Career Advice

Getting the Most Out of Professional Events

Part 1 of 2
Jessica A. Martin

Editors’ Note: Although it is difficult to predict when in-person events might be hosted again, we decided to run this article now. Assuming face-to-face conferences, meetings, and events will safely resume, you will hear about them in advance, and this may help you maximize your opportunities when the time comes. It also contains information about the virtual meetings that are currently the norm.The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

When I looked for my first job after completing my undergraduate degree in the humanities, I found it challenging to land a position, let alone build a career. This was puzzling. With a summa cum laude bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California San Diego and two years of serving in the Peace Corps on my resume, I thought I looked competitive on paper.

As I wondered what the missing link to career development might be, ironically, my job included supporting professional events. The opportunities I was looking for were right under my nose, and it is tragic to me now how poorly I handled them. What was I missing out on? The opportunities to build my network! Having convinced myself that I was not the person the attendees had all showed up to meet, I stayed in the background at these events and said very little. This was a classic mistake. As we’ve all heard repeatedly, if you wait until you need a network to build one, it is too late.

Upon my return to school for my bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry, I decided to do things differently. From Day One, I hit the ground running to build my network in my new field so I would have one when I needed it. As a graduate student, it might have been tempting to rely passively on the networks and guidance of a PI. Yet even the most engaged and proactive PI cannot replace a wide and varied network of people. Although it might work if a very engaged PI were exceptionally knowledgeable about an individual’s chosen career path, a student’s view of the field—or even a strictly academic one—can remain quite limited. In my experience, although there are a variety of means to build a network in the chemical field, conferences, symposia, and other professional events have proven exceptionally useful over the last eight years.

Below you will find some key networking tips for such events that I learned along my journey as a graduate student and that I wish I had known about and used much earlier.

There are three aspects of the question to consider when you are figuring out how to maximize your attendance at a professional event. First, you have to do some research work to select professional events that are right for you. Second, once you choose an event, you need to plan a strategy beforehand to take advantage of everything it has to offer. Third, after you attend, you will want to maximize the benefits by investing time in following up with your new connections. This last step is the key to building robust professional relationships.

The rest of this article, which is Part 1 of the series, will talk about how to choose the best events for your networking purposes. Part 2 will address planning your meeting strategy and following up with your new contacts.

In considering each of the three major aspects of maximizing attendance at a professional meeting—selection, strategy, and follow-up—it’s important to bear in mind that three concepts always apply to each. Although we are talking about choosing events to attend here, the three following questions can also give you a feel for how the concepts work for event strategy and contact follow-up as well.

  1. What opportunities will this event (or strategy or follow-up plan) provide for building my network?
  2. How will the event’s content (or the results of my strategy or follow-up plan) supplement my education or career knowledge?
  3. How does this event (or strategy or follow-up plan) relate to my personal wishes?

Selecting Professional Events with Networking in Mind

No matter where you are in your education or career, it will serve you well to be proactive about researching events in your field as soon as possible. Please keep in mind that the reason to attend an event and build your network is to plan for your next career step.

1.  What Opportunities Will This Event Provide for Building My Network?

Not all events are the same from a networking standpoint; size and scope matter. Some are small and focused, and if you already have an idea of a subfield you want to enter, attending such an event is a good idea. It will place you in exactly the intellectual environment in which your research can both fit in and stand out. Smaller events allow for more and repeated interactions with others with whom you will want to build meaningful professional connections.

On the other hand, depending on the particular society, even very large events can allow for the same type of close interaction with specialists in your subfield. Pay attention to what the society’s divisions offer at larger events to cater to division members and allow them to get together informally.

Large, multifaceted events also offer unique benefits, especially if you really have no idea what your next step is going to be. They present you with an unparalleled opportunity to explore. To make the most of the opportunity, you will want to read the event literature thoroughly and plan very carefully. Otherwise, you risk being overwhelmed by the event’s sheer size and complexity.

Try very hard to take advantage of any event that is local and inexpensive or free. These can serve as ways to meet people who are otherwise difficult to gain access to. Sometimes it will seem that you are not meeting anyone relevant to your present or future career plans. Nevertheless, the situation gives you an opportunity to present your research and meet interesting people. It’s a small world, and you never really know how things will play out. Besides, there’s no law against making friends who aren’t immediately helpful to your career.

