academic conferences, particularly at the dinner.  I was thrilled when Julio sent me this post which is a comprehensive set of advice which anyone, scientist or not, can benefit from. Take it away Julio!

conference dinnerYou didn’t meet anybody new at the last scientific conference.

You paid high registration fees, travelled to the other side of the world, listened to boring talks, nobody came to your poster.

At least you met interesting people at the conference dinner, didn’t you?

Well, it’s kind of hard when you are hanging out all the time with the people of your own group.

Attending a scientific conference is a great opportunity to meet new people and do some networking.  A large network will come in handy to land new projects, collaborations or jobs to progress in your scientific career.

You cannot change anything from past conferences. Luckily, there’s a new one in a few months and you are going to get your stuff together and make the most of it.

But do you know how? Do you know how to network at a conference?

If you follow these tips you will be a master of socializing at scientific conference dinners.

Socializing Before a Scientific Conference

Yep, you need to do some homework. Your social success should not depend just on your personal skills. Planning ahead is key.

What we want to do is to know who will attend the conference and decide if we want to meet them. Additionally, we want to let others know that we will also be there.

Create Or Join The LinkedIn Event Of The Conference

One problem with registering to a conference is that you only know the speakers, but not the list of attendees.

LinkedIn allows you to join or create an Event. You will not only see relevant information of the event, but also those that like you are attending.

As an extra incentive for stalkers, you can check the LinkedIn profile of the attendees to decide beforehand if they are worth having a chat with.

Find Or Create A Twitter Hashtag For The Conference

Twitter is a not only a great way to get visibility as a PhD student. It also helps to find people who tweet about conferences and even announce they will join them.

To recognize which tweets belong with which event, people include in their tweets an unique hashtag.

Somebody has to decide which one is the official hashtag of the event. So if the organizers haven’t done yet, be proactive and propose them with one. Encourage them to promote the hashtag in the event website and in their mailing list.

Once people start using the hashtag, you just need to do a Twitter search based on the hashtag and find who is interested in the event and what’s being said about it.

Extra tip: if you are not attending the conference, checking tagged tweets a hashtag is a good way to follow in real-time the discussion about the event via Twitter.

Contact Some Of The Attendees

At this stage you know who the speakers are as well as some of the attendees. Now you have an idea of some of the people you would like to talk to and socialize at the conference dinner.

It’s time for cold emailing.

Use for your email a self-explanatory title (don’t just say “Hello”). Use something like “Meeting at conference XXX dinner to discuss BLABLA?”.

The first paragraph of your email is your elevator pitch, short and to the point. After reading the first paragraph, the scientist you are hitting on should already know if he wants to meet or not. Leave the details for the rest of the email.

Elevator pitch: “I am a PhD student at Prof. John Doe’s group interested in parallel DNA sequence alignment. Would like to meet at the conference dinner to discuss a possible collaboration to implement your alignment algorithms in a massive parallel study?”

The rest of the email could contain some of your achievements. Describe also what’s in for the other person to meet with you.

Socializing During A Scientific Conference Dinner

The conference dinner arrived. It’s time to seduce everybody with your Pierce Brosnan’s charms.

You might have arranged some meetings already. Attend those first and say “thanks for making time for me”. But leave room for meeting strangers. You don’t know where a pleasant surprise might be waiting for you.

What To Wear: Good Clothes And The Badge

There is a lot of advice on what and what not to wear in academia. This is of great importance when giving a talk, attending a conference or having a job interview.

The best dressing advice you can get: “dress a bit better than those around you”.

During the day you should check how the speakers and other attendees dress. You need to up-dress them, but just a bit.

Is it a conference for hardcore nerds that wear shorts and Metallica t-shirts? Then cool sneakers, jeans and a polo t-shirt will do.

Most people dress neat with quality trousers, shirt, blazer and no tie? You wear the same plus a tie.

You should also have your badge visible. It encourages people to read it, pronounce your name, your university and then ask what you do. And hey, they might even remember your name after two glasses of wine.

Sit With People You Don’t Know

Meeting new people is key to expanding your network. This time you are not going to sit with your boss and the rest of the colleagues from your group.

Always start with a “May I join you?”. Unless they are morons or the seats are taken they will always say yes.

Sit With “Young” Scientists

It’s easy to feel infatuated by the charisma of that big professor in your field. Approaching a hot-shot is and getting something out of him would pay off being at the conference.

Unfortunately, reputed scientists have a busy agenda and they tend to talk to peers of the same academic rank. If they talk to lower ranking people is with lack of interest or just to reinforce the impression that they know it all.

Then you have the young scientists. They are of your same age, more open-minded, with smaller egos and with fewer people to talk to.

If this is not enough I give you two more reasons: young scientists are the ones doing the most innovative research and the ones more interested in collaborating with you.

Ask More, Listen More, Talk Less About Yourself

The goal of networking is getting people to like you. And the key to get people to like you is to shut up and listen to what they have to say.

Don’t you find annoying that guy that can’t stop talking about himself and the things he does? Guess what? People won’t like you if you keep talking about yourself.

