Daniela joined the RSA in 2013 and worked previously in research and business development roles at HEI in Germany, New Zealand and the UK, as events and tourism consultant and tourism management lecturer. Daniela’s job portfolio includes the RSA’s membership, academic journals, territorial networks, marketing, conferences/events and the HQ Office’s Management.
Gone are the days when academics spent most of their times hidden away in their offices or labs. Networking now is at the heart of academia, with academics having to be their own PR agent by creating their own brand, promoting their latest research, publications, meetings, conference papers, etc. Part of this is being visible in the community and conferences can be very useful in this regard. Conferences are also opportunities to network with potential future project partners or employers.
A conference can be a substantial investment in time and money; thus, it’s crucial to make the most of the opportunity.
Over the last 15 years, I have been organising and attending conference of all sizes and in different parts of the world. Being an introvert myself, I have developed strategies that help me to perform and to network in unfamiliar surroundings.
In this blog, I shall provide some of my tips on how to benefit the most from attending conferences and networking and still enjoy yourself, with much boiling down to preparation.
Photo 1. Coffee break at the 2018 RSA Annual Conference.
How to select the one for you?
Every year a staggering number of conferences are organised globally, so how should you find the one for you?
Of course, it’s easiest to go to the conference your colleagues or mates are going to. Alternatively, you could attend the same conference year in and out. This certainly reduces the risk of those potentially awkward drink receptions or dinners where one doesn’t know who to sit next to or what to talk about with a stranger.
However, if you want to explore other conferences, then you could:
- Use specific conference calendars, such as conferencealerts.com, to see what is on in a specific area (although this assumes that the conference has been listed);
- Sign up to email information lists in your academic field where, besides other postings, conferences are also announced e.g. JISCMail or ListServ;
- Check out social media announcements by following key organisations in your field;
- Sign up to society or networks’ newsletters (such as the RSA monthly e-Bulletin jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?SUBED1=REGIONAL-STUDIES-COMMUNITY&A=1)
- Pick up conference announcing flyers at events, seminars, etc.
Another consideration is whether you wish to attend a conference in person or virtually. If the latter is an option then you could save the hassle of travel logistics, the costs involved, and the impact on your carbon footprint. At the Regional Studies Association, we welcome requests to present and participate virtually. This would mean that you submit your pre-recorded presentation and then join the session via a video or voice link. However, be aware that networking when attending a conference virtually requires active engagement before, during and after the event. More on this later.
Another point to consider in choosing your conference is its size and the degree of specialisation. Should you attend a small conference focused on a very specific topic, or a larger conference covering a wider range of topics across the disciplinary field? The latter can have often many thousands of delegates and potentially offers the chance to learn about new topics, latest developments across the field and offers opportunities to meet many new people.
Personally however, I have found that the smaller, more specialised conferences work better, and I find it easier to connect with new people and to create lasting relationships. Ironically, I found conferences that have thousands of delegates trickier to network with new people, and often at such conferences I tend to stick to sessions directly on my topic instead of exploring further afield.
Others select conferences based on the destination and potential opportunity of having a holiday before or after the business trip. Well and why not?! I am still hoping to organise a conference in Hawaii or Japan one day – (please do get in touch if you have contacts there!)
One might also attend for the benefit from added value a conference might offer, such as training sessions. In the past, the RSA have run a variety of such sessions on how to publish in academic journals, how to increase the impact of one’s publication, and on career options outside academia. The RSA’s Annual PhD Student and Early Career Conference always includes such training sessions (find out more about this year’s conference at www.regionalstudies.org/events/designing-research-for-impact-shaping-and-influencing-regional-policy/)
Photo 2. Networking at the 2019 RSA Annual Conference.
Prepare and plan
So you have chosen your conference, submitted your abstract and have been accepted to present. Congratulations!
Now comes the important part – preparation will help you make the most of your investment in attending this conference.
This is the time to work at and complete your presentation, and to practice what you will say. This will help avoid having to work long nights just before the conference.
As a conference organiser myself, I recommend building a relationship with the conference organisers prior to the event. To establish a good relationship with the conference organisers, offer to chair or moderate a session, offer to write a conference report (which can promote you and your work alongside the conference), and announce that you are going to the conference via social media (don’t forget to include the link to the organiser and the conference hashtag). Once you are there, remember to tweet key moments or speakers throughout the event. All of these will be much appreciated by the organiser and also great promotion for you.
Once a conference programme is published, I tend to study it thoroughly to see who else will be at the conference and what sessions interest me most. This is also the best time to think about who you might want to speak to and having an idea of these people can help with the negotiating your initial networking during the first coffee and lunch breaks.
So, for example, I would email the chair and speakers in my session to introduce myself and to see if they wanted to meet up before the session, or whether they were attending the welcome reception etc. If you don’t know the people in your session, then do a little background research on their work and find out what they look like, so you know who to look for at the conference.
