Friday, November 14, 2014

It's conference time. Network! Network! Network! But how?

The approaching madness of the Society for Neuroscience conference bringing 30,000 neuroscientists to DC had gotten me thinking about the relative calm of the American Society for Human Genetics with "only" 6,000 people and the absolute bliss of small conferences. In all cases, be it your society or your subfield conference as a graduate student, a postdoc looking for a job or a new investigator, it is imperative to network. It's that dreaded pit in your stomach when not only you have to discuss your work in front of the world, but you actually have to go walk around introducing yourself to people selling yourself as a job candidate, a seminar invitee or just as an all around fascinating scientist.

I've had multiple discussions throughout the years with friends who refuse to accept the public relations portion of their science job. Well, I'm sorry, but with scientists becoming more and more specialized and funding dwindling, how you write, talk and present yourself makes a huge difference and unless you are a rare exception, PR is just part of the job. As I have written before in a post about the struggle of getting noticed as a new investigator, your network, i.e. the people you know, you collaborate with, are critical for your success. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear, does it make a sound?

One of the most important things I learned during my PhD was how to network, since my PhD advisor was great at introducing us to everyone she knew...which was a lot of people. We were included in conversations with scientists visiting for seminars, we were introduced to several people at conferences and even now she still makes frequent email introductions to people she thinks I should meet. This made things much less intimidating when I went to a meeting alone as a student, because I could just go up to people and just say "Hi, I'm M's student. We met in her office." and immediately strike a conversation. A lot of PI's don't do that, and I find that male PIs do it much less than female ones. This is not necessarily a malicious thing, since they are just generally oblivious of the importance of introductions for a trainee who may be otherwise tentative to approach an established investigator. I would urge the new investigators and even the postdocs, especially the male ones, to remember to act as "connectors" for trainees and colleagues. And you can always just use your friends for introduction, like LinkedIn in real life. Grad student should remember that other students they meet at meetings may one day be the other junior investigators in their cohort and that decade-long transition and evolving relationship has been great fun to watch.

While it's definitely easier to have a previous introduction, the standard "Hi, I'm X from Y. I work on Z." or "That was such a great talk! I really liked...I was wondering about..." would work with most people. The vast majority of scientists will react positively to a nice comment about their work and will want to talk about what you do. Don't be intimidated. After all we go to conferences to present our work and to communicate with other scientists. Everyone would like to have a very insightful fundamental question which will impress the target scientist, but sometimes even a simple question or clarification can lead to a deep conversation. In the past 2-3 years, one question I tended to ask a lot after striking a scientific conversation with a successful scientist was "What is your advice for a new investigator starting out?" and it has always led to great discussions on running a lab and on academia in general...and to multiple blog posts here, here and here.

Science is a common language all over the world. It doesn't matter how different your language or culture is or even how broken your English is, scientific discussions break those barriers. Large conferences bring together scientists from all continents and that is just a remarkable opportunity to meet different people and generate collaborations you may not otherwise have started. However, large conferences can be more difficult to navigate and isolating than small conferences. At a small meeting career networking can be much easier because you have more direct access to possible collaborators and high-profile investigators in your field: you can sit next to them at lunch and have a higher chance they will have time to stop by your poster or hear you talk. For large conferences, you'll need to do more legwork, in the sense that you need to schedule meetings and coffees in advance, since virtually all keynote speakers will be booked non-stop at committees and other events. At a recent large meeting I wanted to touch base with a keynote speaker with whom I had spoken before and on whose radar I need to be for possible tenure letters, but both our schedules were crazy and I just told her I would stop by after her talk. I said Hi, commented on some cool new data she presented and went my merry way. Showing you face periodically is always better than fading away. Eventually, of course, the goal is that work out of my lab will stay on her radar because it's awesome and relevant, but it may objectively take time to get there.

As your papers are brewing and your projects are moving along, communication with potential collaborators, reviewers, or future colleagues will make your career trajectory much easier and most likely your science better. Sometimes a collaborator you had been looking for comes out of left field when you least expect them, or a really cool project is born over drinks at a social. Think of all the possibilities! Go network!


  1. I appreciate your advice, but I wonder if I could get you to comment on networking for very early career people: i.e., grad students, or 1-2 yr postdocs who aren't yet looking for a job (or maybe one should always be looking for a job?). I've heard the advice that it doesn't really make sense to walk up to people and introduce yourself "just to say hi" at this stage. That one should wait until you actually have some substantive research results to discuss or an actual reason for needing to have a technical exchange with this person. Otherwise, it's just awkward and leads nowhere.

    I confess that when I first heard this advice, I was very relieved, because I don't mind talking to people about science (when I have a good reason to), but the thought of just walking up to someone simply to schmooze makes me kind of ill. So what do you think? Is this a case of me hearing what I want to hear, or is there something to this?

    (Nice job on the blog, BTW!)

    1. Sorry for the delay in replying, but SfN wiped me out.
      I go back and forth about the schmoozing. I have friends who are fantastic at it and will just go up to anyone and engage them in fascinating conversations. I tend to be more like you, where I go talk to someone if I have a reason. However, I do think there is something to be said about making yourself known in a larger network. It becomes really important when you are at the assistant professor stage, but it is also important at the grad student/early trainee stage. The more people you know, the easier it will be for you to get a job and to feel part of a community. While introducing you to people is also your advisor's job, some advisors are not as adept as others and you need to take your networking into your own hands.

      As an early trainee there are multiple levels of networking. Going up to the plenary lecture speaker without a good reason may be useless in addition to being nerve-wraking, but you can go up to speakers from smaller sections or just strike conversations with other grad students/postdocs. In addition to making friends and learning about other people's experiences and science, you will start building your network from the bottom up. I can say that right now 70% of my network is people at my level or immediately above I have met through grad school and postdoc. Many have progressed to faculty jobs, they sent me examples of their grants and job applications, they read my stuff, they invite me to speak. Some have been really close friends for almost 20 years, some I have met as conference buddies (people working on similar things whom I always met at the same meetings), some overlapped somewhere and have kept in touch. As an early trainee you should just be trying to meet new people and discuss science. If some of these people end up being VIPs, I think it's incidental, and should be done without expectations if you don't need anything them them. Sometimes you strike a conversation with someone and then see them again at another meeting and then years later go on vacation to their country and say "Hey, can I come see your lab?" and they invite you to give a talk and talk to their students...and maybe a few years later one of their awesome students becomes your postdoc. You never know how a scientific relationship will progress.
      I didn't want to give the impression in my post that networking should be frantic just to get 1000 LinkedIn contacts. Even if you comfortably meet 4-5 new interesting people at each meeting you go to, over 10 years your network will grow a LOT. Don't underestimate meeting your peers, you never know who they will become!

  2. "Don't underestimate meeting your peers, you never know who they will become!"

    ^ This. At every meeting I've been to (especially smaller ones where you run into the same folks again and again), I have met 2-3 new people who are either my peers or even a couple of levels junior or senior to me. We ended up hanging out together through most of the meeting(s). Just those few days of discussing science, ideas, life and grabbing a few drinks at the local bar turned into long lasting friendships and networks. Of those people, one is on his way to becoming an MD, another is a scientist in industry, a couple are postdocs who are aiming to be faculty, etc. I'm sure than 10 years down the line if I want to consult with a doctor or someone in industry or collaborate with other academicians, I will have a decent network to tap into right away. That's very valuable.