It is worth noting that the current public health crisis has forced many organizers to move their events to online platforms, and this presents a surprising opportunity to expand what qualifies as “local” and “inexpensive.” Now more than ever, it is vital to use social media platforms, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, to follow organizations, universities, and companies in which you are interested and to stay well-informed about the explosion of online events they may participate in.

No matter what type of event you go to, make sure you explore the whole space. Even if you absolutely know what you want to do for your next career step, make events an opportunity to get to know your larger field as well. For example, although you may be absolutely dead set on being a tenured professor at an R1 university, knowing people who work in industrial companies (big and small), nonprofit organizations, policy groups, and the legal or IP (intellectual property) fields will help you understand what is possible in the future. Knowing people in these different areas will also make you a much more useful adviser to a diverse group of early career professionals.

2.  How Will the Event’s Content Supplement My Education or Career Knowledge?

Some of the most valuable offerings at events consist of training sessions and workshops. Events often offer many different types of content addressing technical, transferable, and job-hunting skills. Ask recent graduate students who have now begun their careers and are attending events in the near future whether they will share materials and advertising with you. In this way, you can get a much better idea of the variety of offerings for attendees and plan accordingly for when you go. Some of these workshops may also charge fees in addition to your conference registration to participate—some can be quite steep. If you know well in advance, you can plan for the expense or prevail upon the society, your PI, your department, or your university to pay for the additional training. Here again, due to COVID-19, many such training opportunities have moved to online platforms, some with substantial cost reductions as a result.

Looking ahead to when in-person events resume, remember that they usually offer opportunities to volunteer. In fact, most rely quite heavily on such help. Organizers of different aspects of events are typically professional chemists themselves, spanning the entire field. They look for people they know and trust to assist with these efforts, with the work usually beginning six to eighteen months before the activity takes place. As a student, you will find that this is not only a valuable opportunity to strengthen your transferable skills and expand and deepen your network connections. Typically it also translates into financial support for you to attend the event. Remember that expressing your interest in helping professors in your department with events they organize can reveal opportunities hiding in plain sight. Additionally, offering to volunteer for organizations you would like to work with is a great way to get your foot in the door. If you find yourself speaking with someone connected with your dream career, ask if there is anything you can do to help them.

3.  How Does This Event Relate to My Personal Wishes?

If you have some ideas about what you wish to do next, it can help you narrow down your event choices. For instance, what do you want your next career step to be? If you are interested in going into a particular industry, there may not be much point to attending an event that attracts academics almost exclusively, no matter how well-publicized it is. The reverse is also true. Start thinking early about what your next career move is going to look like. This may change over the course of your graduate career, and that is perfectly fine, but be sure that you are choosing events to attend that speak to who you want to become.

If you know where you would like to live to after you graduate, then look for events taking place in that area. Use them as an opportunity to start gaining local knowledge and making connections there. On the other hand, if you have no clue where you want to live, then in-person events are a great way to check out some new places to see what local lifestyles seem attractive to you. Additionally, it is well worth noting which universities, companies, or organizations are involved in the conference’s planning; attending will probably give you a good opportunity to interact with people who already work for them.

Although gaining new local experiences may feel impossible during the current COVID-19 public health crisis, the transition of so many events to online platforms lowers the cost of attendance and does expand your geographic reach. You may not be able to physically visit a particular city, but the event organizers are still fairly localized and based on previously established professional circles. You may come into contact, even if only virtually, with people or organizations that appeal to you from a career standpoint.

ACS Travel Grants

Although we don’t know how soon traveling to conferences may be a viable option once again, it makes sense to begin thinking ahead. ACS and other conferences offer travel awards. In addition to the obvious benefits, getting one also looks good on your CV!

A great place to start is the Travel, Grants, & Awards section of Opportunities in the ACS Grad and Postdoc Chemist. (When you reach the Opportunities page, click on Travel, Grants, & Awards.)

Specific ACS Travel Awards include: