Attending a scientific conference alone and overseas
June 6, 2014 8:04 PM   Subscribe

I could really use some tips on networking and well, not panicking. Difficulty: I'm pretty strongly introverted and have some social anxiety as well, although I can fake it for a few hours if I have enough energy. I'm a senior PhD student who is expected to be better at this than I am.

I'm aiming to graduate within the year, so this will be my big opportunity for networking towards post-doc opportunities and I really need to make it count. I'll be at the conference alone as far as I know, although it seems to be a big conference so I could run into a few colleagues there. Nobody I can count on as a conference buddy, though.

I've never attended a conference by myself, I've never been to Europe before, and I've also never attended a large conference, so I'm a bit worried that it'll be really overwhelming. Any tips for getting over this and making myself talk to people at the conference? Should I be emailing PIs beforehand to set up meetings of some kind, or just try to look up a few people and try to seek them out at the conference? Other?

Secondary, more frivolous question: Again, I've never been to Europe before and I've been told that they dress more formally than we do in North America. Is this also true in science, where we're notoriously casual dressers? I'm a bit worried about sticking out like a sore thumb in my regular business-casual-but-heavy-on-the-casual clothes. My typical conference outfit is something like non-denim pants or a flowy skirt with a fairly plain top, basic cardigan, and flats or sandals, which fits in fine at the North American conferences I've been to. Will this still be OK in Europe or do I need to go more dressy? Is everyone going to be in suits or something? And considering that I'll be feeling out post-doc opportunities, will it make a better impression if I wear something more suit-like for at least some days? Clearly, I have no idea what I'm doing. Halp?

General comments are very welcome, but if anyone here happens to be attending the large cancer conference in Germany this summer or has attended previous meetings, you'll have my undying gratitude if you have any specific insights or let me pick your brain. Anon since I'd rather avoid having career stuff easily linked to my account, but I'm happy to memail anyone if you'd rather discuss privately, or here's a throwaway: Thanks!!
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I might not be the most qualified person to answer this question, but I thought I'd give it a shot anyway.

I don't know that sending emails to PIs ahead of time is a thing or necessary, but I would suggest looking over the conference program and identifying a few names/people ahead of time that you would like to get a chance to talk to. Look at the topics of the talks they're giving, maybe read over their abstracts/papers so you have an idea of what you could talk about. If you are really nervous, you could even come up with a few questions ahead of time just so that you don't have to worry about coming up with questions on the spot, but still get something out of your networking efforts. Of course, if there is somebody that you really want a face-to-face meeting with-- say, somebody who you actually want to do a postdoc with-- then this is absolutely an opportunity to take advantage of, and by all means, email ahead of time and get lunch with them! Oh, and do send follow-up emails to the people you want to keep in touch with shortly after the conference.

Conferences and dress code... depends on the field, I guess (?). I did some bio/chem stuff in Europe so that's the only thing I can speak to, and the dress code there was pretty casual. Business casual would have been enough or more than enough; I certainly don't recall seeing anybody in suits. Just my two cents.

I, too, am strongly introverted and need time away. So try to schedule in some alone time for yourself. Don't be afraid to excuse yourself, even if the conversation is going swimmingly. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to meet absolutely everybody on your list. Even if you don't meet them, you can just note their name, google them later, and reach out to them: "Hi, I'm so-and-so, and I attended your talk at Conference X..."

Congrats on getting accepted to present at this big conference! Enjoy your time in Germany and be sure to do some sight seeing in whichever city you'll be in! If the conference has any sort of social plan or sightseeing opportunity, take advantage of that if you're up for it. :)

(Oh, I'll be in Germany this summer, too-- but I'm not exactly sure which cancer conference you're going to be at...) :)
posted by gemutlichkeit at 8:35 PM on June 6, 2014

I would try to schedule a meeting, especially if you want to talk to a bigwig. They are usually meeting friends and colleagues and it can be quite hard to get a word in especially if you are (like me) introverted. This way you have a definite plan of action you might discuss the theme a bit in the email, and they are expecting you.

If you are presenting a poster, I recommend identifying the people who might be interested in your work and finding them and asking them to see your poster. This way you can get some one to one time with people talking about something you are very comfortable with.

I work in animal behaviour and we are very casual about dress code, but in Europe there may be a big dinner/ banquet at the end where it might be better to wear something fancy.
posted by dhruva at 8:58 PM on June 6, 2014

I haven't attended a large conference outside of the US, but in the US I have gone to a major Neuroscience conference a few times. I am in the same boat and find it really difficult to approach faculty and other researchers and network.

Whatever you do, see if the conference has an online schedule/app/planner that you can use beforehand to plan your day(s) out. Once you do that, you will find it much easier to be in the same room as others. I browsed the major presentations and the smaller sessions and made sure to be in the same conference room or hall as the people whose research I was interested in. Usually if you are in the same field, you end up attending a bunch of the same talks and that kind of removes the new/anxiety aspect of it.

Sometimes big conferences also have a social in the evenings that you can sign up for. These are mainly for grad students and post docs, researchers too. If you are more comfortable in an informal setting (I am not) that might be a place to practice some outreach and networking.
posted by ssri at 9:02 PM on June 6, 2014

Physics conferences are no more dressed-up in Europe than the US. If your outfit is good enough for the US (which it sounds like), it should be good enough for Germany.

Yes, if there are a few particular PIs that you're interested in, I think you should send emails beforehand and introduce yourself. Keep it fairly brief and include links to your thesis and CV and tell them in what session you will present.