In addition, I would also email people I would like to talk to during the conference. It is easy enough to arrange a meeting during a coffee break or schedule a time for some point during the conference. It’s always best to arrange these kinds of meetings before the conference as schedules of busy people quickly fill up; if you get in early with your request, you might just get lucky and don’t forget, it also reflects how organised you are!
Being prepared is the key to reducing stress for you attending a conference, so prepare an outline of what you want to talk about when you meet the people you have arranged meetings with.
A busy conference schedule doesn’t allow much time to explore the conference destination so if you have time and can spend some days at the destination, why not get there earlier or stay a bit longer after the conference? See if there are tours during, post or pre-conference on offer. Tours or site visits as part of a conference can also be great ways to get to know other attendees individually.
Now that you are almost ready to go, there is still time to prepare a 3-minute pitch on yourself and your work. This will become handy throughout the conference when introducing yourself to new people.
Photo 3. Welcome reception at the 2018 RSA Annual Conference.
During the conference
Finally the day is here. You can arrive at your conference destination fully prepared, with meetings booked, your presentation ready and a rough idea of which sessions to go to.
My key tips for being at a conference are to get some good night sleeps, only drink alcohol in moderation, and to go to anything that offers opportunities to meet people.
Be open with both your mind and your body language. If you look ‘closed’ (for example, by being glued to the programme for far longer than necessary, or if you standing by peripheral tables and waiting for people to join you), you can appear to be difficult to talk to and no fun, and ultimately you will make meeting new people much harder for yourself.
Strategic networking is sometimes considered most efficient at conferences, and I have found it useful; but I have found better to have no background agenda and being open to meeting everyone -you never know who you might meet in the lift, while queuing for a coffee, etc. My tip: Be interested in the person and what they say and you will make lasting connections (and new friends!)
Get yourself a drink and talk to the person who waited with you in the queue. Small talk is the way forward (e.g. You could ask about their journey, if they are presenting etc) and ideally after a few closed questions, you can move on to open-ended questions to keep the conversation going (e.g. What’s your research about?, I have seen a fascinating presentation today on XYZ, what was the best presentation you have seen today? etc.). This is also where your prepared intro about yourself and your research comes handy.
By making contact while you wait for food or drinks, you might find someone to go to a table with and avoid being by yourself. Alternatively, join a table where there are already people and introduce yourself to your immediate neighbours.
If the conference has an official dinner, then talk to as many people as possible on your table. If there are opportunities to stand and move around during the dinner, you could always go to the opposite side of the table and chat to those furthest away from you.
When you go to a session room, sit close or near to other people; if you don’t know them, say hello and see where it leads too. When meeting new people and making new connections, it is important to listen – and this is where often introverts have an advantage – it is important to not focus on just yourself.
Social media networking during a conference can also help and is a tool to discuss ideas and get yourself noticed. Please remember to include the conference’s hashtag and to copy in the organisation running the event. It also helps to tag other delegates, especially those presenting.
Some conferences also offer special networking sessions. For example, the RSA runs networking workshops for early and midcareer female academics. This network also has an active WhatsApp group, so prior to an event, you could join and link up with other researchers attending. At RSA conferences, there are also social events specifically for PhD students and early career researchers and sessions that give tips on networking and self-promotion.
For all of these, don’t forget to take and to exchange business cards. Personally, I prefer business cards to QR codes linked to contact details; however, go for whatever works best for you.
As mentioned earlier, you can join a conference virtually. If you only participate virtually in a conference, you need to be pro-active in making your presence known. You need to actively engage before, during and after the conference, either through asking questions or posting comments using social media posts to promote your participation and the experience, and following up after the event with an email or a phone call to the people you wish to talk to.
After a conference you should feel somewhere between excited from your new contacts and the intellectual input, and exhausted from attending the many talks, networking and social events, long days and for conferences attended internationally, the journey home.
Give yourself some recovery time, but remember that this is also the best time to follow-up on business cards, social media and other contacts you have made, to write the conference report you promised, to connect with new contacts on LinkedIn or Twitter, to update your paper with the feedback and new ideas, and to consider publishing your paper (the RSA has a number of publishing platforms – in case you need inspiration, have a look at www.regionalstudies.org/publications/)
As so often is the case, you get out what you put in. So, by preparing well beforehand you allow yourself to achieve what you set out to achieve. This mixed with an open and positive attitude I have found makes all the difference to the success of a conference and networking.
So happy conferencing and networking, and maybe see you at one our many conferences (we have both large and small events – see www.regionalstudies.org/conferences-events/).
A handy checklist for before, during and after a conference:
Tips for shy academics:
Tips on how to network and engage during a conference:
How to avoid predatory conferences:
Are you currently involved with regional research, policy, and development, and want to elaborate your ideas in a different medium? The Regional Studies Association is now accepting articles for their online blog. For more information, contact the Blog Editor at RSABlog@regionalstudies.org.