I'm a final year computer science PhD student and I've been to several conferences so far.

My thoughts:

  • Typically I've talked to other PhD students and postdocs about research/ life. But there's never really been any lasting value from these conversations.
  • Collaborations don't really emerge from these conversations. In my lab, collaborations are arranged between people at our institution who would provide a clear strategic benefit to a research project.
  • I find that I learn about new topics and techniques from the talks and social media, not from 'networking'. And I myself use talks and social media as the primary way to market my research.
  • From talking to others and reading anecdotes, I find it quite rare that networking at conferences results in a concrete career or reputation boost.
  • I find it rather pointless to engage with a researcher just because they are 'elite'. The elite researcher is often tired of junior researchers trying to approach them like paparazzis approach a celebrity.
  • If you do want to approach a researcher, it seems best to do it over email (so there is a written record and they don't forget), and you can clearly articulate the purpose of the interaction.
  • It seems that in computer science a lot of reputation is really achieved through 'structured' mediums like talks, social media, citations, usage of artifacts, etc. I am told that a lot of senior professors simply don't go to conferences anyway because they don't really get anything out of it, and junior professors are there to be physically seen and appear visible (i.e. it's a performance).

I would like to hear your thoughts about whether you think networking at conferences holds much benefit to your career/reputation.

  • 10
    The above points summarize my views as well. Further, given that I'm located in Australia, attending conference is expensive and a waste of time. I hardly see the same people at conferences, and thus it is near impossible to build anything concrete. Commented Sep 23, 2022 at 20:30
  • 3
    @VitaminE That really depends on the kind of conference you are attending. I saw many people repeatedly. As in more than 10x, not just a few times. On smaller regular conference series. In Australia it may make more sense to attend Australian ones, but the continent is much less populated than Europe so distances are big. Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 12:25
  • 2
    This was exactly my experience with conferences too. Internships are the way to go to establish any meaningful connections outside your university/research lab.
    – tom
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 17:44
  • 12
    "If you do want to approach a researcher, it seems best to do it over email (so there is a written record and they don't forget), and you can clearly articulate the purpose of the interaction." You're missing the crucial point that people are social creatures and react differently to cold emails from unknown researchers and to emails from people with whom they already have some sort of social connection from a conference. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 17:47
  • 3
    I am an attorney that occasionally writes legal academic papers rather than a more traditional academic, but networking in legal conventions has led me to mutual-referral relationships more than once in addition to gaining insights into legal issues I might not have received otherwise. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:09

5 Answers 5


In your career stage, I would have said exactly the same thing. I went to many conferences and meetings (my advisor insisted), but rarely talked to people more senior than me, mostly listening to the talks and hanging out with other students, people I knew, and some professors that my advisor introduced me to. I sometimes wondered if my university really got value for money for the not inconsequential amount of money all these trips costed.

Years later, I observed that, somehow, I had a network (despite never trying to create one), as opposed to other people in similar career stages whose advisor was less well-funded and/or less keen on sending students to networking opportunities. People knew my name, I got invited to PCs and editorial boards, and my work got cited more than the work of peers. I have a hard time pointing to any specific event that had a clear impact on this development, but as a whole the effect compounded (as Paul calls it).

Networking is one of these things where the payoff from doing it ocassionally, as one-off short-term activities, is basically nil. It starts paying off when you go to conferences that are small enough often enough that you keep running into the same people repeatedly. I have also found that in terms of networking what you really want are small, specialised conferences, workshops, or meetings - in a conference with 1000 participants you can spend a whole week and not really be remembered by anybody; but if you participate even a little actively in a one-day workshop with 15 participants 5-10 of these people will remember you going home.

  • 1
    If one stays in "the game" long enough, then some of those PhD students you hang around with eventually become the Profs of the future. This is your network. Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 14:19
  • 1
    @FlamingGoose True, but most researchers can't wait that long (there is a tendency that one needs a network that includes researchers that are a fair bit more senior than oneself at various times in one's career). In that sense one should also network "upwards" a bit - but in my experience this does happen organically if one goes to a sufficient number of events.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 15:39

This seems like short-term thinking, though at your career stage that would be natural. I'm at the other end of the career arc (retired) and have a different perspective. I found meeting and talking to people very important in generating both thoughts and collaborations.

