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How to Work a Scientific Conference

Graduate school does not formally prepare postdocs for the political battleground ahead in the academic trenches. And drilled into postdocs' minds is the primary need to "do good science and publish, publish, publish," recounts Peter Okkema, an assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

But what about networking? In today's academic environment, politics plays an important role in success. So postdocs not only need to work hard, but they also need to network. "It is never too early to begin to build a reputation as a smart, collaborative, interactive scientist," advises Bill Dietrich, an assistant professor in the department of genetics at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

How exactly, then, should a postdoc "manage" a scientific conference? To the scientific community, conferences fulfill multiple purposes: They provide a common stomping ground to establish or maintain a "presence," build relationships, and, well, schmooze. Hence, postdocs, a.k.a. the faculty and industry researchers of tomorrow, feel the pressure to maximize both their scientific and professional connections at these scientific love-fests.

Some words of advice from current postdocs: "The first goal is to cultivate relationships with other scientists. The second goal is to present your research in a way that illustrates your competence," says Jennifer Weck, a postdoc in the department of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology at Northwestern University.

And according to Andrea Duina, one goal can lead to the other: "It is especially helpful if a postdoc presents data at a meeting, in either an oral or poster presentation format, so that a large number of people can become familiar with his/her research." Duina, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at Harvard, adds that these presentations are an excellent way to start conversations with future colleagues: "People are usually very receptive and enjoy sharing what they know."

Subtlety doesn't necessarily disappear during a hard-and-fast meeting. "I usually try to talk to people at their poster. Then, it isn't as obvious that I am trying to 'network,' " sharesLeo Pallanck, an assistant professor in the department of genetics at the University of Washington, Seattle. This can create pressure for a postdoc or grad student during an oral or poster presentation, but Duina claims that some of this energy can be saved for meeting new colleagues: "I think it is a well-known fact that usually one gets different kinds of information out of talking to people in an informal setting, i.e., over lunch or dinner, than while attending talks or surfing the poster exhibits."

Weck, who says she is "always going to talks, poster sessions, and meeting people," adds that "conferences are a rare opportunity to make a name for yourself among a variety of people with whom you don't normally come into contact." And it is impossible to predict what an unexpected source of information, collaboration, or job possibilities might produce, so Dietrich advises "being as broad as possible in your interactions."

What if Joe Postdoc is a brilliant, aspiring faculty member but is also a little shy? Dietrich provides some big-picture advice: "If you engage in honest, forthright, and interested interactions with other people, this will set off a chain of events that may very well lead to good things coming your way, even from unexpected quarters. Scientists talk a lot about other scientists!" If you feel very shy, your adviser may be able to help. "It is also an advantage if the postdoc can occasionally tag along with the adviser at a scientific conference and possibly be introduced to some bigwigs in the field," adds Katherine Mould, a postdoc in the department of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology at Northwestern University.

There is also an advantage to attending the right kind of meeting. Pallanck is in favor of "small specific meetings, such as the Gordon conference, which are good for postdocs and faculty, because they can really get to know people in the field." Dietrich, also a conference veteran, found that he "really enjoyed small, focused meetings," because it allowed him to speak "with nearly everyone." In preparation, Okkema advises that if you are hoping to speak to a potential employer or collaborator at a conference, "send an e-mail before to try to set up a time to meet." This can take some of the awkwardness out of trying to spot the person in a reception and starting a conversation.

Weck explains that she prepares by keeping her ear to the ground. "I keep in touch with colleagues from the past who are now department heads, drug development project heads, and tenured faculty members. I want them to know what I'm doing, know that I'm doing well, and advise me as to the best way to get a job."

Finally, because there are far more postdocs becoming career postdocs than tenure-track professors, some say that rungs on the academic ladder are more likely to be awarded to colleagues who build the appearance of being the most collegiate. "I'd have to say knowledge of politics, communication and mediation skills, and a positive presentation of self all are necessary for academic success," says Weck. Okkema concurs. "You have to be perceived as a good colleague."

"Every day, by the way you conduct yourself professionally, you are promoting yourself," observes Dietrich. "You could, by some act of professional courtesy or by an insightful comment at a seminar, catch the eye of another person who has knowledge of a job opening and may, in a casual way, make your existence known to that search committee." He warns in turn that "by the same token, rude behavior is similarly noted and may deny you the opportunities that you crave."

So your adviser's drill--publish, publish, publish--still holds true. But when you have an opportunity at a scientific gathering, network as if your career counted on it ... because it does.

Paul Recchia is a free-lance science writer who specializes in biochemistry, neurology, radiology, cardiology, and urology.