After reading Scicurious’s rant about the difficulties of networking, particularly at conferences, I got to thinking. Several people in the comments talked about the intimidation of trying to talk to more senior researchers. Let’s flip it around, look at it from the point of view of the senior researcher and ask what they want to talk about.
What are my favourite conversations to have at scientific conferences?
Conversations that help someone.
I like helping other people at conferences. At the risk of sounding kind of selfish and needy, I want help, too. Help with current projects. Help with ideas for future projects. Help getting publications. Help getting funded. Help figuring out why reviewers hate the manuscript when people at conferences give the project positive feedback.
Maybe a way to start thinking about networking is to ask, “How can I help?” and “What do I need help with?” How can you create opportunities for another person at a conference?
Conversations that simply acknowledge what I do are also high on my list of talks I like to have. A lot of the time, publishing scientific research feels like shouting into a vacuum. My friends and colleagues in my own department don’t read my papers (which is fair, because I rarely read theirs). You think your blog doesn’t get enough comments? Try waiting years for citations to start coming in. When someone that I do not personally know tells me, “I read your paper in this journal,” I just want to take that moment and polish it until it shines like a shiny stone. It doesn’t even matter if they liked the paper; just that they’ve read it is more than enough.
Along those lines, people who says they like my blog is at higher than usual risk of getting hugged on the spot, even if we've never met before and I have no idea of who they are.
But don’t confuse acknowledgment, or even compliments, with flattery. Acknowledgement is genuine; flattery is manipulative. Compliments are sincere; flattery is not. I hate it when someone tries flattery, because it’s usually obvious and clueless. Don’t tell me that you admire my “world famous” work. I know my place in science better than that, and I don’t need my ego stroked.
We’re told to network for the same sort of reasons that we tell undergraduates that they have to learn calculus: “Because it’s worth points and you’ll need it later, trust me.” You need to get something out of it. Let’s abandon the directive that you must network because, well, “You just gotta!”
Networks grow out of conversations. If you take care of the conversations, the network will take care of itself.
What conversations do you want to have at conferences? That’s not a rhetorical question. I genuinely want to know.