I’ve always enjoyed attending meetings and conferences, and not because I’m a technology nerd or need to escape my work environment.
Whatever field you’re in, here’s hoping you’re really into it, or at least find it provides more than a paycheck. If you at least like what you do, you have interest in learning more, as well as being introduced to others who share those interests. Conferences are chances to interact with others having similar interests.
Instead of Star Trek, it may be genetics. Instead of zombies, it may be regulatory affairs. Still, the aisles are full of folks with different backgrounds coming together to better understand the world they’ve chosen to be part of. Doesn’t mean there isn’t debate and disagreement – just as when any group gets together. When done respectfully, conferences can celebrate differences (of opinion and viewpoint).
You get to meet leaders in the field you’ve only read about (in articles, usually) and ask them questions. You get to meet leaders and see them as real people who make jokes, swear, and are actually interested in what you have to say. (We’ll just ignore those leaders you meet who are condescending, rude, and don’t think many folks are worth their time…plenty of those as well.)
It’s for these reasons that, when I drop a lanyard and badge over my head at the registration table, both the intellectual and social juices start flowing. Just having an affiliation on your badge makes you part of a group or “tribe.” To an extent, your affiliation contributes to how you’re treated. During one career stop, I was in venture capital and part of a team that invested millions of dollars in people’s ideas. You could tell this from the “Capital” in my group’s name. Believe me, people are very nice to you when you have money – as in real life! Same nice treatment when my badge indicated I was with a large pharma.
Most often, though, I was with small, early-stage companies few had heard of. No worries. There was a tangible sense of pride and enthusiasm when I’d answer the question, “so, what does your company do?” I was the face and voice of my group. Its ‘ambassador’, its head of ‘marketing.’
Introducing people to my group and my role was great practice for how well I understood why I did what I did. In a positive way, you should view this as a way to force you into understanding how your role fits into the greater picture of what your group is trying to accomplish.
After my very first conference following graduate school, I quickly grew tired of telling people “I’m only a scientist” when they’d ask questions beyond the usual scientific ones. It forced me to attain a deeper understanding of my group’s mission. I had to become more ‘fluent’ in the language of our group – and I did.
And I’m not kidding about the buffet. Many meetings have receptions that enable attendees to mingle. Whether it’s a meager offering of raw veggies, or something grand with a dessert bar and lollipop lamb chops … if you don’t know what those are, keeping attending receptions until you do! …think of networking as an opportunity to meet kindred spirits.
Of course, it can be daunting not knowing anyone in a huge crowd. In such circumstances, I find someone else who’s also wandering around without anyone to talk to and start a conversation. Maybe you’ll make a friend. Maybe you’ll just be doing something nice.
Meetings and Conferences can be important parts of one’s job responsibilities. You can look at them as exciting, important times to increase your knowledge about the greater ecosystem in which your lab/company is involved. Or, you could look at them like summer school: forced learning you didn’t ask for combined with loss of personal freedom (and, as with summer school, you often have to write a report about what you’ve learned!)
But try to at least enjoy a short break in the work routine. Grab your business cards. Practice your handshake, greeting, and maintaining eye contact. After the conference, hang your badge where you see if from time to time, like I did, and start a new collection of memories.