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In a few days I'll be attending my first academic conference in Spain. I'll be going alone and this never became apparent to me that it might be a problem until I spoke to a few people about their experiences at their first academic conferences.

The most common word that arose was 'miserable' - most said that it was difficult to get to know people and to keep up with the pace. While I think I'll be okay with the pace - I'm drawing up a rough idea of which talks I want to attend and where I want to be - I'm not so sure about the communication part. As I won't know anyone at the conference, my plan was literally to just smile and talk to random people so that I can network and make friends but I'm starting to have doubts about whether this will work - will it work?

I have a (slight) anxiety problem and my history of socialising has been terrible so what I fear most is making a fool out of myself in front of people aren't really looking to socialise and make friends. I don't have very comprehensive knowledge in the field since I have only completed my undergraduate degree last year although I never really saw this as a problem.

EDIT: Thank you to everyone! The advice given was really useful. I really just went with the 'talk to random people' strategy. It was awkward with some people as you can immediately pick up that they don't want to talk to you, but I think it's very important that you don't take it personally and just try again. And I made really good friends and connections by doing this. Preparing questions and such also helped a lot - asking my first question was difficult but it was much easier to participate afterwards. At the end of the day, I really think that what you put in is what you get out. Also, imagining people naked sometimes helps!

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    Talk to random people that look uncomfortable. They probably feel the same, so you will meet people and do a good deed as well. Plus, be curious - there is tremendous amount for you to learn in your first conferences. – Captain Emacs Jun 1 '17 at 11:25
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    If there are some people in particular you'd like to meet, you can actually email them beforehand and say who you are, what research you are doing, and whether they'd have time for a coffee to discuss ideas (or whatever it is you want). It helps if you are also presenting a paper. This way you'll get yourself known, just be wary to keep meetings brief. – Dr. Thomas C. King Jun 1 '17 at 12:06
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    If there is a poster session, that is a great place to meet and talk - the folks with posters are often standing there wishing somebody, anybody would come over and ask about their work, and are excited to talk to you about it. – Jon Custer Jun 1 '17 at 13:08
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    Ignoring the minority of people with psychological disorders, everybody has the same favorite topic of conversation, namely talking about themselves. All you have to do is ask one question that presses their "start" button, then listen for as long as you want. – alephzero Jun 1 '17 at 18:22
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    @alephzero: This is not true. I'm a very private person, and heartily dislike talking about myself, and I'm hardly unique. Are you arguing that this is a psychological disorder? For the OP, is socializing really the purpose of a conference? Do you WANT to socialize, or just attend talks, present your own (if any), and just think that socializing is necessary? – jamesqf Jun 2 '17 at 4:44
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First of all - there's no magic bullet. I share some of your background - averse to parties, feeling the odd person out, slight anxiety - and after several "first time ever" conferences (I've switched academic fields), I can't say it has gotten that much better. I've just learned to sort of "buck up" and force myself to socialize anyway.

Some suggestions, though:

  • Try again after failures: You managed to somehow sit alone in a lunch break. You were going to talk to a speaker after a talk but other people got in the way. You didn't get up in time and missed seeing people at breakfast. Some of these things are going to happen. Don't sink into a dark mood and sulk in the corner! Try again in the next talk, next meal etc. And yet again after that.
  • Have an Elevator Pitch ready: Suppose you're standing at some table in some short break at the conference. Someone walks up to you and says: "Oh, you're from ABC University?" or "Oh, you're the guy/girl with that XYZ paper, right?" when you shyly reply "Yes, that's me" they ask you: "So, what do you do?" or "What are you working on?" - you need to have an answer ready. A 1-sentence answer is relatively easy, but if they're slightly more interested, you can't lay a 15-minute talk on them - the next session is coming up and they have other things to do, and are probably tired. So it needs to be something very succinct, somewhat exciting, that relates to what the rest of the community is doing ("relate" can mean "goes in a different direction"), that would be interesting or entertaining to recount to someone over a short period of time.

    Not only is it important to have this in your head for actually recounting it, but the very fact that you can explain what you're about often helps you to relate to people and feel somewhat less awkward - as you can sort of justify your existence or your presence in the conference in another way than just suggesting people read your paper.

