Most of us in the workforce will have many opportunities to attend professional conferences. They are quite costly, and if done right, attending a conference will be nothing less than exhausting. So, why do it? Wait, aren’t they just paid vacation?
If you think that conferences are a waste of time and that you are better off hunching over your desk, working harder than ever, and not fake-smiling at some strangers, I urge you to reconsider your perspective, open up your mind, and read on.
Remember networking? Attending conferences is one effective way to network, especially when you have a specific purpose to reach a great number of people, in a very short time. Let’s say your paper has just appeared in a prestigious journal; it would be one of the best time to attend a conference. In academic science, a conference is a place where you can promote your papers and your findings, which may lead to more citations, future collaborations, or your next job. In industry, each trade has its own suite of conferences where people gather to learn from each other, get the latest info on market trends, and most importantly, make deals.
Whatever your role or the goal is, we have to be well prepared for conferences to make the investment worth the trip. In other words, we have to work the conference and get the best out of the opportunity! This is especially crucial if you are job hunting or new in the field.
Typically, conferences are held annually, so most of us would already know if we would be attending a conference a few months ahead of time. After taking care of registration and travel details, what is next?
The weeks that lead up to the conference are crucial. During these few weeks, you should get your hands on the attendee list and study it as much as you can. Why? First, you want to know who the movers and shakers are, so that when you see them at the conference, which is very likely, you would be able to make a connection and have a conversation. Take an example, if you want to get a job at Your Favorite Company (YFC), then find out who the representatives from YFC are, as well as how you would be able to add value to YFC, so that when you bump into these guys, you can nonchalantly say, “oh hello, Dr. Arthur, I admire YFC’s mission and this is why.” The preparation will allow you to seize the two minutes you have with Dr. Arthur and present your elevator pitch. The goal is to make an impression (we are aiming for a good, memorable one here) and make a connection.
On the contrary, imagine a scenario where you did not prepare an elevator pitch nor do your homework. You would run into Dr. Arthur at the cocktail line, stand silently for two minutes, and catch a glimpse of his name tag as he walks away. You would have lost a valuable chance to make a connection.
If possible, I would also make arrangements for meetings before arriving at the conference. I typically try to schedule coffee or breakfast appointments early in the morning, before the chaos of conference hits. Alternatively, I would also schedule dinner appointments with people whom I have business to discuss.
DURING THE CONFERENCE
Go early and stay late. Why? You want to increase your chances of bumping into opportunities. It is as simple as that.
The window of opportunity before the conference day starts is golden. Wake up early! Make yourself available to opportunities to meet new people! Coincidentally, I have met many big shots at such golden hours. Often times, these so-called big shots would show up early to breakfast either because they are savvy networkers or that their entire day is booked. It is a great time to mingle before the chaos hits.
During the chaos: embrace it! I attended the National Postdoc Association conference in Washington DC a few years ago. In the first keynote session, most of the attendees were sitting in the audience. The moment the keynote presentation ended, the few hundred attendees, who were eager postdocs in the job market with hungry eyes, stood up at once and rushed to the exhibition hall, where hiring companies set up booths. When I gained my composure and arrived at the exhibition hall, all the booths were swamped and had very long lines. I immediately beat myself up for not acting fast enough to get to the front of a line. The obvious choice left seemed to waste no more time and get into at least one line as quickly as possible. Since I thought I already blew my chance, I decided to walk around instead and survey all the booths, knowing that the lines were growing. Turns out, while I was surveying the hall, I found an opportunity to listen in at a booth where the representative of an editing service company welcomed me into the conversation. That conversation eventually led to a job opportunity where I advanced to the final round of the interview process for a position in a new branch in Shanghai, China. Even though I did not get the job, I learned a valuable lesson. Clichéd but true: look outside the box. Don’t go head-on into the competition. Opportunities are not always obvious.
Another important detail that seems trivial — always have your business cards handy. At conferences, I would stuff a few cards in the name tag holder or my coat pocket. You want to be able to slip a business card out smoothly without digging through five compartments of your purse (or man-purse). Worse, sometimes you would be in the middle of eating or drinking when the need for business card exchanges happen. In any case, the cards need to be easily accessible.
We are exhausted by the time the conference is over, especially those of us who are introverts. We are drained. But we survived the conference. We are done, right? No.
I can’t decide which is more important, the pre-, during, or post-conference; they are equally important and part of the same package.
After the conference, or even during the conference, following up with the contacts you have made is crucial to cement the relationship. Sometimes, it is a LinkedIn invite, sometimes it is sharing a paper, or whatever follow-up that is relevant to the conversation. Know that it is a small world. You might run into these individuals again in the near future. It is also part of being friends. Yes, being friends. Networking is making friends at work and in the industry. Friends help each other out, share information, and keep up the relationship.
WHAT CONFERENCES TO ATTEND?
Knowing the importance of conferences, you might have an impulse to run to every conference you can find. However, it is best to choose the conferences strategically.
If you are looking for a job in a particular field, go to the trade shows or the conference where most people in the field attend. Before you register for a conference, clearly define your goals and the purpose of the conference. All the best!
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