Doesn’t it feel good when people ask you things and want to know more about you? Doesn’t it make you feel a bit important? That you are worth listening? Guess what? People would like the same from you.

The key is to be genuinely interested in the other person. This means letting the other person do the talking and when he stops, you should keep him talking by asking questions like:

  • What is your research about?
  • Do you have some exciting results so far?
  • How is it to do research in your group? Pros, cons?
  • How is it to live in your city?
  • What were the toughest moments in your PhD? How did you get out of The Valley of Shit?
  • What are your scientific plans?
  • Do you read Thesis Whisperer? Or are you more of a Next Scientist kind of person?

Have 2 Elevator Pitches Ready

Most people will reciprocate and ask things about you. One first thing they will ask is what you do, what your research is about.

Here it is convenient to have not one, but two elevator pitches of your research. Use each one depending on who’s asking. (An elevator pitch is a 30 to 60 second description of your research, it should include what you do, why and how you do it)

First elevator pitch: your grandma should understand it easily. This one you will use for non-experts in your field.

Second elevator pitch: include all sorts of complicated jargon and be so scientifically correct that your PI couldn’t find a single flaw in your speech. This is for experts in your field.

 Don’t Only Talk About Work

After a long day of presentations, poster sessions and work chit-chat at the dinner, it might be time to skip work and have some fun.

Try to shift conversations towards non-work related topics like hobbies and anecdotes. You can use the previous tips on how to listen to others and start asking more personal things.

When the bar opens, offer yourself to get some drinks for your mates.This will keep the spirits high and fuel a long night of fun discussions.

Finally, I would like to share some advice by a PhD student that attended too many conferences in UK.

Try to drink some glasses of water during your alcohol intake. This minimizes the chances of enjoying a hang over and maximizes the chances of being fresh like a rose for next day’s talks.

Now back to you

What do you think of all this advice?

Do you have other tips to get the most of a scientific conference dinner?

What are your success stories networking at a conference?

Want more Julio? Check out the Next Scientist blog.

Related Links

How to win academic friends and influence people

Top five ways to better academic networking

61 thoughts on “Crash Course On Socializing At A Scientific Conference Dinner

  1. Dr Karen McAulay (@Karenmca) says:

    I can safely say this, as it’s 33 years since I started attending conferences. “I once knew someone” who was a lightweight as regards alcohol, but enjoyed trying the malt whisky before the dinner and the different wines with each course. Did they make a fool of themselves? Actually, no. They slept soundly, and managed not to throw up between Glasgow and Bristol on the train journey back the next day. (They did, however, have a truly dreadful trip!) Not recommended, and no socialising took place after the dinner.

    “I also knew someone” who NOT ONLY never submitted an abstract, but never asked a question afterwards, either. Any surprise that their scholarly career didn’t really take off at that point?

    Two morals, then. Be sensible with the booze, and be brave with the scholarly stuff. And have fun!

  2. eleanor says:

    Great advice! My comment would be to have your elevator pitch ready at the airport on the return home. All my international conferences have been in places with small airports so many conference attendees are waiting for the same flights. Some of the most useful contacts have happened, for me, through the boredom of waiting for a plane.

    • Next Scientist says:

      So true, those idle moments can be a goldmine to socialize. The queue for coffee, sitting around electricity outlets to recharge your gadgets, or waiting for the conference photo. Just talk to strangers.

  3. interdisciplinarydialogues says:

    Super post – I have an array of so designated ‘conference dresses’ ranging from ‘i’m a serious academic’ to ‘my research is trendy’. I even have my non-academic (dentist!) other half rocking the bottle green jumper with elbow patches!

  4. bookgrrl says:

    The great thing about this post is that it is so applicable to other specialist conferences- I could substitute ‘library’ for ‘scientific’ and be ready for my next conference!

  5. Zelda (@tassie_gal) says:

    Sitting with people you don’t know is the best way to make contacts/get ideas/find out new things. Last conference I went to I felt slightly out of my depth as a non medic at what was essentially a medical congerence. However a few judicious chats during the morning tea/lunch breaks, a d afortuitous introduction the night before at welcome drinks, meant I had a lovely table of nurses to sit with at the dinner, who all chatted to me and we solved the worlds problems over bad food.

    • Next Scientist says:

      Hi Zelda, I think he same, meeting people you don’t know helps to discover new ideas and possibilities. Usually they will have some impact in the future, like Steve Jobs said, once you connect the dots backwards.
      If you want to make a push in your current research, you’d better target with who you want to sit. It should be some expert in your field that can make a contribution today.


  6. Ella Taylor-Smith (@EllaTasm) says:

    I like the idea that young scientists would be in my age group -but I’m not convinced. It’s not unusual for PhD students to be (potentially a good deal) over 40…and still appreciate good advice on getting the most from a conference

  7. Dr. Curtis Barrett says:

    I would like to add that you should always have a professional business card on hand to give out. When you meet someone new (whether at the conference dinner or during the conference itself) and want to make a strong impression (and make it easy for them to remember your name and contact you later), you can’t beat handing them your business card.

