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Peer Networking at Conferences

It’s that time of year when many of us are preparing for a conference, so we’re going to talk about peer networking – keeping in touch with fellow grad students, or colleagues you may have met at post-docs, workshops, etc.  Hopefully the information provided will be useful for anyone else who doesn’t know what to expect at a conference or to pass along to new students in your programs.

You may have noticed that your grad school mentors are always super busy at conferences.  Some of that busyness is due to giving talks and attending sessions of interest, but a large percentage of that time seemed to be devoted to meeting people for meals, coffee breaks, etc.  It was always quite impressive how well-connected my mentors seemed to be.  Eventually, I realized that many of these meetings were with people they knew from grad school or former faculty positions or were former students.   This is a valuable lesson for emerging scholars.  Although it is exciting to meet and network with senior researchers in your field (the “psychology famous” people), your colleagues, the ones at your level, will be on a similar career trajectory.  These are the people who are likely to be your collaborators or may be looking for assistant editors for journals or be on the hiring committee where you or your future students are applying.   These are the people who might actually respond to an e-mail from you asking if they are familiar with a statistical technique or theory that you are interested in learning (or that a reviewer “suggested” you incorporate in a manuscript or a grant).

Conferences are a great opportunity to reunite with these colleagues.  There are a few people you’ll meet up with just because you became friends and are looking forward to seeing them again.  (I’m not sure that when Sarah, my co-blogger, and I hang out at conferences, we can call it “networking”).  But you were probably not great friends with everyone in your grad program or didn’t have time to socialize during your post-doc or whatever.  So if your institution doesn’t do a party or get-together already, organize one.  Or plan an informal get-together for coffee or drinks for the people who were in or around your cohort.  If you have dinner/drink/coffee plans and happen to run into a former colleague, invite him or her along.

Importantly, be approachable!  Learn to initiate conversation!  I admit that sometimes this can be just as challenging with someone you’ve been introduced to a few times as with a total stranger.  You can ask people what projects they’re working on, how they like their current institution, program, or city, if they’ve kept in touch with any other mutual acquaintances.  And if you’re a newer grad student and find yourselves in the company of advanced grad students or recent graduates, have a few questions about the program or life as a grad student lined up that you could ask.  Basically, if you’re intentional about having a few things that you hope to learn, you’re more likely to learn those things and you’ve taken the conversational pressure off the other person, which is always appreciated.   If someone initiates a conversation with you, the same tactics apply.  Be friendly and keep the conversation going.

You will also hopefully have opportunities to network with peers you haven’t met before.   We emerging scholars are generally less intimidating (and less busy) than the Psychology Famous people.  So if there’s someone whose work you admire, check out potential co-authors or students who work with that person.  Again, these are the people with whom you are more likely to cultivate a relationship and may work with in the future.  And if you meet someone and have an interesting conversation, follow up with that person after the conference. And even if you don’t follow-up because, for some reason, that seems really hard for some of us to do, seek them out at next year’s conference.  I’m not promising that you won’t have an awkward encounter (or several), but don’t let that deter you.

As for non-conference peer networking, it’s more about being aware of opportunities to get in touch with someone and then actually doing it.  Perhaps you are starting a new project or giving a lecture that involves a topic on which a former colleague is an expert.  Maybe that person wouldn’t mind telling you a little about the most important theories or the latest article on that topic.  (Be sure to be appropriately appreciative if that person does take the time to be helpful.)  Then there’s always Facebook.  It really is a great way to keep up to date on important life events that are relevant to you as a former colleague, like job changes – even if it also means that you know what that person ate for breakfast.

By Jen Wolff

Image by iofoto/AdobeStock

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