If it's a very big conference, prominent PIs will be super busy and can be hard to catch on the spot. It's hard to schedule meetings ahead of time too though, so they may tell you to find them between sessions. Some may also not respond at all to your email, and you should attribute that to stress and forgetfulness rather than lack of interest.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 9:14 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found that when I was in a city that I did not know, in Europe I would take the quick and shallow 2 hr tourist city tour and take note of anything that looks interesting and zero in on that.
Please tell me the conference is in Munich, if so this is a must see, Technology Museum.
posted by boilermonster at 9:49 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I occasionally attend large biomedical conferences and live in Europe.
Be aware that a lot of the people attending are also introverted and anxious. If you're mostly interested in networking with other Americans, they too are relatively isolated in a foreign country. As a rule they'll be happy to talk and interact.
My personal impression as a European is that I often feel the Americans are more formally dressed than I am at meetings. If you want to impress people from the US, wear what you´d find appropriate in the US. People with other backgrounds won't be surprised to see you wear "American" clothing, they won't expect you to be wearing anything else.
posted by abx1-se at 1:03 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm an American who just returned from Milan, where I attended the large genetics meeting (ESHG) there. A number of cancer folks presented too. :)

I brought a bit more formal wear (it was Milan after all), and the generality that Europeans dress better than Americans held true.

At one mixer I attended (and would absolutely recommend in your case to sign up for every conference-organized one, usually there are several, one for each evening), I found three or four people just standing there with a drink in hand.

I used to be very introverted and over many years have learned to talk with people. I am at this mixer, none of my associates are there, I'm alone. What do I do? I walk up to the first random alone person and ask a question about them. Where they are from, what they work on, what they liked from today's talks.

And then I listen to what they say, usually something will spark another question, and usually they return to you and reciprocate.

Of the three I spoke with, only one was relatively short because his English wasn't so good and my Itslian was worse. You can simply excuse yourself ('nice to meet you, I'm getting another drink / snack / napkin') and really no harm in that.

Before I knew it 90 minutes were over. One post-doc I met I offered to share some notes about some new TCGA gastric cancer work being done at MGH, and people REALLY like it when you do what you offer to do. You just don't know what kind of connections you'll make, it's part of the adventure.

One thing is to print up a set of business cards, also to keep a pen and card handy for names and email addresses. Not one person I met had one, even the fascinating person from Siemens. I wish I remembered his last name...

Lastly be forward in asking questions. Speakers love questions after talks, session organizers love them too: it shows engagement, it shows that the session communicated something valuable. And if you have a question, chances are others we're thinking the exact same thing!

Anyway, EACR should be a great meeting for you as it's manageable in sheer numbers if attendees. Nothing like the 17K craziness of AACR. :)
posted by scooterdog at 3:46 AM on June 7, 2014

One thing is to print up a set of business cards, also to keep a pen and card handy for names and email addresses. Not one person I met had one

I have a friend who had a stack of cards printed with blanks for Name _____ Email _____ Phone _____ and he uses them when he wants someone else's contact info. Hand them a card and a pen and voila, they can give you a "business card".
posted by CathyG at 7:31 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Large conference in an exotic location are, by their nature, overwhelming. What's helped me is to break the big conference down into smaller parts. I've gone to conferences with ten thousand or more attendees, but the number of people doing stuff of primary interest to me probably numbers in the low hundreds and there's probably only a handful of people with whom I want to have an in-depth discussion. The point being set yourself manageable goals, whatever they may be, and don't let yourself get too distracted by the enormity of the conference.

Can you rely on your advisor or someone else on your committee to help facilitate introductions? They should have a sense of the field and what programs/PIs might match your interests and skills. Will there be graduates of your program at the meeting? Even though you haven't met them yet you already have a lot in common to talk about. A short email from your advisor "Hey, my student is going to be at the meeting and might try to get in touch with you.." can be really helpful in opening doors.
posted by plastic_animals at 10:12 AM on June 7, 2014

I wear a suit or smart shift dress on days I'm presenting or moderating (including posters) but the rest of the time just wear normal clothes that I'd wear for work (so no skimpy shorts or grubby tracksuits, but jeans and a smart top are fine). Lots of the guys do wear suits but plenty more wear chinos and polo shirts. I tend to wear dresses and cardigans myself, and have never felt under-dressed. There's a pretty wide range.

Definitely email PIs you're interested in in advance and try to arrange a coffee! People do this with my boss all the time and she loves it, she always meets them. It has lead directly to a job at least once since I've worked with her, and to plenty of other collaborations.
posted by tinkletown at 12:26 PM on June 7, 2014

Lots of good advice above. Especially the bit about many of the other a attendees also being socially awkward. The difference is they'll all seem to know each other, which can come across as quite isolating.

Having done this myself (as an Australian attending big American criminology conferences where I didn't know anyone), one thing I found worked well was joining a special interest group (relevant to a special interest you have, hopefully). A lot of conferences these days have special sessions for post-grads, so if you can't find any other special interest group at least there might be some way of identifying other students. Other students always have something in common. And chances are at least some of them will know where the good local pubs are.

This slices out a more manageable group of people than the full conference and at least you know you have something in common to talk to people about.

The first conference is always the toughest one. But it's also probably the most informative because you actually spend time in sessions rather than hanging out and drinking with the people you've met at previous conferences.

Mostly, you should try to enjoy yourself. There is nothing like being totally immersed in your field for days on end for geeking out.
posted by damonism at 4:02 AM on June 8, 2014

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