    As an added bonus, this usually prompts them to give you their card in return, which you can file away. This way, 3 months from now when you’re trying to remember “Who was that really interesting person I met at dinner who wants to collaborate with me?” you can refer back to the card. I usually jot a few notes on the back of the card to help me remember some details about him/her (for example, “interested in my paper on synaptic stability; send preprint of new MS”).

    Everyone in research (even including beginning PhD students) should have their own business cards.

  8. Alex Ter Beek, PhD says:

    Good advice and funny to read!

    Only comment: Talk to the ‘young’ scientists, yes, but definitely also talk to the ‘hot-shot’ if you want! More of them than you might think are sincerely interested in your work even when you’re ‘lower in rank’!

    PS: Agree with the additional point of Dr. Curtis Barrett about the business cards. What I usually do (not everyone has a business card), is highlight the person in the abstract book (attendee list) and include some keywords/notes.

    • Next Scientist says:

      I have mixed feelings about well stablished scientists. Some are too busy to talk to anybody that is not in their agenda. Others will only pay attention if they know and have respect for your boss. The nicest ones are those excited by the novelty in a PhD’s research.

      • Tim (@Tim_E_H) says:

        I found myself chatting with a nobel prize winner over coffee at a conference one day (&, at the time, I had no boss to be respected, nor a research project to be excited about). Another time I was invited to drinks with a keynote speaker. So it’s always worth saying “g’day” to the people you’re next to – you never know, they just might be friendly back.

  9. Multifarious meanderings says:

    Sound advice, but careful how you go on what you term the “hot shots”: Although you can find people who take themselves too seriously across the board, I don’t think they are all as self-involved as you make out, and can actually be eager to know what other scientists are doing, whatever their experience.

  10. yarnspinnerr says:

    Attending a scientific conference is a great opportunity to meet new people and do some networking. A large network will come in handy to land new projects, collaborations or jobs to progress in your scientific career.

    Its a sad state of affairs when one has to network ……… to further ones career through networking even in scientific work. I am stunned and realize why the halo has faded away 🙁

  11. Ritu KT says:

    I am a little weak at networking even though I’m an extrovert. I’ll surely keep these points in my mind for future interactions with bigger groups of people. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed..

  12. Alex Oxborough says:

    The subject of this post tickled me, as in the past I worked for a scientific publishers and attended a few conference dinners. If socialising is a concern for the academic attendees, you ought to try attending one of these conferences with the object of networking when you know less than wikipedia about the topic of the conference!

    So a suggestion, introduce yourself to the publishers in attendance, at a big conference they will have a stand. Go and say hello and tell them about what you are doing. You may have to listen to a sales pitch about the products they have in that field, but they will also know a lot of people at the conference and may be able to help out with introductions.

  13. Phoenix says:

    Great advice here, thank you! I’m no longer in graduate school, but I still love attending conferences and meeting other like minded people in my field. It can be difficult, moving past your comfort zone. But I’m getting there! 🙂

  14. L. Palmer says:

    The advice here applies across academic fields, business categories, and conference types. Whenever I’m at a regional meeting of some organizations I work with, I make sure to say hello to those I know, but also network out and sit at tables where I know no one. This by itself is one of the most fruitful methods of networking and meeting people.

  15. sineadface says:

    Excellent advice for those beginning their PhD. It can be very unnerving at a conference, especially when you meet someone whos the top of your field. You should also add that you should just be yourself, but again excellent advice!

    PS “Valley of shit” I just loved that. Just started my first post doc so I know what that’s like! I saw the light at the end of the thesis 😉

  16. Xraypics says:

    Used to love going to conferences, do it much less these days. Your advice is spot on! I used to chase people around the place and try and network actively only to find it was a little counterproductive4 appearing too eager. So i started sitting in a visible but relatively quiet place on my own and was surprised by the way people would seek me out and we had some of the best meetings and discussions that way. Tony

  17. Chas Spain says:

    Another tip is to try to choose conference sessions which allow more interaction. There are also meetings arranged ‘in the margins’ of conferences eg to discuss science policy etc. which is usually an invitation thing, but you can ask to go along as an observer. Or set up a mini-meeting of your own (as a professional Uni staff member I have to actively do this at conferences – you may be able to ask someone in your department to help out arranging meetings with key people eg from partner organisations etc.) Although you should definitely listen and ask questions in one-to-one meetings, try to go to sessions where you can also contribute (not just ask questions) – your ideas matter.

  18. jimceastman says:

    Thanks for your great tips! I would surely apply your tips on socializing people for my future Business conference! This was very insightful post and big help to me. Keep it up and congratulation for being in FP!

  19. Amy says:

    If PhD students feel nervous, what about the research assistants who aren’t even doing independent research? Maybe noone wants to talk to them!!

  20. Abdelrhman says:

    I have not really cehson what kind of specialists I would like to work under, but I do believe that it would be fun to work in a Psychiatrist’s office. I originally was going for my B.A. in Psychology, but switched. There are so many to choose from that sound absolutely interesting. Such as working under an Internist or going simple and working under a Family practitioner. Even Gerontologist sounds like fun. I love the “aging population” and they have stories and much to teach.For the moment I am going to take this degree one step at a time and try to find the place that fits me best.

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