I'll try to address some of your points specifically:

In CS, (our field), the big ideas are often seen widely at conferences for the first time. There can be a lot of buzz, as there was at the OOPSLA conference when there were talks on Software Patterns and the GOF book hit the stands. (I nearly got trampled in the stampede to see the book.) I met the authors there and later collaborated with one of them and had other conversations with "patterns-adjacent" people. Long term it was very fruitful, though I was a skeptic early on.

I once had a workshop with the creator of the Ruby language, sitting next to another collaborator I'd met at such a conference. We had a great time figuring out how Ruby contributed to the language spectrum.

But, you can't just chat up a few folks and expect much to happen when you first meet. Maybe later if you have common interests, but your career might last 40 years so the early investment in time and effort can pay off.

When you go to a talk the people around you are probably also interested in that topic. They are good people to have a coffee (tea, ...) with afterwards and talk about the ideas. Ask questions, introduce yourself.

If you've met someone interesting and want to suggest a collaboration later (email) they are more likely to respond if they've met you and had an idea-based conversation with you earlier, maybe at a conference.

I've met luminaries in the field over coffee at conferences and workshops, some of which have led to collaboration, though not immediately. My experience is quite different. Most of the superstars are actually quite human, though I've met exceptions also. But if you seem like a leech it will probably be noticed.

Often enough a "big name" will be sitting at a table between talks with a few other people. If you are interested in their work, those others at the table might be valuable to get to know.

I never looked at conferences as a way to "market" my ideas, but a way to learn and share. I found a lot of others, both the junior and the senior folks to have similar focus.

I don't know if people do this anymore (and doubt it), but I have quite a large collection of business cards from people around the world. Some of them are big names (some were students of the big names), but some of them are just interesting folks to share ideas with. It is that sharing that can make the difference.

FWIW, at your stage of the game I hadn't attended any conferences at all, though I was in math where such things may be somewhat less vital. But conferences, and the people I met there, helped me advance both my ideas and my career.

  • 2
    That is interesting, my opinion may become more moderate when I become a professor and I have more say in the types of projects and collaborations I work on. Commented Sep 23, 2022 at 20:50

The networking in conferences needs to be thought of more broadly than initiating collaborations.

If you're looking for a job being (and especially presenting) at conference gives an opportunity to gain exposure for your research (hopefully increase citations) and for yourself. It helps a lot if someone on a hiring committee thinks 'I remember this person, they gave a great talk and do really interesting work' rather than 'I've never heard of this person before, are they any good?'

You have the opportunity to build a network. Keep in mind this is a slow process. Even talking to other PhDs/Postdocs socially about research/ life, going out for dinner/drinks, etc is important. These junior researchers will eventually be professors and colleagues. Regularly seeing the same people at conferences is how friendships/collaborations are built. You get to know each other, build trust. After the conference maybe visit, invite/get invited to each other's institutions, etc. When the right topic comes up for a collaboration they will think of you (or vice versa). It might take years before the right context for a collaboration comes up.

I also use conference to meet existing collaborators who are not local to me in person to discuss and progress our work. These are people I've spent years building relationships with that have eventually led to fruitful collaborations.

Your expectations need to be realistic when interacting with senior/famous people at conferences. They already have an established network of collaborators. They are not likely to bring you onto a project / start a collaboration with you. Get to know them socially, often they are at the centre of a wider circle of researchers - see if you can wrangle yourself into getting invited to dinner/the bar with their group. Your goal is for them to know who you are and what you do (see jobs point above). They also likely serve on grant committees, etc so some positive interactions/familiarity is to your advantage. You may be able to build on this with time, but start small.

So yes, I do feel conferences (in particular the in-person variety) have been/continue to be beneficial for my career/reputation.

  • 2
    Only thing I would add, with confirmation from someone more senior, is that you want your colleagues also to remember/trust you when you're writing letters for your students later.
    – user137975
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 0:36
  • 4
    When the right topic comes up for a collaboration they will think of you - Or even just, "hmm... I wonder if this is true... oh this person I met may know... I'll email them" Which then may turn into a collaboration.
    – Kimball
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 4:27

As the other answers... indeed, accurate and specific, ... indicate, indeed, there may be scant immediate payoff. But, as with retirement investments, compound interest, and such stuff, the things you do early-on are very important for later "payoffs".

