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Build Your Professional Image When You Attend a Conference

(Part 1)

Do you want to be remembered

  • •    with a chuckle – as that goofy guy who criticized the main speaker’s research design – while standing next to her?
  • •    with a questioning frown – as the shadow-woman who walked behind her advisor and was never seen to say a word to anyone?
  • •    with a frown – as the arrogant fool who endlessly told everyone what he was researching – but never even asked anyone else’s name?

Attending conferences while you’re in grad school can be seen as a waste of time or as an overdue reward for the hours of partying you gave up to study. But other conference participants (including those who may be able to hire you in a year or two) will form an opinion of you no matter what.

A little awareness can not only save you grief later, it can give you a head start on the right kind of visibility and credibility that upholds and extends your developing professional image.

Naturally, your goal will be somewhat different if you’re a recent grad student vs. ready to graduate. In either case, you are training to be a professional. Act the part, even if you have to pretend.

1. Decide what you want to know and accomplish before you go – and you’ll accomplish more.

Before you leave for the conference, especially if you’re new to the field, get an overview of who’s doing what and where they are. Know the names (and faces) you should recognize before you find yourself criticizing the work of a person – who you later find was standing next to you.

2. Get involved – and you’ll be remembered.

Especially if you’re not presenting a talk or poster session, volunteer to help.
(If you’re tight on funding, volunteer to the organizers several months ahead. You may be able to negotiate a discounted registration fee.)

Or, volunteer to help at the registration desk or in one of the hospitality suites a few hours before things get started, or when it’s really busy.

If the conference is in your home city, offer to staff an information booth at registration and help with directions and things for visitors to do/see while in town.

At the very least, take an ownership attitude and initiate conversations and introduce people who seem not to know each other.

A friend of mine says she looks for people who stand quietly in the background at receptions. She introduces herself and asks them what interesting things they’ve been doing. Several years ago, she met a guy who had been in a meeting with the President (of the United States) the previous week.

3. Schedule your conference time for maximum efficiency.

Review the conference program as soon as you get it and make yourself a schedule of where you want to be every hour – the important talks, your “free” time and who you want to connect with, including the receptions and parties where you can mingle informally with the “names” in the field.

4. Take business cards so you can present yourself as a professional.

Having business cards does not mean that you’ll be passing them out like a sales rep.

The real goal is to make it easy to be found later – and to avoid having to tear scraps of paper off your note pad to write your contact information when someone wants to stay in touch with you. You are training to be a professional – why not act like one?

5. Prime your mentor or advisor to introduce you.

You need to become known in the field, and even though you are you are still your advisor’s potential product at this point, you can ride that reputation until you are able to produce your own. Decide who you need to know, and who needs to know you.

Consider who is doing the work that’s most interesting to you, or related to yours, and either get introduced, or introduce yourself. This is especially important when you’re presenting posters and papers.

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