Conference Networking

Early in my graduate student career, I was told by several people that I should go to conferences and talk to professors. If you work in mathematics, you’ve probably heard this piece of advice before, and it’s hard to see how you could damage your career by following it (given reasonable assumptions on your behavior). I encountered two problems:

  1. What sort of talking am I supposed to do with a professor if I don’t know anything?
  2. How do I make my way into one of those small circles of people that inevitably form between talks?

I’ve heard that some advisors actually go to conferences with their students and introduce them to colleagues, and this pretty much solves both problems, but I’d like to focus on the case that this doesn’t happen, since I imagine it will be the norm for a while. This isn’t meant to be a definitive guide, and I’d really appreciate further suggestions and anecdotes.

My basic solution to the first problem was to talk about something other than math, e.g., after some introductory banter ask for funny stories about other mathematicians, or solicit general grad school advice. Unfortunately, this didn’t help with my presumed goal, which was to communicate an impression like, “Scott is a promising student in this field,” so I still felt pressure to perform in a way that was, in retrospect, impossible. I’ve talked to some other mathematicians about this, and I’ve concluded that a pure career focus can be an unhealthy mindset when attending a conference. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to professors, then I don’t think there’s a problem with approaching grad students and just hanging out (you can pick out the grad students, because they’re the ones that look afraid to talk to professors). If you have a good time, then maybe you’ll form a positive mental association to conferences, and if you make friends with grad students in your field, then later conferences will be like reunions. As you get older, some of the grad students might even become professors.

The second problem was not a big deal when I was friends with someone at the conference, since I felt more comfortable barging into a conversation, and I’d often find a circle forming around me. Therefore, one solution is prevent the problem in the first place by getting other people from your school to go to the same conference. This is much easier if you go to a big research school – in some number theory conferences, I felt like I already knew half of the people there, because a large fraction of them had overlapped with me at Berkeley, or given seminars-with-dinner at some time. However, I’ve been in situations where I didn’t know anyone, and without a social group at a conference, the experience could be rather awkward and lonely. I think one way to remedy this is to seek out “conference friends” quickly, before people get into a routine. A conference friend doesn’t need have a whole lot in common with you, but you shouldn’t be afraid of each other, so you should look for people who seem relatively approachable and willing to talk to you. One tactic I’ve heard is to find people who dress like you, e.g., at a similar level of formality. If the conference has a breakfast spread, this is a good time to find a circle, since the groups are often smaller, and the people often aren’t alert enough to engage in intimidating mathematics. I’m told there are some artificial ways of starting a conversation, like awkwardly commenting about the food, then transitioning to an introduction. I’m afraid I haven’t mastered this art yet.

I think I should add a few more tips on talking to professors. If you ask them about their work, you shouldn’t feel bummed if you don’t understand an explanation. In particular, don’t worry too much about looking stupid for interrupting to ask an elementary question. If you wear a name tag, you can avoid the situations where people recognize you but don’t remember your name while they feel like they should. A name tag also provides another opening for conversation about your school or the town it’s in. (If you happen to be a super-famous professor, your name tag might frighten people, so you may want to leave it off.) You should go to informal events, like meals and bars, even if you’re really tired, because that’s where a lot memorable events happen. If you’re far enough along your grad career to have a problem you can talk about, the rules change a bit. You can say things like, “I like your work on xyz. Can I talk to you about my work?” This gives you an opportunity to feel kind of smart, because even experts will probably take some time to process what you say. In this case it really helps to have a big picture view of your project, so you can describe why one would want to do what you’re doing. This is good for multiple reasons, as it is often the answer to the first question people ask, failure to give a clear explanation can be a conversation-killer, and having a coherent view of a research program can help you find your way through your dissertation. If you don’t understand your project well enough to say how it fits into the rest of mathematics, you should probably bug your advisor a bit for answers.