That is, do have people see you, perhaps hear you give a talk, know that you are "in the game", and so on. No, this won't get you tenure immediately... but it will certainly have positive (if subtle) effects on peoples' perceptions of your preprints and so on.

But/and, I'd suggest NOT just hanging around with people your own age, but trying to be (at worst) a hanger-on while more senior people are chatting or dining or whatever. :)

  • 2
    It seems to me that to get any sort of academic position, the people on the hiring committee don't actually read all the applications because there are too many, and they have to personally know the applicant. Is this true?
    – cgb5436
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 0:30
  • 1
    @cgb5436, these days, I think every application is read, at least a sort of first pass. Personal acquaintance with the applicant is certainly not necessary! :) Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 0:35
  • 1
    Yes, being seen and meeting people at conferences definitely helps garner interest in your file when you're applying, arguably the biggest benefit to young researchers.
    – Kimball
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 4:32
  • 3
    I think the maxim "The rich get richer" applies to academia. If you want a position of power (which is what being a professor really is), you have to align yourself with powerful people.
    – cgb5436
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 0:47

As a computer science researcher, I fully agree with your more negative observations as a PhD. I had the opportunity to go to several conferences, schools, workshops, I've worked in several non-scientific projects with industry, using all these activities more or less naturally to get in touch with a whole bunch of people, mostly other PhDs, workers from industry, and postdocs and senior academics to a much smaller extent, though. We discussed ideas (sometimes suggesting a future collaboration) or just had a nice chat between nice persons. The outcome for me, however, was that at least 9 out of 10 of such encounters were surprisingly superficial on the one hand and of interestingly little professional use on the other. I can say that even after a few years of postdoc.

However, things changed quite rapidly to the positive after my PhD. Connections made in these years turn out to be significantly more substantial, lasting, and characterised by a short-term benefit and an authentic mutual interest people develop for each others' work and life. As a matter of fact, my existing network largely builds on my postdoc activities and several years of self-driven initiative.

@xLeitix's answer includes an interesting but perhaps ideal perspective I was once indeed told and, hence, hoping for to enjoy when I started out as a PhD. Unfortunately, my experiences differ.

Although I'm still not too long in the business, from several storytellings of senior academics, I grasped that our academic field (computer science, software engineering) seems to have changed quite a dramatic bit over the past three to four decades. There are more and much larger conferences, the publish-or-perish paradigm/philosophy has turned good parts of the academic discourse into a seemingly ruthless, non-scientific, and hyper-commercialised rat-race (please, excuse my slight exaggeration).

An obvious factor driving the structure and utility of your network might of course be doing research in a trendy field. That, however, can be in conflict with your personal interests. (E.g., in AI/ML research, you will hit the ravages of time but your efforts might drown quickly in a vast ocean of hardly distinguishable perhaps not even novel work.)

Overall, networking is undoubtedly key to academic success. But I am in increasing doubt as to whether the usual regular conferences in our field are a good networking platform. They often turn out to be unnecessarily expensive, wasting money that could otherwise be used, for example, to get good equipment for lab work or even to fund/extend contracts.

Seeing networking as a highly individual thing, my conclusion is: If I were to do a PhD again, I would have probably tried not to waste too much time with conferences during my PhD, focus even more on my research and a few very good publications, attend some schools, and ramp up my global networking activities only in the last PhD/first postdoc year. Based on my experience so far, I can thus recommend PhDs (and also postdocs; as already indicated in the other answers) to

  • do internships,
  • engage in local collaborations within and across the departments,
  • spend mobility times (something you should intensify as a postdoc),
  • go to smaller workshops,
  • visit (summer) schools,
  • attend seminars/project meetings, and the like.

There, people get to know each other much more naturally. One thing not to forget is that as a PhD you are more likely to meet other PhDs on conferences rather than seniors, they are often far less approachable. And most of the PhDs won't stay in academia for a whole bunch of reasons discussed elsewhere. So, the benefit of academic networking as a PhD is somewhat limited merely because of that fact.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .