Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
The booth was really busy when I got there. I tried talking to one of the vendors behind the booth but two customers were talking to him at the same time. I could tell he was annoyed so I left.
I came back the next day and the same thing happened. I started to get nervous. I’d been talking to this company for a couple of months about a job and they told me to stop by their booth to talk to the President. But the President wasn’t there. I came back again and again and kept missing him. The employees at the booth were starting to get sick of me already. I didn’t know what to do. This company was my only option. I was either going to get hired or be another unemployed PhD at graduation.
On the last day of the conference, I decided to cut my losses. I stopped coming to the same booth over and over again and started visiting other booths. I didn’t have an agenda this time though. I just started conversations with the vendors and asked them questions about their products and themselves. Things went a lot better. I was even asked for my resume by two other companies and I left the conference with a job. What happened?
The Art Of The Conference
Let’s face it. Most conferences are usually a waste of time and money. Companies pay insane rates to set up booths and ship their products and materials. Scientists break their budgets to travel and attend. They break their backs too—hustling to get a piece of data that’s actually worth showing. It’s a scam. The conference organizers and the companies that rent out those little squares of carpet (yeah you Freeman) make out like bandits. But, somehow it seems worth it.
Conferences are one of the few chances PhDs get to come together and share their research face to face with other academics. It’s also one of the few chances companies have to display their best products to a large group of existing customers and potential customers. At least that’s how it used to be. All conferences are now job fairs. Have you gone to a scientific conference lately? Have you worked a booth? If so, you’ve probably noticed how many students, starving postdocs, and unemployed PhDs come up to you asking for a job. It’s not their fault though. They just want to get paid a decent salary for a change.
If you’re behind the booth, it’s annoying. You’re there to help your customers, not to get someone a job. If you’re in front of the booth trying to get a business card, it’s painful. Walking up and introducing yourself to strangers in the hopes of getting a job is uncomfortable. Yet, it’s one of the only ways to get a name for a cover letter and to network with people who have the jobs that you want.
8 Conference Networking Tips
1. Skip the scientific talks.
You love science. I get it. Science is why we all went to graduate school. (Unless you’re a humanities PhD or similar. If that’s the case, don’t worry, these networking tips still apply to you.) But you shouldn’t go to a conference to learn the science. Not if you want to get an industry job.
One of the biggest fears a lot of PhDs have is that they’re selling out by getting a PhD job in industry. Don’t worry, you’re not. “Selling out” is just a phrase that some unhappy academics use to try to hold you back. If you want an industry job, the first decision you have to make is to stop acting like an academic scientist. This includes skipping scientific talks at a conference so you can network with the industry players who are also not there.
Besides, everything in the talk is either published or in an abstract in the conference booklet. Plus, you can always seek out the conference speakers (or their posters) later.
2. Leave networking events early.
Nothing good happens late at night at a conference. Most people who go to conferences binge drink themselves senseless because they don’t get out much anymore. They burn themselves out on the first night and become more and more useless as the conference goes on. Don’t be one of these people.
Remember, you’re there to get a job or to at least make as many strong industry connections as possible. Show up to the networking event, mingle for an hour, then ghost. Disappear without saying goodbye because they won’t remember anyway. Then get up early, do your research (see #4), and hit the conference while it’s quiet.
3. Stalk the vendor show.
The worst time to go to network at the vendor show is at lunch, the coffee breaks, or anytime in between the scientific talks. These are peak hours. This is when the people behind the booths—the people who have the jobs you want—are busy trying to help their customers and recruit new customers. If you try to talk to these people then, they won’t like you. More importantly, they wont’ remember you.
You’ll just be another blur in the manic crowd that’s snatching swag and asking a thousand different questions. Stay away from the vendor show during blur time. Instead, stalk the show during the scientific talks. Try to catch people before they get their laptops and iPhones out to answer emails. Then, make your approach (see #6 and #7).
