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Many scholars think of an academic conference as a place to present and attend sessions related to their field. However, the real power of an academic conference lies in connecting with colleagues and other interested parties. After all, the old adage, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” is just as true in academic circles as it is in business circles. Maybe even more so.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to prepare for an academic conference and answer the fundamental question: why attend academic conferences?
Why Attend Academic Conferences?
If you work at an educational institution, conferences are often the highlight of your academic year. You may also attend academic conferences if you work in a specific field that requires you to stay on top of the latest information and technology. In addition to giving and receiving information at a conference, the real opportunity comes from making connections and building valuable relationships. These relationships can, in turn, advance your career and your work.
Even if you consider yourself to be an introvert, there are ways to network with others in a way that is not stressful. Regardless, however, you do have to make an effort to at least chat with people you don’t already know. A great way to do this is to ask questions about someone’s work and show an interest in how you might help them advance their work, or even explore possible collaboration opportunities.
Preparing for an Academic Conference
We won’t go into great detail on how to prepare for a presentation at a conference. That’s a topic for another article. But, let’s talk about how to prepare for attending and how to network at an academic conference.
First and foremost, try to learn as much as you can about the conference. Prior to attending, you will have a list of the events, workshops, presentations, and other happenings at the conference. Take the time to read this information, and make notes of presentations that are interesting to you. Plan out your days to maximize opportunities to gather interesting information and network with individuals.
As you’re mapping out your days, think about what it is that you’re trying to achieve by attending the academic conference. Are you looking to, for example, raise the visibility of your work? Are you looking for future collaborators? Are you interested in finding information that fills some sort of gap in your research or knowledge base? These questions will help you define how to focus your time and efforts during the conference.
How to Make Meaningful Connections
There are a wide variety of ways to put yourself in situations during an academic conference that will naturally encourage you to make connections to further your work and research. These can include:
- Attend the welcome reception. If you’ve already perused the presentation brief, look for the names of people who are doing something in the field that interests you, and then attend their presentation.
- As soon as you receive the conference program, peruse it, and reach out to individuals before the actual conference. If possible, set up meetings before you even get there.
- Sign up for organized events, like meet and greets, cocktail hours, and off-site tours, for example. Some academic conferences include events like “speed networking” or interactive discussions and roundtables.
- If there are posters and exhibits, find one that interests you and chat with the presenter informally. Always ask questions about the work that demonstrate your interest level. This is the time to “be interested” instead of trying to be interesting.
- Can you summarize your work in 30 seconds or less? You may have heard the term elevator speech, as it relates to entrepreneurs. If you haven’t already, develop a quick response, succinct and interesting, to answer the question, “what do you do?”
- Browse the exhibit hall, not just for the free stuff, but to chat with individuals who are displaying, even selling something that you may find useful. You can also learn more about professional organizations in your field, which offer ongoing opportunities to network and build relationships.
- Tap into the power of social networking. Before, during and after a conference, you can connect with individuals on social media who may be attending, or at least interested in topics that will be presented at the conference. Most conferences these days have their own hashtag. Use this hashtag to engage in conversations, and meet people, before you even attend the conference.
- The most important step is what happens after the conference, and where many people fail. The key to making meaningful connections is to follow up with your new contacts. Send a personal note, either by email, text, via LinkedIn, or whatever way works best for them. This is how you can continue the conversation you started during the conference.
Make the Most of Your Time at an Academic Conference
In today’s world of uber connectivity, it’s common to work while on vacation and work while at a conference. While you CAN continue your normal work routine while you’re at a conference, it’s best to disconnect with day-to-day activities and obligations to keep your full attention on the business at hand. Fully immersing yourself in the conference, including evening events and outside activities, is the best way to network at an academic conference.
Of course, you’ll still have to tend to things and tasks related to your normal work. So, schedule early morning and evening times to check and respond to emails and texts. You might consider putting an automated response alert to let anyone who emails, calls or texts you that you’re attending a conference and will only be able to respond at certain times of the day. Promise yourself that you’ll be making the conference a priority, and you’ll get much more out of it than you would if you’re distracting yourself with non-conference activities.
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