  • Stare at badges: One of the things that's always difficult for me is to read the small print on badges of people while they walk around. Even if it's embarassing to stare at someone's stomach, chest or a woman's breasts - they have a badge, so you stare. In fact, explicitly say "I'm trying to read your badge" to get them to stand still. By the way, this is a (weak) ice-breaker for a conversation.

  • Pimp your own badge: Create a second side copy of your badge in case it flips. Add a sticker you brought from home. Draw in something that has to do with your work (I put 'GPU guy' in a spiffy font). That's an excuse to draw attention to yourself in a non-conceited way - and also a good excuse for why you're staring at badges.
  • Ask people you don't know questions: Are you standing in front of someone you don't know, kind of up close and having caught their attention? This is an opportunity. Embarrassed that you don't know him/her? Say "This is my first conference" or "I'm new to the field" and then "Can I ask what the XYZ group at ABC University focuses on?" (assuming it's an XYZ conference and you've noticed from the badge that you're talking to someone from ABC University).
  • Remember: Everyone knows first-timers are fools who know nothing Actually, lots of people are fools who know very little even after coming the 10th time; and nobody really knows much about the sub-fields that they're not working on. So - even though it's a fancy-shmancy conference, it's ok to be ignorant, and you're not being an exception to the rule. No problem whatsoever if you say "I have not gotten into XYZ yet, but I still wanted to ask you..." or "I have not gotten into XYZ yet - since you're an expert, would you mind recommending a good starting point? Like a survey, or a few key papers?"
  • Explicitly trade off some of your time for social interaction When you're in a conference for the first time, you probably want to experience everything that's possible: Lots of talks seem exciting and useful; you want to make connections; you might want to explore the city you're in; you want to you want to take a lot of notes; you want to check out books and journal issues that are on sale; etc. This pressure to squeeze in everything makes it difficult to focus on social interaction. For example, you may be anxious about an upcoming talk that's about to start while you're striking up a conversation with someone. It's a bit of a challenge, psychologically, to tell yourself "I'm giving up on concretely and clearly useful conference activities in favor of informal chatting with people, which may or may not happen and may or may not lead to anyhing." - but you still need to do this. So you decide you will miss that talk but be more relaxed and have time to develop a conversation.
  • You can ask people to meet and talk later. A conference is busy and noisy; and people can butt in to your conversation. For many, this is a stressful setting in which to interact, especially when you're nervous about approaching some of these people, regardless of the environment. Well, it is very common and perfectly acceptable to ask people on "dates" - not romantic dates, talking dates: "I am working on XYZ, and I know that you are (etc. etc.); do you think you'll have time after today's schedule ends / tomorrow morning / at lunch break on Tuesday to sit down and talk for a while?" Note that conference venues often have cafes/restaurants close-by, and even if they costs money (as opposed to the conference, where you get freebies) - it's a very worthwhile investment. Plus you can sometime get reimbursement even for that.
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    "Try again after failures" - this is really good point. I've attended many, many conferences and there are still plenty of times I wish I could have talked to a speaker, been invited to lunch with some of the other attendees, etc. If you are persistent (and humble, friendly, and willing to learn, of course) you will eventually break through. – haff Jun 1 '17 at 23:28
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    I suggest adding "Prepare your elevator pitch". An elevator pitch is a talk you can give in the duration of an elevator ride. It is the first level of response to someone asking about your research. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 2 '17 at 11:39
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    "I put 'GPU guy' in a spiffy font": I can attest to the fact that it works, because now I realize that I have seen @einpoklum at a conference two weeks ago. Hi there, Eyal! :) – a3nm Jun 2 '17 at 12:56
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    @PatriciaShanahan: Good point, thank you. Unfortunately I can't split the answer reputation with you... – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jun 2 '17 at 13:05
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I also went alone to my first conference, and did not know any of the other attendees beforehand - but I had read some of the works by some of them.

Besides the usual advice "talking to other that also look like they feel alone", I would also encourage you to

prepare and ask questions after talks.

