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I am a phd student in computer science, starting in september my last year.

The next week I will join a conference not far from my home university, where I am not presenting any paper. The main area of the conference is pretty close to my phd topic, and there will be there most of the top professors of the area.

I would like to take this opportunity to talk with them, present them my work and share a couples of ideas, but I have some doubts on how to engage them and on what to share with them, in particular:

  • Even if I have read some of their papers, I have no specific questions on them, and I don't know if it makes sense to read a bunch of paper in this days just to find a viable reason to talk with them.
  • A possibility would be to write them saying that they are important for my phd and I would like to share with them my research, but I don't know if this is going to interest them.
  • Last I have some unpublished ideas that I am planning to work on the next year. Is it risky to share these ideas with them?

Needless to say, the main purpose to meet them for me are:

  • Find possible coauthors
  • Find possible post-doc locations
  • 2
    "Even if I have read some of their papers, I have no specific questions on them" There's always something to ask. – DSVA Jul 2 '17 at 19:00
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I would suggest the following for an early-career scholar:

1) Figure out who from your current university is going to be there and identify any other attendees you already know. Let them know you will be attending and hope you run into them.

2) Make sure you go make yourself available right from the beginning. Spend very little time in your room. Arrive early, hang out in the lobby near the conference registration area or wherever the coffee is. Go to all the breakfasts, lunches, etc.

3) When you see someone you know, go up to them, say hi. Mention that this is one of your first conferences and you are really interested in meeting people. Ask if there is anyone that they would recommend you meet. Then ask them to introduce you. This especially works if you are at the opening reception or something like that.

4) Repeat! If a chat is going well, eventually ask the new contact if there are others at the conference who are interested in your topics that they think you should meet.

5) Also, of course, go to talks. After the talk, make an effort to talk to the speakers with follow-up questions, etc. You can also follow-up with speakers if you see them in the hall later, etc. If these chats go well, you can even ask those people to introduce you to others they think you should meet.

6) After the conference, follow up by email.

The result of this strategy should be that most of your introductions will be peer-to-peer "warm" introductions, not out-of-the-blue "cold" introductions. This should make people a bit more willing to chat with you and make you appear to be more of a junior colleague and less of a grad student.

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I would say there is honestly very little to gain by seeking out the very top researchers in your area and manufacturing a reason to talk to them. Why aren't you presenting a paper? That would have been your best way to present your work. Your second best way is to ask them questions about their work; meaningful ones, that show you are familiar with their work, understand it, and are interested in similar problems.

(Be very careful sharing your unpublished ideas with anyone who you don't already have explicit plans to collaborate with. For example, if you have them in written form as part of a postdoc application, that's okay. But I wouldn't explain any details to other researchers unsolicited.)

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    I would qualify the last comment a bit: Definitely don't share your unpublished ideas with anyone who you don't already have explicit plans to collaborate with. --> Be careful about sharing unpublished ideas. If you are looking for a post-doc, mentioning interesting projects can help you connect, but don't lead with "here's a really cool idea that if we don't work together you can steal if you're unethical" -- start with generalities and see where it takes you. – Fred Douglis Jul 2 '17 at 16:03
  • @FredDouglis Absolutely, that comment definitely needs some qualification (I've added some). Even if someone isn't unethical, it can lead to issues if they are already working on similar approaches to the same problems. – Morgan Rodgers Jul 2 '17 at 18:43

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