4. Research the players.
Before you go to a conference, find out which vendors will be there. Find out who is sponsoring. Are the gold, silver, or bronze sponsors? Either way, remember it so you can thank them. No one ever does this. If you do, you’ll be remembered.
Also, most companies will announce which booth number they are and even which people they are sending to the conference on social media. Check the companies’ Twitter feeds and look them up on LinkedIn and Facebook too. If they don’t announce it, ask. Reach out to them on these networks. They’ll love it and they’ll answer.
Get some names and then research these people online. At the very least, look at their LinkedIn histories. Look at their Facebook pages. Try to find out something they enjoy personally (but not too personally), like a sport they used to play or a recent trip they went on. Make some notes so you can ask questions about it when you meet them.
5. Don’t talk about yourself.
If you did your research, you’ll know a few names at the vendor show. Approach these people first. When you do, don’t put your hand out and say “Hi, I’m a PhD candidate from University XYZ looking for a job. Do you want my resume?” No, I want you to leave me alone. That’s what they’ll be thinking. Even if they’re nice and want to help someone seeking a job, they’ll still think this.
It’s human nature—and fair—to resent someone who asks for something without giving you anything first. Before you try to get a business card or a job referral, do this—ask the person on the other side of the table about their product or service. Give attention. Then, ask them about themselves personally. Give more attention. Show emotion too. Don’t just act interested, be interested.
If your research the night before yielded some interesting facts, lead with them. Your only goal is to get the other person talking about themselves. The more they talk, the better. Don’t mention that you’re looking for a job at this point. Assume they don’t care. Because they don’t. They just met you.
6. Play the student card.
If you’re still getting a PhD or if you’re still a postdoc, let the person you’re talking to know that you’re “still in school.” Even if you’re a tech or a professor or an unemployed PhD, tell them you’re “still in school.” You want to be in the student zone. This will make the person you’re talking to much more open and patient.
A lot of PhDs think that they have to play up to the people their networking with to get a job, especially the industry people they meet at conferences. Don’t play up to others. Instead, play down. Or at least play neutral. Act like you don’t have a clue about industry (which shouldn’t be hard because you probably don’t—I know I didn’t).
There’s a weird phenomenon that happens after you get your industry job. The people at other companies, even people at your own company, start seeing you differently. They see you as a potential threat. This makes it much harder to network.
Stay in the student zone and ask as many questions as you can while you’re there. Get as much information as possible. Fight the urge to play up or to talk about yourself.
7. Spark jealousy.
Network with every vendor at the conference. Never pigeon hole yourself to one company at a conference, even if you really (really, really) want a job there. In the above story, when the company I wanted to work with couldn’t make time for me, I felt like a loser. I thought all was lost. But then I woke up and realized that there were a hundred other companies at that same conference. And all of them needed work to be done. They all needed profits and employees too. So I started introducing myself to them.
After 30 minutes of doing this, someone from the initial company I was pursuing came and found me and started asking me how things were going. He was pretending to make small talk but really he was trying to pull me back in. The next morning the President of that company called me and scheduled a lunch interview with me at the conference.
Always maintain an abundance mentality. There are hundreds if not thousands of companies that desperately need PhDs. They need you. The only thing that will keep you from getting the job you want is a limited mindset and a lack of confidence. Know your value. It will make you a more attractive candidate.
8. Send same-day emails.
The real networking happens after the conference. That’s when you have to follow up. In fact, you should be following up at the conference. Don’t make the mistake of waiting a few days before you email someone you just met at the vendor show. Do it that night. If you wait, they won’t remember you. I’m always getting emails from people I met at the conferences a week later and I have no idea who they are. I want to help them but I can’t. Really, I don’t remember them.
If you’re trying to make a connection, do the other party a favor and make it as easy on them as possible. Follow up the same day with a reminder of who you are and what you talked about. But still, don’t ask for anything. You should exchange emails at least four times before mentioning that you want anything (like information about job openings or an okay to use their name in a cover letter) directly. Invest in giving and be consistent and you’ll walk away from your next conference with an industry job.
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Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.