Do this especially for smaller talks (if there are any). This really has many upsides: You practice formulating questions - a very important skill to get something out of a conference. You may get into a nice chat, which, in my case, turned into a friendship more often than I expected. As a consequence, you do not feel alone anymore.

If you did not get the chance to ask your question, you may also approach the speaker after the talk (either right after the talk but also in the next coffee break). Generally, scientists love to talk about their (published) work.

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    Also, asking questions at a conference can be a good icebreaker later, as it gives other attendees an easy-in to start talking with you. – Jeff Jun 2 '17 at 14:06
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You'll be totally fine. It's perfectly appropriate to walk up to random people and say "hi! I don't think we've met - I'm so-and-so." Then just chat about what they work on, where they're based, etc.

Incidentally, one piece of advice I was given that I found really helpful: conferences are much more useful as a chance to meet other graduate students than they are as an opportunity to meet fancy big-shot faculty. Your graduate student contemporaries will be your community in the field, much more so than senior figures: these are the people who will be willing to read rough drafts of your work, give you a sense of where the frontiers in the field are, commiserate with you about your employment prospects, etc. And apart from anything else, it's typically easier and more fun to hang out with people who are at the same stage as you!

(This isn't to say you shouldn't talk to senior people if the opportunity arises, obviously. But don't sweat it: your main priority should be having fun and making friends.)

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    This is a fantastic point. I've met several big shots (some two or three times because they've forgotten me), but rarely do I ever communicate with them again. The other grad students (and early career people) are the ones I keep up with! I never really considered that until I read your answer. – haff Jun 1 '17 at 23:30
  • Having said that, I, like you, think it's good to talk with the big shots as well. In the past, this has resulted in an invitation to submit a manuscript to a journal (the prof was the editor), invitations to use high performance computing resources at other universities, and just really cool experiences talking with some of the best in the field. – haff Jun 1 '17 at 23:36
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Many of the other answers are great, but I'd like to add this: find out where people will be socializing after the conference talks and go. In my opinion, this is where you really get to know people.

I once attended a five day workshop/conference without knowing anyone beforehand. (It helped that the conference was small, so most everyone ended up talking to each other at some point during the week). I sought out people to hang out every evening, and we went out for drinks and/or dinner every night except one. Sometimes there were as few as three of us, but it was great getting to know people outside of the conference events. I've kept up with many of those researchers and even co-organized a couple sessions with one. I probably networked much better at this conference that at other conferences where I've known many people attending!

If there aren't any events going on, you could ask someone you met (perhaps another grad student) to grab lunch/drinks/etc. This person could perhaps introduce you to others in their department or others they know at the conference. Like one comment suggested, there will likely be people in the same situation as you. At my first conference, I was deathly afraid of socializing/networking (so you are not alone!), but one person randomly approached me after my talk and asked a few questions. After this, he said something like, "Let's grab lunch. Do you have plans?" I was tremendously grateful that he did this. It really turned my week around! You might be able to do the same for someone else.

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If socializing with people you don't know, or don't know well, has been uncomfortable for you in the past, then please don't suddenly change your expectations of (a) yourself, or (b) the people around you.

Introverts can have successful conference experiences, too. But they might not measure success in the same way that an extrovert might.

Networking is not the only goal when attending a conference.

Since this is your first conference, I'd suggest defining "a successful, satisfying experience" as

listening to some interesting talks

If, in addition to that, the various tips people have offered on this page help you have some satisfying interactions with some people while you're there... so much the better! But let that be the icing on the cake. (Cake is also good without icing, remember.)

You don't have to get to know people, or keep up with the pace, for the conference to be worthwhile attending. Especially not your first time.

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What I would do to start, is to follow Captain Emacs suggestion. From there, I would have one acquaintance that I could introduce to another. There will always be someone who is not any more comfortable than you. You may not have a lot in common with him (not likely, at a conference), but you now have a base to integrate yourself into the common. And, now, voila, you are networking. If you do come across someone who does not feel like talking (about your favorite subject), then you know why he is not mixing, and you move along. Everyone you talk to, as a rule, increases your confidence and comfort. But you do have to start; get the hard part behind you, and have fun.

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