A student’s guide to networking at professional conferences


Your fisheries professor has probably been looking forward to the Annual AFS meeting with same enthusiasm of a host waiting for party guests… but as a student at your first meeting, you probably feel a child standing in line for their first roller coaster ride.  For students who have not had practice in attending meetings, professional conferences can be intimidating, indeed!

A sea of fisheries professionals, including some of the most renowned scientists in the field, descended upon Kansas City, MO in August 2016.  Hosted by the Missouri Chapter of the AFS, the 146th Annual Conference of the AFS furthered the Society’s mission of “…advancing fisheries and aquatic science and promoting the development of fisheries professionals.”  With four full days’ worth of presentations spread amongst 11 rooms, attendees were able to personalize their schedules to include sessions that were relevant to their research interest, as well as presentations that broadened their understanding of fisheries science.  Additionally, there were plenty of opportunities to let loose, including a social at the nearby Sea Life aquarium, a poster session and tradeshow, a student-only mixer at Kansas City’s bull riding honky-tonk, and the always-popular grand social, which featured a filling meal of ribs, barbeque, and K.C. brisket-burnt-ends.

Graduate students prepare to enter the trade show

This week’s post is to serve as a students’ guide to navigating the metaphorical sea of professionals and networking at professional conferences.  If you continue in fisheries, you will likely continue your involvement in AFS at the state, regional, or parent-society level.  As with so many things in life, the benefits of your enrollment in AFS depends on your participation and the social network that you build within the Society.  Ideally, an integrated member of a professional organization has a diverse network of friends that they can call upon for help solving research problems, potential collaboration opportunities, or leads on finding a job.

 Here are five tips (intended for students, but applicable to everyone) that can help you to become better integrated into the AFS network and actively participate at professional conferences:

Be Prepared. Conferences are fast-paced, so it is often beneficial to create a schedule ahead of time.  Check the meeting agenda and make a list of talks that you find intend to attend.  Since these meetings are held in interesting cities with plenty of places to explore, you should also plan to see local attractions during a time that minimally interferes with other responsibilities.  Occasional breaks from the social and educational atmosphere can be mentally beneficial and can be coupled with brief excursions into the host city or adventures with a few friends.  It is important to have your contact information readily available at these meetings, so you should always keep several business cards on-hand.  The name-tag holder provides a convenient place to stash your business cards, where they also double as a name-tag if your badge is flipped.  Carry a pen and notepad, and keep your cellphone on vibrate.  Coffee is always served during breaks, along with a small selection of snack foods; however, if you prefer caffeinated sodas or a particular snack, you should bring them from home or find somewhere near the meeting venue where you can stock up.  Finally, plan to refrain from working on any non-urgent schoolwork at the meeting and, if you are presenting, finish preparing your slides at home. By being prepared, you can become a fully involved conference participant.

Virginia Tech graduate students mingle with NCSU’s Dr. Kwak at the grand social. (Photo credit: Tom Kwak)

Branch out. The 2016 AFS conference was attended by more than 1,100 attendees, which was a moderate turnout in comparison to previous meetings.  Despite the massive turnouts, students at meetings tend to segregate by current school.  This is a totally understandable phenomenon, as graduate school promotes close friendships among lab-mates.  Leaving one’s comfort-zone is daunting, and many of the other attendees are clustered into similar, seemingly exclusive, groups.  The important thing to remember in this situation is that everyonee is in the same boat, and the facade of exclusivity is actually your own comfort-bubble.  If you are not the most socially confident person, bringing a friend as a wingman can make it easier to break into a foreign bubble.  You will find that people at meetings are very friendly and welcoming, and are likely to share many common interests with you.  You are likely to run into these people at future conferences, which is very rewarding in itself.  Once you begin branching out, it is surprising how quickly your social tree grows.

Present your research. Presenting your research is a great way to connect with others.  A common ice-breaker at these meetings is asking about others’ research.  Use these opportunities to promote your presentation and your research.  By giving a synopsis of your talk to any attendees that you meet, you may find common-ground that leads to conversation; you might even entice them to attend your talk!  Encountering someone who has published research that you intend to cite in your thesis or dissertation, especially someone who is a widely-known expert in the field, is quite daunting for a student.  However, having a presentation to promote offers the perfect opportunity to approach that person and engage them in conversation.  Presenting your research often opens up the opportunity to bounce ideas off other professionals who are currently working, or have previously worked, on similar projects.  Conversely, you should also use this opportunity to view others’ presentation, to stay up-to-date with the latest research, and to approach other speakers with complements, ideas, or conversation.

The author presents a portion of his dissertation research.

Get involved. The AFS offers a number of ways to become involved, including various subsections and committees.  All students are automatically enrolled in the ‘Education Section’ and ‘Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Subsection’.  These sections are relevant to all students, because they involve funding student travel and activities, linking students and student subunits through social media and email, and spreading information about student opportunities.  Similar sections and committees exist for a number of other interests (e.g., .genetics, fish health, and introduced fishes).  Becoming involved in these sections provides a means for you to share your thoughts, make an impact in the club, and expand your professional network.  For most of the sections and subsections, the time commitment is minimal, but there are plenty opportunities for additional participation.  Another way to become involved, which requires no long-term commitment, is by attending AFS sponsored student events at the meeting, which are designed to fast-track students’ networks.  For example, AFS officially promotes student mentoring at meetings by pairing students with professionals that possess much wisdom to share.  Additionally, AFS offers continuing education workshops in conjunction with meetings, which are designed to advance participants’ knowledge of a certain technology and promote communication among individuals using that technology.

Students discuss travel award opportunities at the SYP Subsection meeting.

Keep in touch. Conferences provide a great opportunity to maintain relationships with other fisheries scientists who you don’t get the opportunity to interact with on a regular basis.  If you are a graduate student, you should always be on the lookout for people from your undergraduate classes and the professors that taught them.  Check to see if any of your friends from previous schools or meetings are attending, and make a point to spend time with them.  Also, make it a priority to reconnect with any mentors that you have had along the way, update them on where you are in your career, and thank them for their contributions in getting you there.  If you are on social media (the underlying theme of the 2016 AFS meeting), make a point to follow-up with people after the meeting using those tools.

Hokie alumni pose for a photo with a former professor. (Photo credit: Brendan Runde)

By following these five tips, you will become adept at navigating the social scenes at future AFS meetings.  You are the future of the Society and your integration into the AFS will further its mission and simultaneously provide you with a strong support network.  After your first conference, subsequent conferences become progressively less intimidating.  And, as you grow your professional network, conferences begin to feel more like a celebration.

by Tomas Ivasauskas, guest blogger

Ph.D. Student, North Carolina State University


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