5 step practical guide to survive your first solo-congress

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

A couple of days ago I was talking with one of my colleagues about the last article from Manic Monday's author Chiara Ceriotti where she discusses how to network authentically.

"I think I am very good at networking!", my colleague said.
"Yes, I think so. What's your strategy?", I asked.
"I don't have any strategy, I just bulldoze into people and ask what I need boldly", my colleague replied.

The image of a bulldozer stuck to my mind and I asked myself if it could actually be a networking style. Moreover, I wondered if other styles of networking existed and in what they consisted of. So, I googled it!

It turns out that some experts have come up with different classifications of networking styles. The one I liked the most divides networkers into wallflowers, clingers, pushers, listeners and jesters. What stroked me the most is that there is not such a thing as "the best networking style". There are just different styles, each one with strengths and weaknesses. As you read the definition of each style, you will realize that you and everyone you know fits into one type. And that means that whatever you thought of your networking skills, you already have strengths. For the weaknesses of each style, strategies can be put into place to counterbalance them and make the most out of any networking event.

Many academic researchers are concerned about networking. They situate themselves somewhere between avoiding, not knowing how to, and fearing it. All the others confuse it with after-work BBQs.

But believe me, you will not know what it is to care about and fear networking until you have to go to a congress alone, solo, solito, muy solito!

My first solo-congress was not long ago. I always enjoyed congresses and gave very little thought to how I was going to network in them. After all, my colleagues would be there to give me shelter and psychological comfort in case my networking attempts failed. Indeed, I would situate myself in the networking spectrum somewhere between the listener and the clinger. But when I learned I would go to a congress alone, I started imagining myself in the worst scenarios: having breakfast, lunch and gala dinner alone. Standing in front of my poster and people passing by without even noticing I was there. Thus, I decided to cancel my participation and stay in the lab to work... Of course not! I planned a very detailed strategy that the FBI and CIA would be proud of on how I was going to go alone to that congress and make the most out of it!

I summarise it for you as follows:

1. Know who you are going to network with.

Before going into detail, I want to clarify that there is a clear difference between stalking and doing the intelligence work on potential networking partners. Because every congress organizer provides you with a list of participants and their affiliations and e-mails, whatever research you do about your future congress fellows falls automatically on the second category.

Having acknowledged that, I printed the abstract book and for the first time actually read it months before the congress was happening. I marked all the topics that called my attention, and after a couple of intelligence work sessions, I already knew if the abstract owner was a PhD, postdoc or industry scientist. I knew which university or company they worked for. I had read their bios if available. I had learned what they were interested in scientifically. And I had a vague idea of how they looked like.

I assure you this behavior is not stalky at all. According to Sharon Gillenwater, co-founder of Boardroom Insiders, researching on a potential client is one of the things you must do to prepare a business meeting. She says clients find it refreshing when others show a deep understanding of their interests, their focus, and their challenges.

Indeed, doing my research paid-off well. When I arrived at the airport of the city where the congress was held, I could already recognize a couple of people from my list. As a pro, I approached one of them and said:

"Hello, you are Manuel right? I read your abstract and I am looking forward to learning more about that screening test you are setting up. By the way, I also studied in France".

At this point, two scenarios were possible: A) The person thinks I am a creep for knowing that much about him and leaves. Or, B) The person's face illuminates because someone shows interest in his work and he no longer has to stand awkwardly alone until the shuttle-bus arrives. Guess what happened? Option B!

This is just an example of the various moments in which I used this move. Some people just politely engaged with me and went back to the comfort of their groups, but some others became my congress-buddies and we had a nice time together.

It is also important to consider that congresses last a few days only. Hence, connections, collaborations, and knowledge exchange have to be done quickly. Knowing beforehand who you want to network with is a time-gainer. While unprepared attendees will be just discovering who is there, prepared assistants will directly go into action.

2. Set personal congress-goals and a parallel program.

When I was a child, my mother used to tell me that the best way to stop being worried is to keep yourself occupied. And I knew that being alone in the congress, I would worry at any given chance. Because although I had a plan, I would only discover its efficacy on site.

To fight back my tendency to overthink everything, I designed a personal program that ran parallel and complementarity to that of the congress. More importantly, each item of my personal program was designed to achieve the goals I had set for myself:

Write an overview of the congress.

