If you are an undergraduate or graduate student, a conference most likely symbolizes the following: attending talks, grabbing the occasional free food, and catching up with long-distance friends. And then, occasionally, someone mentions the dreaded word: networking. Networking is pivotal in building and strengthening symbiotic relationships in academia and industry. But while the digital age has eased us into online networking, we find ourselves crippled in personal interactions. The age-old question arises —how am I supposed to interact with high-level scientists as a measly student? After my fair share of wasted opportunities, I would like to share a few tips to successfully navigate through a conference.

What do you want? How?

The first question is obvious and well considered. It is often the ignored second question that has one running around the conference venue like a headless chicken, gathering last minute information or documents. It is crucial to not only define your objective, but also prepare accordingly BEFORE the conference. For instance, you may aim to establish a collaboration, learn about the latest technology in your field, or apply for a job in a company. A ready elevator pitch about your work, specific questions regarding the technique, and an updated resume in hand would ensure optimum use of the limited interaction time in these situations.

Names matter

When Shakespeare wrote “What’s in a name…”, he forgot to mention certain exceptions. Knowing names is helpful, if not essential, at networking events. It would be ironic to dine across influential people from your field and miss out on a golden networking opportunity, being clueless of their identity. Luckily, name tags can rescue you from an identification crisis! Also, poster sessions function as a great sorting hat, grouping researchers by sub-topics and further narrowing the potential targets from a crowd of attendees.

Suit up!

Well, if not literally, at least be presentable. Personal opinions may differ; some strongly believe that good science speaks for itself. Yet, we have all experienced a rapid decline in our attention during a sloppy presentation of a potentially interesting topic. Smart attire boosts your confidence and delivers a message that you want to be taken seriously. After all, you get a single chance to make a good first impression. It cannot substitute scientific credibility, but can definitely complement it.

Don’t be shy 

Approaching a senior researcher or professional can be challenging, especially for students. Do it, even if the mere idea seems intimidating. If you fail, the short term public memory guarantees that the world (and you) will carry on after the few embarrassing moments. In case of a positive outcome, though, it will have been worth the sweat! Remember, the idea of networking is not to seal the deal on the spot. The goal is to get a foot in the door; the transition from a stranger to an acquaintance.

Leave behind more than just a good impression

Now imagine that, for once, the stars lined up and everything went smoothly. You researched Mr. X, mustered the courage to approach him and discussed your captivating work with him. After that scintillating scientific discussion with you — and probably many others — your potential employer/collaborator walked away, moving on to other important topics (like dinner). Would he remember that you scribbled your email address on the backside of a bus ticket? Don’t take that chance! Keep some business cards ready to circumvent such situations. As a student, my personal issue against having a card was not feeling accomplished enough. It took me a while to see it as simply a smart provision to give out contact information; not a degree.

Lastly, don’t wait to accomplish every item on an exhaustive checklist! Just start, and you will eventually stumble onto a suitable formula that works best for you.

This post was originally published here.