For burgeoning psychologists eager to get noticed, APA's Annual Convention and other conferences provide almost unlimited opportunities for meeting new colleagues at social hours, dinners and poster sessions. In theory, a few minutes of professional small talk should be easy enough. But Robert Arkin, PhD, recounts one memorable moment when a grad student tried to name-drop a scientist with whom the Ohio State psychology professor had just written a paper. "I was talking to him the other day," the student said. Too bad Arkin's co-author was a woman.
Most grad students wouldn't go that far to make a connection, and know that their ideas and qualifications give them plenty to talk about with new colleagues. However, it's clear that good networking skills can affect whether you get hired, promoted or tapped for an important committee. For example, one study published in October found that people charged with rating medical residents' clinical skill performance gave higher scores to the residents they knew, even though the assessments were supposed to be objective. Other studies have confirmed that merely recognizing a political candidate's name is enough to sway a voter. For job seekers, that could mean that if you're on a short list of several job applicants, a professor may unconsciously bump you up if she has met you before, says Jerald Jellison, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Southern California and author of the 2010 book "Life After Grad School: Getting from A to B."
But since research has established again and again the sticking power of first impressions, it's important to tread carefully when socializing professionally. Here are six tips to impress:
1. Create a people plan
Before the convention, list the seven to 10 scientists you want to meet. "Most people go with a detailed plan for the poster sessions they want to attend," Jellison says. "But you need a separate plan for the human side." Write down a few sentences for the scientists on your list - why you want to meet them, details about their research and what you want to talk about. Then, consider emailing them ahead of time to let them know you'd like to introduce yourself at the convention. "It's a bold move, but some people will respond favorably and be flattered," Jellison says.
2. Ask good questions
It may feel intimidating to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but most people appreciate any opportunity to talk about themselves, says Arkin. "If you have specific questions about their research, boy, are they going to be excited to talk to you." Approaching a scientist with a comment about his work is a great conversation opener. Be sure to prepare enough to speak intelligently; no one likes a know-it-all who doesn't know what he's talking about. One question Arkin uses to prompt genuine discussion: "Is there any research you've done that was underappreciated?"
3. Find a connection
Research shows that we tend to prefer those who are similar to us. When meeting a professor, mention something you have in common, whether it's a shared research interest, hometown or acquaintance. Another plus: By disclosing something about yourself, you will be setting the conversation up for success. In a study published last year, scientists found that strangers who self-disclosed were more likely to synchronize their movements, which in turn led to more positive interactions overall.
4. Talk about yourself — but not too much
Poster sessions are a lot like speed dating, says Paul Eastwick, PhD, a psychology professor at Texas A&M University. In both cases, a duo has just a few minutes to chat — and Eastwick has found that speed daters who talk about themselves 50 percent of the time report having a smoother interaction (PDF, 209.5KB) than those with a more awkward 60-40 conversational split. What's that mean for convention-goers? Feel free to blab about your latest paper, but follow up with a question about the other person's work, he says.
5. Don't be overly friendly (or standoffish)
Another finding from Eastwick's 2010 study was that, on smooth dates, participants behaved neither too intimately nor coldly. Connect with the other person by smiling, making eye contact and responding with open-ended statements like, "That sounds fascinating." Being aloof can shut down a conversation, but the opposite is uncomfortable as well. "Be engaged, but don't act like you've been best friends for years," Eastwick says. A strategy Jellison uses at presentations is to take a seat one chair away from the person you want to talk to; you are positioning yourself for an introduction without invading their space.
6. Meet other grad students
"A lot of people want to meet a widely recognized person because [they] think they could be helpful in the short term," Jellison says. "But really, those other grad students will be your lifelong cohort." Graduate students from other schools can offer advice on the job market and introduce you to their advisers. More important, you may be collaborating with these students for the next 50 years — so don't step on any toes in your rush to chat with that famous psychologist.