Finally, I’d like to say something about social rules that can make conferences more welcoming places for grad students. Conferences can be punishing experiences for everybody, but I think a little effort can go a long way. The first thing is that informal conversation circles shouldn’t be completely closed off. I think people should be welcomed into a conversation, and even so, I’ve unintentionally engendered cliquish atmospheres in the past. If you’re going out for lunch or dinner, it’s nice to invite people along, even if they’re annoying, and if you end up with a big train of awkward grad students, it’s not the end of the world. I want to emphasize that ditching people is pretty bad form (Prof. H, I haven’t forgotten after all these years…), and so is ignoring students from less famous schools. It’s not necessary to talk to every grad student for a half hour, but making some effort to include everyone in a conversation helps to spread the happiness around. When talking to grad students about their projects, it is often nice to ask if their work is influenced by their advisors’ work. They tend to be relatively familiar with that, and it can be a basis for further conversation.

14 thoughts on “Conference Networking

  1. Nice post! and very practical too :)
    I recall that how awfully stupid I felt when I was having a conversation with some Prof.(at times even postdocs) in a conference.
    Here I was learning things that seemed like second nature to them, that was really frustrating. Also I get the feeling, some people have a special obsession for jargons.
    I have come to think these initial awkward moments as a graduate students, are the initial years in the apprenticeship of a mathmatician, it is all part of the game :)

  2. I’d add: Don’t hesitate to ask other grad students to explain their work at length. It’s good for them, it’s good for you.

  3. Here’s another suggestion which is a step down from actually having your advisor at the conference. Ask your advisor ahead of time who you ought to make a point of talking to…and WHY. This has certainly helped me catch people I might not have thought of myself.

    Also, if you’re attending conferences as a younger grad student, before you have work to discuss, one benefit of getting to know grad students further along is that in a couple years, they’ll be postdocs and hopefully be better connected. And you will already know them, which makes meeting other people easier.

    In my experience, it was really only the first few conferences that were hard, in terms of talking to people. Once you know some people, it’s a lot easier to get introduced to a lot more people.

  4. Having an idea of how to explain to people why your work is interesting is surely important not just for continuing the conversation, but also for securing grants in the future! Also, it’s good to have that kind of perspective on your own work so that you don’t spend ages pursuing some trivial point while ignoring the interesting questions nearby.

    I think I’ve found conference interactions less intimidating, partly because in philosophy, people tend to attend talks that are much farther from their areas of specialization than people in other fields do, so introductory explanatory questions are much more expected in informal conversation. But still, finding conference friends in my first couple conferences was definitely a big help, because it gave me people my own age to talk to while meeting people from other departments and getting more of the benefits of being at a conference, rather than back home. Also, if you make some friends who are grad students at other universities, then at some point they may invite you along as they head out to dinner with their advisor, or some other professor from their department, and it can be much less intimidating to meet a professor in the context of their students, than just trying to start up an intellectual discussion with them between talks.

  5. The feeling like you are a dummy with nothing interesting to say does not go away when one is a more senior mathematician. Math conferences can be awkward anyway. The typical questions, “where are you from?” “What are you working on?” “Isn’t that where Joan Superalgebra is from?” help a little.

    It is not so terrible to ask a senior person what they are working on, but don’t do so right after senior professor gave her talk. Do so before, and get the warm-up talk.

    Pretty much, we all are novices in anything other than that which we are working, unless you happen to have a super memory of everything that you should have learned in grad school. Don’t be afraid to ask for more details. People love talking about their work. But also don’t push the envelope trying to get every detail worked out.

    Take notes, and try to work something out before resuming the conversation. If someone tells you a general theory, ask for an example. If someone gives an example that you understand, ask for the theory. If they give a one line example — 2×2 complex matrices of determinant 1 — then work out as much as you can that night to be able to ask the question again in the morning.

  6. Sheesh. Forget this outdated 20th century boys’ club phenomenon. Get with reality. I’ve had more ‘small group conversations’ in the last two months than the previous 20 years, and that’s because of a job I got through blogging. So there.

