The studENT: Shaking Off the Rust: 5 Tips for Networking and Building Co-Author Relationships with the Return of In-Person Conferences

(posted on behalf of   @Ashley Roccapriore , PhD Representative, and Jacob Waddingham)

“If we create networks with the sole intention of getting something, we won’t succeed. We can’t pursue the benefits of networks; the benefits ensue from investments in meaningful activities and relationships.”
– Adam Grant

In the closing session of the Babson College Entrepreneurship Research Conference (BCERC) on June 11th, the promotional video for BCERC 2022 at Baylor University highlighted the anticipation of meeting again in person. The excitement was palpable. More than a year has passed since most of us have had the opportunity to gather together safely and network with other scholars face-to-face at conferences, consortia, and social events. Meeting in person, however, requires different skills than the Zoom and WebEx etiquette we have grown accustomed to during virtual presentations. Additionally, an entire cohort of first- and second-year Ph.D. students have not had the traditional opportunities to conduct in-person networking.

Networking at conferences provides the perfect opportunity to chat with faculty whose research you have read and would love to potentially work with some day, but starting that conversation and putting yourself out there can be tough. We spoke to both junior and senior scholars in entrepreneurship and asked them what advice they have for sparking up the conversation and making that connection. Here are 4 tips to ensure you’re getting the most out of your networking efforts and creating co-author relationships, based on their advice:

1. Don’t Wait! Be Active and Present

If you’re a Ph.D. student, saw the topic was networking, and thought you didn’t need to worry about it until you’re on the job market, then we encourage you to reconsider. Networking is all about being strategic. Don’t wait until you are ready to go on the job market to make that first introduction to someone at your dream school. It’s easier to spark up a conversation with others if they have seen your name in the program or your face at the conference’s volunteer help desk. Plus, you may be a bit rusty after all these online or cancelled conferences. Professor Dawn DeTienne (Colorado State University) agrees, “I think the most important thing is to develop an ‘academic relationship’ with faculty members through attendance and asking meaningful questions at conference presentations of co-interested research.” Some networking situations may call for a brief elevator pitch where you can also naturally bring up your research interests. During the Q&A of a session or mingling in the hallway after an inspiring workshop is another great time to talk shop. But be strategic! This means sharing “meaningful insights,” as Professor DeTienne advises. For example, “I recently read a paper that relates directly to your work and wanted to share...”

As much as we love to talk about research (just ask our significant others), there’s a time and place for it! We all have lives outside of our work that include family, hobbies, and current events. During a conference social at 10 p.m. is not the opportune time to ask the author of a recent Journal of Business Venturing article to further explain how they accounted for endogeneity. Get to know the person behind the research article! Professor Melissa Cardon (University of Tennessee) agrees that some of her best co-author relationships are with people she gets along with. She says, “Get to know the people you are working with. My best collaborations with others have been based on mutual trust, honesty, and genuine liking – with hard work focused on interesting ideas built on top of that.” That’s hard to do if all you talk about is research!

Finally, it is important to recognize when the conversation is coming to a close. Don’t try to monopolize someone’s time. If it is a senior scholar, he or she likely has several other people that want to reconnect. If it is another Ph.D. student, he or she is in the same boat as you and needs to find the next meaningful connection. Be sure to thank them and then use Tip 4 below to continue the conversation post-conference.

2. Reach Out Before the Conference

Conferences are hectic. If you want to ensure you have some time with a particular person, then reach out before the conference starts, advises Professor and Department Head Jon Carr (North Carolina State University). Shoot an email asking if he or she has some time to meet with you. However, do not set a meeting without a reason! Professor Carr says, “It is important to make sure you set the hook. Be specific about why you need to meet and include some brief areas the particular faculty member may be interested in.”

Don’t panic if you did not reach out before the conference. You may still connect when you get there. But just like research projects, where you have to join an ongoing conversation, the same goes for networking. When you first join a conversation, do not immediately jump in with your first hot take. Imagine you join a group mid-conversation, and you hear them talking about something smoky. Being a big fan of the Tennessee Volunteers, you give your best fact about Smokey X, the beautiful Bluetick Coonhound mascot. No matter how interesting the fact is, you are probably going to get some odd looks and kill the momentum of the group’s conversation about the smoky flavor of a particular brand of whiskey. Not great! Therefore, take time to actively listen to the topic, observe social cues from others involved, and when you do speak up, provide clues that you’ve been listening to the current conversation.

3. Bring a Friend

Networking solo can be a challenge, both physically and socially. For example, about a week before the 2018 Southern Management Association’s Annual Conference, Jacob broke his leg playing racquetball (#athlete). Instead of letting the injury ruin his conference experience, Jacob strategically planned which sessions he wanted to attend that would allow him to be visible, while also limiting his time on crutches. He also got some help from friends on tasks that crutches made difficult (thanks, Ashley!). This can also lead to conversations with other peers that help expand your network. While it’s easy to see peers as competitors when we’re all preparing for the job market at the same time and trying to publish in the same journals, just remember – a rising tide lifts all boats.

Want to connect with someone, but you don’t have a friend or faculty member to make an introduction? Take advantage of the resources that AOM makes available through the ENT Division. For example, Professor Sophie Bacq (Indiana University) suggests, “Attend the increasingly available one-on-one mentoring opportunities provided by the ENT Division, both the short- and the long-term options.” Also, be sure to apply for the Doctoral Consortium, which usually provides opportunities to meet and interact with faculty members!

4. Got the Connection! Now What?

You’ve met someone at a conference and now want to start up a potential project. How do you make that happen? As much as you are likely to be excited to continue your conversation with the folks you met, don’t flood their inbox as soon as you walk away or send a LinkedIn request five minutes after ending the conversation. The people you are emailing likely receive 20+ emails following a conference (especially the first in-person, post-COVID conference), so setting yourself apart by mentioning a meaningful interaction (e.g., remembering details of your conversation to include in your email) can help them not only remember you, but also likely earn you brownie points for paying attention.

When you do send the email (a day or two later), be specific! Professor Carr makes a great point, “It is not that faculty do not want to answer your emails, but they just get busy! When reaching out to faculty you’re interested in working with, be sure to be specific about what you are wanting from them.” Ask for advice in small chunks. Seeking advice on the next big research topic in sustainable venturing is less appropriate than something that is directly related to both of your research streams. By being specific on what you are wanting from the faculty member, you can help them understand how they can best help you! Tell them: 1) Why you’re reaching out, and 2) how you are going to drive the project forward. This can be as simple as a 1-page bullet pointed summary of the research question, methods, and potential contributions. Importantly, you need to drive the project you’re bringing to them. Professor Blake Mathias (Indiana University) agrees, “Before starting my Ph.D., I assumed writing with faculty members might be like catching a car ride and sitting in the back seat. That, it is not. When you work with faculty, generally speaking, you are at the wheel. The faculty member is there to help guide you if and when needed, but ultimately, you need to be the one driving the car. Otherwise, you will never be able to drive without one.”

Remember: Networking is not a race to see who can collect the most business cards or connections on social media. Networking should be conducted with meaningful intent to benefit all parties involved - what is best for you is not always what’s best for faculty members or peers, nor should it be. Be strategic but also smart and kind in your interactions. Professor Bacq has a perfect piece of final advice: “When you get to speak with faculty, one-on-one or in small groups, at conferences’ sessions or social events, treat these moments as relationship-building (i.e., fostering a possibly long-term relationship, with outcomes to be determined) and not as transactional (i.e., trying to get something in return, on a short-term basis).”