I finally watched last year’s action flick Pacific Rim, and its portrayal of research scientists —stereotypically socially inept — made me cringe. In reality, the Ph.D. students I know are friendly and socially astute. But we tend to think of these qualities as social perks instead of professional skills.

A group of people talking at an event

In the academic idyll, we think our career success should depend on the quality of our data and nothing else. We forget that to be successful in research, we need to establish productive collaborations. We need reviewers, study section members and interviewers to recognize our names.

We need to network.

I successfully avoided networking for the first three years of my graduate school career. Frankly, networking terrified me. But as I started my fourth year in grad school, I was struggling with a new experimental protocol, and I had absolutely no idea how I was going to find a job in another year or two.

It was around this time that I was due to attend my first professional research conference, and I reached the painful conclusion that I needed to network. I put on my big-girl pants and a dauntless smile, and set out into the swarm of unknown scientists.

By the end of the conference, I had a half a dozen troubleshooting tips for my new protocol, multiple offers of hands-on technical help and email addresses of professionals who had warmly shared their postgrad job search stories with me. And guess what? It was easier than I thought.

Here are four things I learned about conference networking:

  1. Just meet people. You don’t have to walk up to strangers and recite your thesis pitch. You can join a coffee break conversation of conferencegoers sharing pictures of their pets or griping about the coffee. Follow it up with a handshake and your name, and 95 percent of your new friends will respond by asking what you research.
  2. Be open about what you’re looking for. OK, you’ve bonded over your love of poodle mixes and exchanged names. Next, move into conversations that can benefit your needs. Are you looking for a collaborator? Advice? A job? If so, say so. I told one senior scientist that I was interested in a government job after graduation, and she promptly introduced me to the nearest National Institutes of Health program officer for advice.
  3. Take notes! Keep a pen and notebook with you. Write down the names of people you meet, advice they give you or the names of colleagues they recommend that you contact. Ask for email addresses and permission to follow up!
  4. Follow up. Once you leave the conference, look at your notebook full of new friends and potential network connections. Go and connect with all of them on LinkedIn. Try to do this within 24 hours. If they expressed interest in your work, email them an abstract. If they introduced you to someone with a job or expertise you want, ask that person if you can have a few minutes of their time. If you think two people you met would benefit from meeting each other, introduce them! Networking should be a mutually beneficial experience.

Now, pat yourself on the back! You’re practically a networking pro.

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