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How to Work a Meeting

(Kelly Krause, AAAS)

If you are a postdoc or graduate student, you are aware of lots of scientific meetings you could attend. You've gotten e-mail solicitations about events and seen announcements on the Web or in print journals. Perhaps you've been invited to present a poster or give a talk.

If you had the budget and the time, you could spend almost all your time on the road. There are meetings on every scientific topic under the sun and a great deal of duplication. (There are also quite a few bogus-sounding meetings, many in exotic-sounding places, that seem to exist only to make a profit. Watch out for those.)

From a career standpoint, what's the point of attending a scientific meeting? It's to expand your list of contacts and open your world to the wonderful serendipity that occurs in the lives of the well networked.

I go to a lot of conferences—a couple every month. Even so, for me the challenge is to decide which meetings to go to, to figure out which ones are likely to offer the most professional benefit. I would go to more if I could, but I still need to find the time to get my actual recruiting work done.

For scientists, there's nothing wrong with focusing on the science at scientific meetings. But if you're on the job market, or expect to be soon, you need to be aware of the other opportunities these meetings offer. Go, present your work, and learn what other scientists are doing. But while you're there, be sure to meet some people and cultivate connections.

Recruiters go to meetings mainly to meet people and make connections; for us, meetings are primarily about employment and secondarily about science. That puts us in a great position to offer advice to job-seeking scientists.

For this month's column, I have gathered tips both from headhunters like me and from scientists who've enjoyed success at conferences while on the job market.

Choosing a meeting

Here's my first piece of meeting-related advice: Meetings should be the centerpiece of your networking campaign. They're the best way to meet and get to know potential employers, and they can open your eyes to employment scenarios that you otherwise might not even consider. So, as you plan your job-hunting strategy, keep a prominent place for scientific meetings. And for each meeting you decide to attend, as you put together your poster or your PowerPoint presentation take the time to do some career-related planning.

The first thing you need to decide is which meeting you should attend. Of course, you're mainly there because of your science, so that may dictate which meeting you attend. Fine: If your disciplinary colleagues and collaborators are all presenting there, it's probably a good choice. Otherwise, figure out who is presenting and what companies will have a presence there. Tap into your social networks to find out who plans to attend. It's people who make meetings important, and this is especially true during a job search.

Different kinds of meetings have different advantages. First, there are the high-end niche meetings. Often such meetings are expensive, and some are invitation-only. Still, others require you to apply and you may or may not get in. Just by being at a meeting like this, you're likely to be perceived as an insider, as someone who has made the cut. The intimacy of these meetings means you can get to know, up close and personal, some of the most important people in your field.

And then there are the local meetings, often regional or citywide meetings of larger societies. These meetings are usually inexpensive, but they can still have great value, especially for those seeking work close to home.

Finally, there are the giant mega-meetings with national or international scope and tens of thousands of attendees. The Society for Neuroscience, Pittcon (The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy), and the BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) International Convention are examples of this kind of event—and the word "event" really does describe them. If you haven't yet attended a giant conference with an exhibit hall the size of two football fields, filled with the latest scientific apparatus, I can guarantee you'll have a blast.

Here are four filters to use when deciding whether to attend a conference:

Relevance of the topic to your current work and future goals. If you have the option, choose a meeting in your current or future field with a broad range of attendees, including people from industry and government.

The quality of the speakers. The quality of the speakers determines the quality of the audience, which determines the quality of the networking opportunity.

Visibility. While you can make a ton of contacts at a big meeting if you do it right, you'll be more visible at a smaller meeting. An opportunity to present at a more intimate meeting is often very meaningful.

Can you afford it? If the price is high and your adviser balks on covering the costs, be creative. At a big meeting, you can skip the presentations and get an inexpensive "exhibits only" badge. Ask the organizers if they need volunteers to work the social events desk or help attendees with their projection equipment. Many meetings have reduced rates for students, and some even have awards to cover the cost of meeting-related travel.

Getting the most out of a conference

From a career standpoint, what's the point of attending a scientific meeting? It's to expand your list of contacts and open your world to the wonderful serendipity that occurs in the lives of the well networked. The job, then, is to make contact with as many interesting people as you can, whether fellow scientists at poster sessions or applications managers on the exhibit floor. My thanks to recruiters Stewart Baker, Heinrich "Heiri" Gugger, Jim Longnecker, John Reasner, and David Turner—and also to various Science Careers forum posters—for the following tips.

Before you go:

• Figure out who will be attending the meeting, and learn as much as you can about the people you plan to meet. Chase down attendee lists and do research on the Web and LinkedIn. If a company you'd like to work for will be exhibiting—or, better, if scientists from that company will be presenting—learn as much as you can about them ahead of time.

• Plan your introductions. Know what you are going to say when you meet the people you've identified. (Two words: elevator speech.) Prepare a few "off the cuff" questions for each of them, about their business, their talk, or their career. People remember a good question more than a litany of achievements.

• Take your business cards along (and if you don't have business cards, get them). If you offer business cards, you will get business cards in return. Whether you connect later on LinkedIn or in a personalized follow-up e-mail, the contact information on those cards will be important later.

During the event:

• Don't just target senior staff; contacts just 2 or 3 years ahead of you can be especially valuable. Even contacts at your level can be useful.Visit the booths of companies you've identified, and learn as much as possible about the companies and the people in the booth.

• You want the staffers in the booth to remember you after the meeting (for good reasons). Don't forget the lab-equipment suppliers; engage them and express interest; they are only one connection removed from their friend or customer who runs the analytical chemistry lab at Regeneron.

• Consider your CV privileged information and share it only when you know it will be read and have impact. Focus first on conversation; your CV is for follow-through.

• Keep your list of people you want to meet in your pocket. Refer to it regularly throughout the meeting so that those names are ingrained and you'll recognize them on badges.

• Consider teaming up with a colleague to work the meeting. Perhaps your friend excels in striking up conversations with strangers and can then make introductions. Return all favors, either now or later.

• Wear your badge visibly (i.e. not on a long lanyard), so people can learn your name without staring at your belly button.

• Avoid long swag-gathering sessions (pens, bags, T-shirts); invest that time instead in making new connections.

• Ask every person you meet for the names of two or three  good contacts inside their company, in your area of interest.

• At some conferences, the best parts for jobseekers are the mixers, coffee breaks, receptions, lunches, and dinners—that is, the parts beyond the scientific sessions. An informal cup of coffee or a beer together can be even better.

• If you are in a classroom-style meeting hall, make sure you introduce yourself to the people on either side of you.

When you get home

Follow up with the people you met using the information on those business cards. Send along a cover letter and a CV to those you discussed career issues with. If you discussed a scientific topic, send along a paper of interest, perhaps something you mentioned during the conversation. Send LinkedIn invites to all, and be prepared to develop some of those new contacts into informational interviews and referrals. Welcome to the big leagues of networking!

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