Getting the most from conferences as an introvert

Elizabeth Stivison
March 8, 2024

When I went to my first scientific conference in grad school, I didn’t have a single meal there for the whole five days. As a person who is both shy and introverted, I walked into the dining hall for dinner the first day, glanced briefly around the room at the buffet line, tables and crowds of people, and immediately turned around to buy my own dinner in downtown Santa Fe. While that did allow me to eat some delicious sopapillas with honey butter, it definitely didn’t help me get to know people in my field. I’ve also been known to abruptly sign out of Zoom conferences when the words “breakout rooms” are uttered.

It can be hard to know how to make the best of conferences if you’re shy, socially anxious, introverted or just not a super social person. So much of the benefit of conferences is the chance to network and get to know your fellow scientists, and so much of science is collaborative and relies on having good relationships with those fellow scientists. However, the environment of a conference can be overwhelming, overstimulating or nerve-racking, which can make it hard to really take advantage of the chance to get to know people in your field. What are the more shy or introverted among us supposed to do?

There are several ways to make good use of conferences even if milling around and chatting to random strangers isn’t your cup of tea.

Here I’ll break the approaches into two categories:

  1. Ways to make unstructured socializing (eg., happy hours, meal times, coffee breaks) manageable

  2. Ways to make the conference worthwhile without much unstructured socializing

Making unstructured socializing manageable

Make it structured for yourself by inventing secret games. Make up rules for yourself, such as “Talk to someone who ______” Insert any category you like. Someone whose name tag is hidden, someone who is standing alone, someone who has an institution you never heard of on their tag, someone without a cup of coffee in hand. And so on. Maybe even make a goal to talk to someone wearing an article of clothing for every color of the rainbow. Then you can walk around with the mission of finding someone wearing orange, or someone wearing purple, instead of walking aimlessly.

Remind yourself that people are probably happy to get to know someone new. Translation: You can ask to sit down at a table or couch that is already occupied and join the conversation. Others are networking too, and they can network with you!

Come up ahead of time with ways to start and end a conversation. Starting with an easy question such as “Have you tried the cookies over there yet?” or “Have you been to this conference before?” usually works well. Here are some good tips from the University of Illinois for entering and leaving conversations, including exit lines such as “Thanks for talking with me. I hope we can talk more later.” Another example: “I’ve enjoyed talking with you, but I don’t want to take up any more of your time.”

Take notes on questions during talks and ask them in person. If you’re enjoying a talk and want to get to know the speaker, think about questions you might want to ask or about parts of their research you’d like to learn more about. Then during happy hour or coffee break, you can find them and ask your question. And don’t underestimate “I enjoyed your talk today” as an opener. Even the best and most experienced speakers like to hear that.

Remind yourself that you can leave at any time and come back later. Socializing is not all or nothing. Leaving doesn’t mean you’ve lost all your chances to get to know people. If you're really drained, you can walk outside, take a break and come back a little later.

Making the conference worthwhile without unstructured socializing

Every now and then, you might find yourself in a situation where none of the above strategies is helpful and meals and happy hours seem impossible. How can you still make the most of conferences?

Look for structured and targeted events on the schedule. Maybe there’s a panel discussion about something you’re interested in or a career fair where you can meet people in a small-talk-free way.

Present a poster or attend a poster session. Similar to other structured events above, a poster session is a way to talk with people without having to engage in small talk. Having the poster to explain or look at can be a good base.

Look for roles you can take on as a volunteer. Many conferences need volunteer (or sometimes even paid) help to set up posters, arrange chairs, stuff folders, staff the name tag table, manage microphones, etc. These jobs can be a way you get to meet people without having to navigate the same social environment as at a happy hour

Take notes on the presentations and present the work to your lab when you get back. This will help make sure you really learned about your field from the talks, no matter how many people you met.

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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