  7. A friend of mine, a rising sophomore at MIT like me, is going to a conference this summer. Is it “never too early,” or are there disadvantages to going to conferences as an undergraduate?

  8. Qiaochu — I think it’s great for undergrads to go to conferences in an area they have some background in (say one or two upper-level classes in the material or an ongoing/previous research project). I went to several (local) conferences when I was an undergrad at MIT, and thought they were a lot of fun because they gave me a better idea of what kinds of questions people were working on in my field (geometric topology). Moreover, I found that the professors I knew were very friendly to me, because I was so much younger than everyone else there.

    If I were the undergrad, I would try to hook up with some grad students and professors from MIT who are also going to the conference and try to ask them to introduce them to others. The other piece of advice I’d give is about listening to talks: don’t expect to understand everything, but do try to pay attention. For this, I particularly like Ravi Vakil’s advice, the section called “on seminars”.

  9. Kea,
    I don’t understand what you’re saying. Are you suggesting that mathematicians should stop attending conferences because conferences are an instrument of the patriarchy? I’m not prepared to debate that particular point, but I think for the near future, conferences will be useful venues for mathematicians to meet people and learn about new ideas.

    It’s great that you got a job through blogging, but I think the opportunities for that are still rather few. I think at this point it would be counterproductive for a student to completely reject normal career channels in favor of blogging wholesale.

  10. At conferences people tend to want to hang out with people they already know. This makes ones first few conferences a bit tricky unless you’re there with a pack of other grad students from your school. On the other hand, the bar for “people they already know” is pretty low. In particular, if you meet someone briefly at another conference you might not have a very long or productive interaction, but then at the next conference you’ll know each other and are more likely to hang out.

  11. Kea, Scott,

    The matriarchy makes use of the same instruments as well. Sure, the matriarchy may not exist in this field, but to say that the establishment of cliques is peculiar to male-dominated communities is really to disregard the nature of how people network with each other.

    On a more general note, blogs and conferences are just two different tools of achieving the same thing: getting in touch with people who are doing similar research to you. There are also small-group conversations going on in this blog and others, and I may just be a bit argy-bargy with my posting of this comment here, but perhaps the blog owners would be kind enough to let me into this conversation. Hopefully, they would, because I may have something to contribute to this conversation.

    That is, essentially, how people get into conversations on blogs and in conferences: they find something in common to talk about. It can be hard, especially in mathematics, to find this common ground, which can be quite discouraging for younger grad students and researchers. Still, it’s not impossible: try to figure out who the participants are (most conferences have publicity material for this), research their interests (arguably, blogs distribute this information better) and find the intersection between that and your interests. It just means that you need to be interested in other people and do your homework. Yes, it is hard work. Yes, not many people manage to finish that work. Get what you can get, though, and work with it.

    Of course, real life does intrude a lot of times: people aren’t always nice (enough), and you can’t always go to the conferences you want, especially if you’re geographically isolated or strapped of travel funds (yes, these things happen in the world). For the latter, blogs will help, as Kea has found out. If you meet the former situation, one solution is to just leave and find another conversation partner(s). Most likely, however harsh this might sound, they are not of much use to you now anyway — never mind if they may be leaders in your area. So take note of whatever information you’ve been given, thank them nicely for their time, and move on to the next and, hopefully, more productive conversation partner.

    You never know, you could meet those “un-nice” people again, at another conference, and two things could happen: they have a mood change for the better, or you have something new to say that may interest them. Like Noah and others have said, your network of conference friends is likely to grow through meeting people from previous conferences.

    (Full disclosure: I am going for a major mathematics conference in a rather geographically isolated region of the world and have been reading up ideas on how to network.)

  12. I saw this after slinking off to my room for a break in the middle of a conference that I am currently attending. After this little pep-talk I’m heading back out to meet people dammit!

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