An introvert learns to speak
I have to confess, for a long time I used to be really bad at networking. I would turn up to work functions and feel like a fish out of water and completely out of my depth. Before my life as a PhD student, I used to work for a recruitment company. This is an environment that demands you talk to people and, if need be, initiate conversations. As a born introvert it was a real struggle for me. I particularly remember one work function – informal drinks after work. I used to avoid these like the plague that I thought they were, sit at my desk and then slip out hoping that no one would notice. One of my fears that drove this was that I thought I had nothing of value to contribute to anyone’s conversations. Then it dawned on me that I can’t keep functioning like this and I was going to embrace a new way of interacting with people, by actually interacting with people. I would move towards a group that had one person that I knew and then listen for a few moments and then make a statement whenever I could. I can’t say that I became an extrovert over night, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.
Say it and mean it
So when I went to my first conference I attempted to put this into practice. In some ways I felt that I was back at that work function; unfamiliar surroundings and smart people talking about topics that I didn’t know much about. Initially I gravitated towards people that I already knew, but then I realised that I couldn’t spend five days doing this. So, once again I ventured out and opened my mouth. To my surprise, these people were not as scary as I imagined them to be. They were genuinely interested in my research interests and this was encouraging. The key to keep the conversation going is to then listen intently to the other person or people in the group and then think about how it relates to your own work. I’m sure we have all been in conversations where it has largely been one-sided, and it doesn’t take long before you switch off. Engaging in conversations at conferences is no different, but could potentially have bigger consequences, because to some degree they are all your peers or senior colleagues. It also helps to take notes during presentations, either physical or mental, and then you can refer to these in later conversations. It is in situations like these that future collaborations can take root, or you may simply need to ask that person’s advice for a current research project. The next time you are at a conference, take courage and start the conversation because you just don’t know how it might pay off for you. If nothing else, it will make your more confident when you eventually come face to face with your academic hero.