A group of researchers from the University of Melbourne QAECO and CEBRA labs got together and brainstormed ways that networking might be better or worse at traditional vs online conferences. The following is an account of what we spoke about.
Networking is one of those things that we all know we should be doing (but don’t always follow through on). It’s important for spreading the word about your research and for developing collaborations. Networking can also give you access to information about relevant jobs and increase your chances of being chosen for them.
Traditional conferences have a suite of opportunities for a keen networker. At morning/afternoon tea and lunch times scientists roam around, often individually, providing you with an opportunity to waylay them (a task which is made easier if you have seen their talk. “I went to your talk and found your research interesting” is a great ice breaker).
There are also the poster session and conference dinner where your networking ability is enhanced by the ready availability of alcohol. You are most likely to approach senior researchers you particularly admire (and are intimidated by) at these events.
Then there’s twitter. I wont say too much about that because I’m a twitter novice but you can use twitter to find out what people are talking about in other sessions and network via twitter with the researchers who are tweeting the event.
Lastly, there are field trips. I think these are under-appreciated resources for networking, you don’t get to choose exactly who you network with but a) the people on field trips are usually from interstate or overseas – great for expanding your network into other countries–, b) these people are separated from their group of friends and therefore keen to talk to you and c) when the conversation gets awkward (which it always seems to at some point) you can divert it to whatever the field trip is about.
Aside from these networking situations, if you’re really organised and canny you contact people who are attending the conference and organise to meet them face-to-face at morning or afternoon tea and get your network going that way.
Despite all of these great opportunities we don’t always network very much at conferences. Our ability to network at conferences is inhibited by a number of factors including 1) approaching someone you’ve never met is scary –particularly if that person is really successful– and we’re afraid of rejection, 2) it’s hard to find the people you want to talk to at a conference, and 3) we are often surrounded by other members of our lab and tempted to spend most of our time with them.
Online conferences are lacking most of these opportunities, people don’t mill around conveniently at morning and afternoon tea time, there’s no conference dinner and if there is a poster session there is no alcohol provided (on the upside you are able to moderate your level of intoxication for the whole experience to enhance your networking capabilities). You also cant meet up with people face-to-face. Online conferences have different opportunities, some of which have the potential to overcome some of the barriers to networking.
Firstly it’s less scary to talk to someone online than it is in person (this could be because you feel a little more anonymous or because you can plan what you’re going to say before you say it. Also accents and speech impediments are no longer a problem.
Secondly, you aren’t surrounded by members of your lab group or friends who tempt you to spend time socialising with them rather than networking.
There are discussion boards where you can engage with particular researchers whose work you’re interested in and find out who is interested in the same stuff based on the people posting on the discussion boards.
It’s easy to find the people you want to network with (if they gave a talk), you don’t have to search the tea room for them (and you don’t need to be afraid that you’ve forgotten what they look like) because there’s a search function for that.
You can create an online profile which tells people about your research which can be sorted by key words and include links to discussion boards or email addresses. This could make it easier to find and connect with researchers with shared interests than is possible at traditional conferences.
Of course, twitter is just as relevant for online conferences as traditional ones though ‘live tweeting’ takes on a slightly different meaning as talks aren’t presented live
When you compare the networking benefits for traditional and online conferences it seems like we found more positives for traditional conferences than online ones but this is context dependent
Firstly, some people are too uncomfortable at conferences to spend any time networking. These people may do better at online conferences where face-to-face communication is replaced with virtual discussions.
Secondly, at traditional conferences it’s more difficult to talk to the more popular researchers because they always seem to be surrounded by admiring people. In the online world, these people may be responding to more questions than other people but they are never ‘occupied’ in the same way as they can be at traditional conferences.
Thirdly, the opportunities to network at traditional conferences vary depending on the number of attendees. At small conferences you get an opportunity to get to know most of the attendees and networking is relatively easy. Small conferences are also excellent for building collaborations because they’re usually very specific so the people you meet have similar research interests to you. On the other hand, it can be really hard to network at large conferences because of the bewildering number of people. You cant see all the talks so you only know a subset of people and if you want to network with them you have to find them in a huge crowd. Possibly online conferences are more beneficial relative to traditional conferences depending on the number of attendees.
In the next installment I’ll tell you about what we thought about how online and traditional conferences compare when it comes to transferring information (communicating your research and learning about the research of others). For more on the differences between traditional and online conferences see:this introductory post, this post on information transfer, this one on professional development and this one on personal benefits, and this one on additional benefits.