Career Advice

Getting the Most Out of Professional Events

Part 2 of 2
Jessica A. Martin

Editor’s Note: Although it is difficult to predict when in-person events might be hosted again, we decided to run this two-part article now. Assuming face-to-face conferences, meetings, and events will safely resume, we hope these articles will help you maximize your opportunities when the time comes. The views and experiences expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

In Part 1, I discussed the first step to getting the most out of career events, strategizing to select the appropriate ones to attend. In graduate school especially, your time is precious and needs to be maximized when you are preparing for your next career step. In Part 2, I discuss the second and third steps: planning your strategy for the event and following up afterwards. Remember to examine each of these steps from three perspectives: (1) shaping your brand, (2) building your network, and (3) supplementing your education.

Step Two: Planning Your Strategy for the Event

1. Shape Your Brand

First of all, make sure people have a way to contact you. There is no point in sharing your work with others if they cannot get in touch with you afterwards! If you are presenting a poster, put your contact information in a subtle place. If you are giving a talk, put your contact information on your last slide so that it is displayed while you take questions. If you are attending virtual events, update your membership information with any sponsoring organizations.

Business cards need to be thought through carefully right now. As this article is being published, the pandemic is still preventing in-person meetings and networking, but vaccines are being approved and hopes of gathering in person again no longer seem quite so much like science fiction. Although many people would argue that paper business cards are quickly becoming outdated, they still remain a very efficient and personal way of exchanging contact information if you are meeting face-to-face. However, even before the pandemic, digital versions were rapidly taking their place. For attending virtual meetings, digital business cards are very useful.

When you are choosing a digital business card, be sure to look for one that is not biased toward a particular operating system and test-run it on different types of devices to make sure it works before you commit. You also need to think through whether to design your own business cards, rather than relying on those of your university. Although you are training in a program there, you are also an individual who is looking for the next opportunity. You need to figure out how to balance the advantages of being associated with your current program with the benefits of establishing your own, separate identity. Whichever type you choose, I encourage you to focus your business card on yourself: your name, your contact information, your research.

It will help you plan your meeting strategy if you keep your overall purpose in mind. You are attending these events as a professional who is taking the next career step. Although you want to be sure to give credit where it is due, your primary purpose is not to promote your university or your lab group. In this spirit, practice a two- or three-sentence introduction of yourself that leads with a short description of your current project, framed in a way that advertises your interests for the future. Think about whether or not it will be beneficial to include your university or lab group name. Give others space to ask questions about anything you’ve said that interests them.

Whether you are meeting virtually or in person, always make sure you look the part for your next career step. Use visuals both to stand out and to communicate professional interests. Obviously it’s important to project a professional image, but there are ways to stand out within those conventions. For instance, I have a pair of very colorful shoes that have helped people identify me, and chemical safety and green chemistry–branded apparel has started multiple useful conversations. If you are attending a virtual event, make sure such an item is visible in your video feed. Alternatively, if you are able to display a virtual background or put a picture in place of a video feed, use this as an opportunity to show off your professional interests in a similar way.

2. Build Your Network

Intentionally attend talks given by those who can be part of your next career step. Pay attention to which universities or lab groups, companies, or organizations the speakers represent and glean as much as you can about their positions. Also, be sure to take note of the others in the room who are attending the same talks you are. This indication of mutual interest and experience can be used to start conversations later. It can also help you identify those who may be attending talks as a recruitment tactic, which could be useful information.

Additionally, many of an event’s sponsoring or participating organizations have formed groups based on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) support. Joining the groups in which you feel comfortable can go a long way in giving you a sense of belonging. It can also help you tap into pools of wisdom that might not otherwise be readily identifiable.

You might also find it broadens your perspective to attend a few social events for groups outside of your own identity. If you choose to do this, be prepared to listen. If you feel yourself getting strongly defensive or upset, it may be useful to respectfully excuse yourself from the conversation instead of engaging in argument in these spaces. However, if you are able to listen and reflect, you could learn quite a bit and build some valuable relationships you would have otherwise missed out on.

Although events can allow you to reconnect with old friends and colleagues, minimize the amount of time you spend with people you already know. Your goal at these events is to connect with new people to whom you otherwise would not be exposed. Every time you have the opportunity to sit down with others, choose people who do not already know you.

Consider making an extra effort to be open and friendly toward a number of people, not simply the one or two you may feel comfortable with. One value of networking is being able to make connections with others and learn from different perspectives.

You may have an interesting conversation with someone, only to find that the person abruptly ends it to talk to someone else. This may feel like a rejection; however, it is likely the individual is merely trying to maximize networking time.

Remember to think efficiently so that everyone can maximize their time. In an ideal conversation you would share a clear and concise introduction of yourself and your work, eagerly ask others about their work, limit discussion to one or two points of common interest, then close by offering an exchange of contact information. During conversation, always be inviting to others who may be trying to join in. This ensures a natural segue into meeting more new people.

Finally, whenever you collect contact information, immediately make a note about how you met and what you discussed. This will help you remember the person later.

3. Supplement Your Education

Commit to opportunities that strengthen your skills and build your resume. Choose workshops for which there is not an equivalent on your campus. Use your network to determine the highest-value workshops to attend.

Talk to the people you meet about internships, employee recruitment programs, and postdoctoral positions. Many people in senior positions attend conferences in order to recruit. Do not be shy about expressing your interests and asking questions about career and academic opportunities. You may be the person they are looking for.

Introduce yourself to the organizers of the symposium in which you presented your research. Thank them for their hard work and ask them questions to learn more about the sponsoring division or organization. This can serve as another information source for future opportunities in your field

Step Three: Following Up After an Event

This step is the most important part of getting the most out of a career event, yet it is often overlooked. Do not neglect it!

1. Shape Your Brand

Intentionally take stock of the experience: Was this event worth attending? If so, what made it worth it? If not, why not?

Did you just get back from presenting your research, winning an award, attending a workshop, or organizing something at the event? Write it down! When someone asks you for your resume, there is nothing worse than staring at a blank document wondering what on earth you have been doing in graduate school all this time. You should maintain a master document listing all of your accomplishments. Then you can cherry-pick relevant accomplishments to put together a resume at the drop of a hat. Also, update your LinkedIn profile immediately.

2. Build Your Network

Remember all of those strangers you talked to? Connect with each of them on social media. If you are on LinkedIn, use the “Add Note” function to include a quick explanation of how you met.

Did someone express an interest in your latest publication or perhaps discuss work of mutual interest with you? Did you tell someone you would get information about something? Send those e-mails ASAP! Once it is safe to meet in person again, if any of those connections are close by, suggest a meeting for a cup of coffee. Not close geographically, or still social distancing? Suggest a phone call or online meeting to discuss a subject further. Now is when you should spend the time deepening these new connections. Do not put this off! People will forget you; you will forget them. Follow up now. Also, do not be shy about this. These individuals gave you contact information because they expect to be contacted. Be one of the few people they met at the event who actually follows through!

3. Supplement Your Education

Now is the time to plan the next 6 to 12 months of your life.

Remember those workshops you took? What can you implement in your teaching, research, or life today?

How about those internships and employee recruitment programs you learned about? Look up application requirements and deadlines. Ask others in your department what they know about these programs. You might be surprised by who has the experience to help you out. And spread the word. Even if you are not interested, someone else in your department might be.

Going Forward

Attending a career event is hard work if it’s done well! It may not feel like it all the time, but in reality you are very well-supported and highly sought after while you are a student. As an introverted chemist myself, I have found that a thoughtful plan and intentional interactions have enabled me to make the most out of meetings and professional events for my career growth. Got questions? Add me to your network and ask away!