Tips for the Awkward Scientist – Networking at Conferences and Beyond

By Calvin J.

I’m an awkward scientist, and like many others, I despise networking with the fire of a thousand suns. I’m introverted, socially awkward and I’ve also been told that I have a weak to moderate resting b*tch face. None of which aids in my ability to initiate or even maintain a conversation. But as we all know – in science, as in any other field of work – networking is a necessary evil. Up to 70% of jobs are landed by referrals or connections between you and the people you know. So regardless of whether you aim to stay in academia or pursue other options in industry, connections matter!

And as someone who has experienced their fair share of uncomfortable conversations and embarrassing moments at research conferences, job fairs and networking events galore.  I thought, who better than me, to provide advice on how to network as an awkward scientist.

Disclaimer: As mentioned, I am far from mastering the skill of networking, nor do I claim to have a perfect system for it. These are just general tips I’ve picked up from personal experience that may or may not be helpful to you.

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First Impressions

Imagine yourself having lunch at a research conference, maybe you’re sitting next to another researcher or a representative from a company. Initiating that first contact is hard, and if you’re introverted like me, there really isn’t an easy way to do it. But if you mentally prepare ahead of time a couple lines of what you want to say, it can completely transform your approach from an  awkward silence to a confident introduction. As you greet them, raise your hand out for a firm handshake (don’t shake it for too long, 2-3 shakes is more than sufficient) and proceed to introduce yourself:

  • Your name
  • Your degree / current position
  • Your area of expertise

(ex. Hi there, my name’s Delilah and I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. I’m currently studying the use of gene therapy for treating type II diabetes.)

  • If you’ve seen their work or know of their work, even better. Frame it as a compliment and let them know.

(ex. I was amazed by your presentation earlier, I never realized how complex kidneys are.)

Speak and move with confidence. Don’t be looking at your phone or around the room. Make eye contact and look excited to be there. When you put a smile on your face, it lets the other person know that your words and sincerity is genuine and authentic.

Part of building that conversation is creating that balance between putting information out there and asking the appropriate questions. You want to throw out some information about yourself and your work to spark a connection – something to talk about. We’ve all had conversations with people who seems to be physically unable to generate more than one word answers, and it’s frustrating to try and maintain a conversation with them.

  • Start with small talk
    (Ex. How are you enjoying the conference? What kind of research / work do you do?)

Once you’ve established a friendly, upbeat atmosphere, you can move on to some deeper questions. Part of networking is to learn about the other person and assess how this new connection might be able to help you in your line of work.

  • Who do you work for?
  • How did you get into this career?
  • Why did you choose this university / company?

If it’s a job fair:

  • What kind of new people is your company looking for right now?
  • My background is in _________, how might I transition into this line of work?

Remember:

  • Never talk negatively about a previous supervisor or employer
    (we don’t want to create a negative or hostile tone in the conversation)
  • Don’t ask or reveal anything too personal
    (nobody needs to hear about your rash)
  • Don’t straight up ask for a job
  • Don’t talk over them, give the other person a chance to speak
    (You can use segue by saying something like – So tell me about you…)

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The 4 Rules of Networking

To strengthen a connection to a point where they may be interested in helping you in the future requires investment of both time and effort:

  1. KNOW
    Be socially curious, get to know the person BEFORE doing any sort of heavy asking
    (Ex. Don’t ask for a job / a reference / or referral until you’ve established a strong connection with that individual)
  2. LIKE
    Get them to like you. It’s common sense, people are more likely to step out of their way to help you if they actually like you.
  3. TRUST
    Build trust. Create a sense of safety by framing your questions and comments in a sincere and positive tone. Always think about how a question or comment might make the other person feel. Don’t say something that might make things uncomfortable.
  4. ASK
    Gauge how much you might be asking of them. Are you asking for a suggestion / career advice? Or are you asking them to help you find a job? Depending on how strong a connection you’ve built it may not be appropriate to ask for certain things. (Ex. it’s inappropriate to ask someone you just met 30 seconds ago to hire you as a research assistant. But it is ok, to ask them about what type of advice they might have for someone who is searching for a research assistant position). It’s all about how you frame your questions.

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Breaking Into a Conversation

Here is an example of a typical conference setting you might walk into, or more accurately, my own personal hell. Everyone looks like they’ve already formed their own groups and are engaging in conversations, so how do you join in?

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My tip is to:

  1. Target other people who might be on their own. (Far right yellow circle)
  2. Target people who are in open groups. Groups of 2 or more who might be standing around an open table (Far left yellow circle) or groups standing in open confirmations where there is enough space for you to merge in.
  3. Avoid groups of 2 who are in an intimate conversation (Top red circle) or groups with 5 or more (Bottom red oval). Its hard to join in large groups when there isn’t a lot of space and you don’t already know someone in that group.

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Serendipitous vs Strategic Networking

A lot of networking can happen by chance, it’s something we call Serendipitous Networking. They can be casual conversations with another person at a Starbucks line or someone who has the same shirt as you on an elevator. Don’t be afraid to reach out and engage in a conversation, you never know who you might meet. A potential new employer or a new best friend. But again, you want to start with non-targeted questions to build a friendly atmosphere to work from.

But when you’re specifically attending a conference or engaging in a work event, you might be able to partake in Strategic Networking. Which as the name implies, requires intention. Do a little research on who might be going to your conference or event.

  • Who are some key individuals that you would want to meet?
    (Is it a representative from a company? Or a researcher who’s work you deeply admire?)
  • Start your search by focusing on broad research areas or fields of work instead of a single specific job (ex. researchers in petroleum engineering)

Read up about who you might want to meet and prepare an entry point into a conversation.
(Ex. Hi there, my name’s Delilah, I’ve read your paper on petroleum distillation and completely changed the approach I’ve been taking in my own lab)
(Ex. Hello, my name’s Delilah, I also work in petroleum engineering and we’ve developed an alternate distillation method that I though you might be interested in hearing about)

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The Graceful Exit and The Followup

Once you feel like you’ve established an impactful first impression on your new connection, it’s time to make your graceful exit.

  • Signal your exit and thank them for their time / kind advice
    (Ex. It was an absolute pleasure to meet you, but I have to catch up with one of my colleagues, I’ll see you later)
  • Do not make up an excuse that they can see right through!
    (Ex. If you are telling them that you need to go to the washroom, DO NOT immediately engage in another conversation 4 feet away)
  • Give them your business card or ask if they have a business card
    (Business cards are a great way to keep track of who you’ve met at the event and to obtain their contact information for follow up emails / conversations)
  • If it’s a particularly positive discussion or if the person is a very useful contact let them know that you’d like to keep in touch and you will follow up with an email / phone call
    (If you promise to follow up, YOU.  MUST. FOLLOW. UP. Nobody likes a liar)
  • Sometimes it’s useful to jot down on your phone or the back of their business card something that stood out in your conversation with them and why you might want to follow up afterwards
    (Ex. Hi Alyssa, it was lovely meeting you at the spring conference, I tried the tips you gave me for antibody purifications and I haven’t had troubles since! We had discussed about a potential research fellowship in your lab when we met, are you still looking for research fellows? I’ve attached my CV and references with the email….)

With LinkedIn now taking networking into the digital world, it’s probably a good idea to set up an account if you don’t already have one. When you add your new contacts on LinkedIn, be sure to send a message with your invitation to connect. It’s the polite thing to do and they’ll be more likely to accept.
(Ex. Hi Alyssa, it was such a pleasure to speak with you at the spring conference, I would love to stay in touch.)

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