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An Introvert Walks into a Conference
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Volume 15, Issue 2 (February 2017)

Melissa D. Vaught


“Networking” may be one of the top words that makes early career professionals cringe. But career development articles and seminars hammer at the importance of networking. “Most jobs are found via networks, not job postings,” they preach. “It’s not what you know, but who you know and who knows you. Network, network, network!” As an introvert, though, putting myself out there and trying to meet people for the purpose of finding a job felt inauthentic, daunting and exhausting.


Early on, networking translated to “meet people at conferences” for me. I would set goals to meet a certain number of new people per day—or rather, to collect x business cards for follow-up after the meeting. The abstract objective was that perhaps one of these might transform into a connection for a job someday. I would force myself to go to the mixers. I would try to talk to a professor at the reception. I often dreaded it, but I had to do it. I just thought this was the way “networking” was done.


Reframing Networking


Needless to say, that strategy wasn’t particularly successful. Viewing networking primarily as a means to career advancement was a difficult framework for me. I was focused on what I might be able to get out of the connection, rather than focusing on the person. This forced a selfish nature onto the interaction, which made me feel even more uncomfortable. None of this was conducive for relationship building.


Over time, though, I began to realize that there were other interactions that I enjoyed, such as meeting other students or postdocs, or chatting with someone working in a completely different field. I found that I could carry on extensive conversations via social media with scholars from different institutions, fields, and career stages. Finally, it started coming together. Despite the role networking plays in careers, landing a job was not the goal of networking. It was just one of the possible side effects of networking. Networking was about building relationships.

Reframing networking as “relationship building” enabled me to take a different approach. I didn’t need a specific purpose for an individual I was talking to. I wasn’t initiating a conversation to ask a favor in a week or a month or a year. Instead I could focus on connection and conversation with interesting and thoughtful individuals. I wasn’t worrying about my “hit” rate, the number of business cards I got or the number of replies I received. Like other relationships, some connections remained cursory. Others grew in different ways.


Starting in a Usual Place


Of course, relationships take time to build, and they all start somewhere. Conferences can be as good a place as any for scholars and professionals. They certainly offer opportunities to meet people from different sectors, locations, and perhaps different fields of interest. Conferences can also become intense non-stop affairs: sessions all day, social events all evening and night. Even the hotel room might offer little respite, since often we share a room to keep down costs. It’s important to understand your own social process, strengths, and limits to make the most of the brief time.


I am a confessed introvert. Every Myers-Briggs assessment has placed me solidly as an ‘I’. It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking to other people, quite the contrary. But my preference is to engage with smaller groups, to get past small talk and into deeper, longer conversations. I have to get past the initial anxiety and nerves. Being prepared for an early inevitable question helps. “What do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself” typically follows the exchange of names, yet it’s a question that I’ve stumbled or rambled through many times. I adopted the “elevator pitch” strategy to help me get through those first minutes.


Marquita Qualls, PhD, a career and professional development coach who works with scientists through her company, Entropia Consulting, describes the elevator pitch this way: You have 30 seconds, maybe a minute to communicate who you are and what you want to do. It’s the start of your story. You’re leaving opportunities for others to ask questions. The key is practicing those first remarks, until they flow easily and don’t sound

scripted. It’s a great strategy when you’re trying to make career connections, but it works in other circumstances too.


Social media offers another strategy for conference connections. I use conferences as an opportunity to connect with people I’ve chatted with online, sometimes for years before meeting face-to-face. I’ve found Twitter especially useful. I check the conference hashtag to see who’s tweeting sessions of interest. I can often find individuals tweeting from the same session I’m attending, based on the resemblance to their profile picture or spotting a Twitter client on their laptop screen. It’s an effective icebreaker, because I know we have at least two shared interests: the session topic and Twitter. Plus social media offers a way to continue building relationships long after the conference is over.


Once I’ve identified a connection, it can still be a challenge to find time and space for those deeper conversations. Schedules are quite full, and the social times are often loud and crowded. Sometime I can fold meetings in with other necessities: coffee, dinner, a run. Other times, it’s simply worth skipping a session to get to know someone better, in a quieter setting where I can focus on our conversation. I prioritize sessions. Some will be “can’t miss,” but I don’t set my full schedule in stone.


There’s another important reason I plan for schedule flexibility. Conference days are often intellectually and socially exhausting. Many opportunities for deeper engagement with individuals and small groups fall late in the day or evening. If I feel drained, I may have trouble focusing and engaging. This can trigger a cycle of frustration and self-recrimination for not being present and making the most of this time—which takes me further out of the moment. So sometimes that flexible session in the schedule becomes a time for retreat, a short break to find a quiet corner and be alone for a few moments.


Even though I’m an introvert, there are occasions when I can marathon through the few days of a conference, knowing that I have a social break coming soon. Other times, I need those breaks during the meeting to recharge, so I can go to work building relationships later in the day. My capacity for social endurance is influenced by many things: sleep, stress, nutrition, fitness… I’ve learned to take inventory, assess what I need, and adjust my plans to my capacity.


With some changes in perspective and strategies, this introvert has come to enjoy the process of networking and to realize its many benefits, personally and professionally. I discovered communities of support. I formed friendships. I made connections for informational interviews in career exploration. I’ve been invited to serve on panels, lead sessions, and write for publications. Mentors emerged, and I’ve advised others. The returns have been generous since I realized that networking is about building relationships, and that I can do it in my own way.


Melissa Vaught, PhD, is a scientific editor contracted to the National Institutes of Health (views are personal). You can read more of her musings about life and culture in science and beyond at her blog Ever On and On and on Twitter (@biochembelle).