Friday, May 13, 2016

Networking Tips for Younger PhD Students

This post was a collaboration with Nadia Polikarpova and Shachar Itzhaky, done while we were supposed to be collaborating on other things.

A younger student in the group where I did my PhD is going to his first conference next week and my advisor sent him my way for advice. Nadia, Shachar, and I had already been discussing research (and attending a BBQ) for hours at this point, so we welcomed the opportunity to discuss something else. Here's what we came up with.
  • Be prepared to show off your research. A main goal of attending a conference is to get your name out there, associated with good work. At a conference, you'll be lucky to get more than five minutes in with someone, especially somebody established. It would serve you well to prepare a succinct, memorable elevator pitch for your work. If you have a demo, it doesn't hurt to have that ready in case someone wants to see. Bonus: if you can tailor your pitch based on the interests of who you're talking to, they'll like it more.
  • Make your networking bingo sheet--and play it. Make a list of people who you'd like to talk to: people about whose work you have questions, people whose work you cite/whose papers your read, people you'd like to tell about your work, and people whose work you admire in general. You may want to consult your advisor and/or collaborators for a good list. Having a list helps keep you on track for making the most of your time at the conference. I also like feeling like I'm on a mission.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for introductions. While most people in my community (programming languages) are pretty friendly, it can often be easier to talk to someone if you get introduced. Don't be afraid to ask people if they are able to introduce you to someone on your bingo sheet.
  • Don't sit with the same people twice. This is a conference, not vacation with your best friends. My former advisor Saman Amarasinghe liked to tell his PhD students to split up at all meals so they can meet new people. It's fine to have a friend you go around the conference with, but make sure you're talking to new people during each break and meal.
  • Prepare questions and talking points. When I was a first-year PhD student attending my first POPL, my friend Luke and I were so excited to see Xavier Leroy, one of our research heroes, standing by himself during the break that we ran up to him and introduced ourselves. As we had no further game plan, we answered the questions he asked us about who we were and then we ran away. At the next conference, PLDI, I was determined to do better. I asked his student, Jean-Baptiste, if I could have lunch with them on one of the days. I figured that since Jean-Baptiste was my friend, Xavier could become my friend by transitivity. The conference flew by and we ran out of lunches, but Jean-Baptiste said I was welcome to walk with them while Xavier fetched his suitcase and walked to get a cab. Again, I was very excited, but again, I had nothing to say and the conversation more or less consisted of me answering questions that Xavier politely asked me. Ever since, I've always made sure to prepare a couple of questions and/or talking points if I really want to talk to someone. It also doesn't hurt to prepare a couple of general stories/talking points to break the ice when you sit at that lunch table full of people you don't know.
  • Listen more than you talk. It is well known that Level 1 networking for graduate students involves ambushing innocent passers-by with a well-rehearsed elevator pitch. While this more or less does the job, there are greater heights to aspire to. The next level involves listening to and interacting with the other person. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie talks about how much more people like you if you let them talk first and figure out what they want to talk about. This is also true in research settings. I, for one, tend to be much more impressed with someone if they can ask insightful questions/offer useful suggestions about my work than if they simply presented to me interesting ideas about their own work.
  • Dress appropriately. Dressing appropriately increases one's efficacy in all situations and conferences are no different. Your main fashion goals at a conference are 1) not to stand out too much, 2) to be sufficiently mobile to move between groups and between the conference venue and evening activities, and 3) to be sufficiently comfortable that you can last from the morning until late at night. For 2), make sure your backpack isn't too big and you don't have too much stuff but have your jacket/comfortable shoes if you're going to head out with a group for dinner and/or drinks.
  • Carry a notebook. If you're doing it right, you'll be having lots of conversations. It will be useful to write down things you learn and things to follow up on. Notebooks are also useful for drawing figures to describe your research.
  • Always wear your nametag. People are going to remember who you are a lot better if they see your name every time they look at you.
  • Mind your manners. You want people to remember you for your research without being distracted by poor manners. It's a good idea to be careful not to interrupt people and not to make a mess when you eat. I also try not to make too big of a deal out of my dietary restrictions when we're making decisions about where to eat. It makes it a lot easier, especially in large groups, if you try to be agreeable and go with the flow.
Finally, have fun. Conferences have helped me solidify friendships with many people in my research area. Especially as you spend more time in a community, conferences can become more like a family reunion than a serious networking event with faceless paper authors.

As always, let us know if you have other tips!


rgrig said...

On the rare :( occasions when I do prepare, I do so by reading all the abstracts, about 10 introductions, and about 5 papers. Then, whether I want it or not, I'll have plenty of questions, about stuff I didn't understand.

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