This is a guest post by Jessica Hartshorn, PhD, who works as forest health specialist at the Minnesota department of natural resources.
Ah, academic conferences. The time has come for frantic presentation editing, hotel practice sessions, and department mixers!
Conferences are a great opportunity to present your research and network with the best in your field. Unfortunately, many graduate students take the opportunity to spend even more time with the other students from their departments and score free drink tickets. (I was guilty of this, too.)
Conferences can, and should, be a place where you add to your reputation and develop name recognition to help you in your job search. The time to start thinking about how you present yourself around your peers and colleagues is now.
There are four things I’ve learned in my transition from graduate student to professional in terms of how I present myself at conferences:
1. Talk about yourself like the professional that you are.
Avoid phrases like “I’m just a student” or “I work under Dr. X”. People have to be able to imagine you as a colleague or a faculty member so talking about yourself like you are a student makes it harder for them to imagine you in a professional position. This means talking about grant ideas or extension projects that you have put some thought into. (This also means you should be putting thought into those things!)
It also means keeping things positive. I hear a lot of grad students talk about all the things that went wrong: “my adviser won’t let me do _______,” “the department head took away our _____.” It may all be true, but focusing on the negative isn’t helpful to you, career-wise.
In all your professional interactions at conferences, take ownership of your project.
2. Go to dinner with people besides the other grad students in your department.
Or sit with someone you don’t know very well.
Symposia and talks are great and they often produce good questions and discussion, but ask any professional or faculty member and they’ll tell you the real work is done over dinner and drinks (alcoholic or otherwise). Before, in between, and after sessions are when people get passionate about their projects and make plans to collaborate. If you don’t feel comfortable asking to tag along or going to a dinner by yourself, bring a trusted colleague, but remember to talk to other folks at the table.
3. Join a committee for your society or organization.
Getting involved on committees is an amazing opportunity that I wish more students sought out. I can’t tell you how many people have recognized my name because I was on a committee in grad school. They’re not usually a massive amount of extra work and you meet a ton of people, including a lot of professionals and faculty members. It gets your name known throughout your scientific community and, better yet, it gets you known as a person who wants to do good things and really cares about your community.
4. Don’t just present your research; moderate or organize a session.
There’s nothing saying you can’t propose a symposium at an upcoming meeting just because you’re a student. Get together with an adviser or another professional in your field and propose a topic. This is a great way to get to know big names in an area that you’re passionate about. It’s also an experience you won’t get any other way, and it will come in handy later in your career. Being able to organize a group of people to make an event happen is a useful professional skill! Doing this as a student is a great learning opportunity.
None of these practices guarantee that you will get the job you desire. However, they will ensure that more people know who you are and they will increase the likelihood that professionals think of you for positions and send them your way. They may also be more inclined to help you with application materials or act as a letter of reference.
I have used these techniques to work for me and have seen them work well for others. At the very least you’re contributing to the society or organization of your peers and giving back is never a bad thing.
Good luck and happy conferencing!