Here’s my confession: I am absolutely awful at networking but I somehow seem to know quite a lot of people in academia. I hate everything that is implied in the word and imagine someone filling out a bingo card of every influential person they have to speak to before setting out determined to press a clammy hand on each. They have a conference wardrobe, possibly embossed business cards and manage to get their recent publication history into a short chat. I, on the other hand, will gesticulate wildly telling a terrible anecdote and knock a vol-au-vent into the Keynote speaker’s wine.*
Now, there are many reasons you might not think of yourself as the networking type. There is nothing wrong with any of these: don’t let anyone EVER tell you there is one way to be an academic. You might be a more reserved, introverted kind of person. You might have some social anxiety issues, diagnosed or not. You might have received unwelcome sexual advances at the last event. I can’t promise that I will be able to cure you of what’s behind your hatred of networking, but I can hopefully offer some tips might help, even if your heel snaps during your paper*.
– Scope out the event and venue. Firstly, most conferences have a social media presence, possibly a dedicated twitter account, but at least a hashtag. Interact with it, and possibly say ‘Hi’ to a few fellow attendees online, this will mean you at least know a few people virtually before you attend. Secondly, I know we’re all busy, but it’s often good to check out exactly where the venue is, from public transport to how you get back to your accommodation. For me, this helps with making sure I’m not massively rushed and flustered on arrival.
– Don’t join the queue to speak to the big fish. Rather than aiming to speak to the most garlanded person in the room, have chats with everyone. For me, building a solid peer group of lovely people who are at my level has been absolutely fantastic and as we progress through our careers, seeing people at conferences is a lovely reminder that lifelong friends can be made at academic events. That PhD student could be the next big thing in the field, but mostly you should talk to them because they are another human being, who might be having exactly the same issues that you are.
– Be in dialogue. Academics really love talking about their work, so if you are being socially anxious, it can be good to focus on the other person and their work as much as possible, until you get one of those sausages on a stick to calm yourself (just don’t jab it in your forehead*). I can’t count the amount of times when I’ve had an interaction with someone and they’ve hardly drew breath to ask about me and my work: don’t be that person.
Being surrounded by interesting people who like the same things we do is a perk of the job, but we are regularly plunged into social situations that can feel massively unnatural. These events are often hierarchical and formal, but are always difficult to navigate for the uninitiated. I didn’t sleep the night before my first one, worrying that I might be ‘shot down in flames’ when, in reality, it was friendly, productive and resulted in my first publication. Approach all interactions with the attitude of ‘you never know where a conversation might lead’ and hopefully they’ll get a bit easier.
If you see me at one, we can keep the conversation on the semiotics of Beyonce, who was the best ever contestant on Drag Race and why conference coffee smells like Sugar Puffs.
* Actually happened. To me.