Congresses are composed like symphonies. The conferences of session 1 are linked to those of session 2, which in turn are connected to session 3. And all of them are crowned by the plenary session. Posters are the eclectic intermezzos that bring a little bit of spice to the whole event. Except, I never managed to grasp the global message of a congress and put it into words. Every time I was asked what I had learned from a congress, only a bunch of scattered pieces of information came out of my mouth.

I was not going to let that happen on my first solo-congress. I took notes of each talk, asked questions during the poster sessions, discussed with my new congress-buddies, read articles, and wrote down my ideas at night. In the end, I managed to put into words what was the global message of the congress. What were the highlights? What challenges in the field were the priority? What were the trendiest techniques to use? What questions caused drama and revolt?

Be the inside-contact for my soon-to-be-doctors colleagues.

What better way to use one's time than helping others? At the time of my solo-congress, three of my colleagues were about to finish their PhDs and hence were in the search of a new scientific family. I forwarded them the program and offered myself to gain some insight into those groups they were interested in. I scheduled this task specifically for the poster sessions that ran in parallel with the wine and cheese hour. Statistically, zero PhD students refused to talk about the ups and downs of their research, future job-openings in their groups, and the leadership style of their bosses over a glass of wine.

In between the writing and interviews, I had no time to worry! Having a clear intention in mind gives you fuel and motivation to network. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of the networking? Finding collaborators? Learning more about the latest techniques in the field? What can you offer them? How can you add value?

3. Bring your whole-self to the congress.

I have always liked clothes, fashion, and matching my shoes and bag according to my outfit. But since I joined science, I left those things for the weekend and holidays. For workdays, I stick to jeans and t-shirts. And for congresses, I just add a vest. The reason behind: comfort. I work with large volumes of culture media and it is often that I pour some on me. Not to mention the sweaters I have ruined when they get attached to the -80°C freezer.

But for my solo-congress, I decided I would wear my weekend clothes and use my favourite handbag. If I was about to die of isolation and networking-phobia, at least I would die in style. Then, three people came to my poster and opened the conversation with: "I love your skirt!" We presented our posters and had coffee-break together.

Turns out that clothes are more powerful than we think. In the podcast episode "The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes" from NPR Invisibilia show, Hanna Rosin and Lulu Miller share 7 stories about how the clothes we wear affect us. One of them features Adam Galinski and Hajo Adam's study, in which the mere act of wearing a doctor's coat made participants perform better on an attention task when compared with participants who wore the same coat but were told it was a painter's coat.

In my case, when I wear my perfectly coordinated clothes, I feel empowered and ready to conquer the universe. According to Dr. Samantha Boarding, clothing can influence your posture, body language, motivation, and even mood. The right outfit can enhance creativity, focus, and negotiation skills. Clothes certainly impact how other people see us but also the way we perceive ourselves.

4. Be the first in line for social events.

This step may sound difficult or even impossible at first. But if you work well on points 1-3, this one comes almost naturally. By the time the first social event happens, you will have already engaged with several people who you can join for the social events. Also, by arriving early to the point of departure, you will get in touch with the jester networkers that will bring you under their wings and introduce you to their congress-buddies. It's a win-win situation!

5. Choose something to look forward to.

Personally, having something to look forward to while passing through a rough moment gives me hope. Before departing for the congress, I had no guarantee on whether my strategy was going to be fruitful or not. It was the first time I was going to put it into practice which made the odds of me ruining my own plan high. I decided I needed to add one extra item at the end of my personal program. After the congress would be over, I would plan a couple of days off to do tourism and I asked my husband to join. Opposite to all the other items of my program, I had complete control over this last one. Whether my networking strategy succeeded or failed, I knew after all I would get to explore a new country holding hands with a person that loves me.

Fortunately, my plan worked out... Even better than I expected. And my after-congress holidays were pure celebration!

While enjoying some well-deserved time off, don't forget to establish "loose touch" with the people you met: connect with them on Linkedin or Research Gate, send them any information you may have promised to share with them, etc.

Final tip: stick to your plan but not too strictly! You may be in the list of "persons to network with" of other participants, so be open and go with the flow.
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