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I recently attended a very large conference in my field (SfN, ~30,000 attendees), and after I got back I was thinking about what I had gained from the trip, and I realized not that much. I listened to a few different talks, and I saw a whole bunch of relevant posters, but on reflection I don't think anything I did progressed my knowledge/career that much. What should I do in the future to ensure that I make the most out of conferences?

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Read this and this.

My professor put forth 3 simple rules for networking:

  • Talk to the guy beside you
  • Talk to top 3 (sort by relevance or whatever you prefer) presenters
  • Mail them 5 days after the conference with some follow up content (questions/comments/invites for talks etc.)

Just to make this post "dead-link" proof, I present a gist of the content in the above links.

  • Start Early. You should begin preparing before the conference starts. Start reading on who will be there, emailing people you want to meet, and determining which events you will attend. You may want to contact the speakers whose talks you will be attending before the conference; try to set up a meeting, or if they are too busy, at least meet them and give them your business card.

  • Bring Business Cards. Make sure they're up-to-date and details your preferred mode of communication.

  • Research people and get involved in their networks. If a certain professor is giving a talk; read his previous research papers, frame interesting questions and get an excuse to meet him. If you do meet him, exploit the opportunity to interact with his peers and try to enter their network. Sometimes, this is the only way of getting to network with someone. I know of professors who refuse to take students for PhD or internships or Postdocs without a recommendation from someone in his network. A good impression might just get you that recommendation.

  • Note people with similar interests to yours. These people will be attending all the same presentations as you, talking to the same people, discussing similar topics. They are the potential spots for networking.

  • Prepare the elevator speech. A common question will be "So, what is your research about?" Make sure you have an answer for every audience. For e.g. If you are in Computational Science, the answer may vary depending on who you are talking with. Plus, make it interesting and digestible.

  • Organize an event of your own. This is especially useful is forming "lower" networks i.e. networks of people who lag in terms of age or experience such as graduate students. If not more, they could notify you of openings or interesting papers or whatever. They could be useful. (Plus it helps us :P )

  • Read "Never Eat Alone".

  • Follow Up. Prepare for this even before you leave for the conference. Have different modes of follow up ready. Will you have anything to say that is worth writing an email for? If not, think of something which will. If nothing works, make sure you click a photo of yourself with him and send it to him a few days after the conference.

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    Note that all these points about business cards are geared much more towards professional conferences than research conferences. Few professors will carry business cards, and even fewer will hand them out; the networks are much smaller in research, and people can easily find each other through publications. – eykanal Feb 17 '12 at 15:18
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    @eykanal phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=861 – user107 Feb 17 '12 at 15:20
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On top of all the answers above, I would add very selfish points to expand on meeting like-minded people from user107 answers.

  1. Avoid destination conferences(or The location is time)! The best conferences are the ones you can spend the most time with the people you want to network with and not where people will count seconds to leave and go sight seeing. For example, if the conference is in San Fransisco, without a doubt everybody is excited to bring a +1 and go about seeing friends in the area or sightseeing. You will have a lower chance of spending quality time with the researchers in your field. Meanwhile, people from Google or Uber or local equivalents of your field might not even show up to present their work cause they are busy(real story)! On the other hand, if the conference is in some center of nowhere, with literally nothing to do except the conference activities, you will have a high chance of getting to know your colleague very well. And people who are there are serious about their business. You have all the afternoon, night, and late nights to know who is who, and what they have to say that they can not publish yet(including politics of the field)! The catch is that conference organizers might spend more money to plan events that bring you guys out of your hotel rooms and bring you back again to such a location.

  2. Find and meet people who can give you recommendation letters later on based on your work. People who have genuine appreciation of your work or methods or even your adviser and are nice enough that if needed to read your work for feedback or writing you a nice recommendation you can actually count on them. Someone would add avoid snobs or super-busy ones, you will not hear back from them soon enough.

  3. Find fellows (same level as you maybe a couple of years ahead), who also have a genuine interest in your work, that also can play the role of proof-read or an extra pair of eyes for you. you can easily cut the time of your publications by sharing your work with such peers and make your papers ready nicer. if their English or experience in writing is more than you its a plus.

  4. Talk with people in the industry or application world (or vice versa), who you can talk to you about what is actually needed out there and if they are also willing to use your work or test it or give you comments. These people can help you explore alternative career paths as well.

  5. Don't be negative(snob) about presented works. everyone knows some works are worst than others, but cynicism or negative attitude scares most people and will isolate you. There is so much to learn even from works that look not ready, or complete or even wrong! Be positive about all works and try to learn from every single presentation rather than ignoring their efforts.

  6. Collaboration with other institutes is always a great experience item. see if you can establish such opportunity for yourself. Maybe a visiting summer or just working on a piece of open source code together.

  7. Avoid politics. most likely your source of information is not perfectly aligned with locals and you can hurt mis-represented and already-harassed people!

  8. Branding. Have a letter-sized summary, quadchart or an executive summary of your work copied in color and enough number available. It can be a great branding if you are serious about your ideas. Business card or LinkedIn will not go anywhere in academia.

  9. Go out and make memories with your peers, go see a random part of the city. It will be a better way to network than staying in the hotel's bar(except if it's too late at night).

  10. Don't miss the elders of the crowd. Remember some people come to this conference every year for last 30 years. Some of them really appreciate new people who do the effort of introducing themselves.

  11. Make as much notes as possible, cause you WILL forget, even the most important things.

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From my own experience I get the most out of conferences which are not organized as conference expos. There's a big difference between conferences created for income (yes, even in academia) and those created to promote new discoveries and knowledge.

Of the latter type I find the presenters are generally excited by their opportunity to meet others in their field. It's more of a grassroots type of experience and you find that you naturally start to share in the discussions. No networking is needed.

What should I do in the future to ensure that I make the most out of conferences?

Choose a conference that's in your field. Prepare a paper or two of your own on a subject that really interests you. Discuss it with colleagues. Get it published. Present it at a conference. The critical thought you put into this process will help you to pick conferences more suited to you and stimulate your interaction with others.

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  • Know why you're going in the first place: only go to conferences where you can get something useful out of it. You can usually get access to the proceedings (and at lower cost) without going to the conference. So just access to the proceedings is usually not enough. You're there to present your stuff and get feedback on it, and/or for networking, and/or to hear specific speakers talk insightfully on a subject important to you, whre you've got an opportunity to ask clarifying questions directly of them, and to participate in a discussion with others, afterwards, on the content.
  • Be the first after a presentation to ask an insightful, relevant, informed question. Catch the speaker's eye as you ask the question. Go up to them after the session ends, thank them in person, exchange business cards
  • Network like crazy
  • Have a big stack of business cards. Give them away liberally to anyone vaguely connected to your field. Get some more printed. Repeat.
  • Collect business cards of anyone vaguely connected, voraciously. Add their email addresses to your database of interesting contacts. Follow them on your networking sites of choice. (Twitter, CiteULike, Academia.edu, etc). And when one of your papers gets published, email them a link to it, and let them know that it may be of use to them.

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