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Getting the Most out of Conferences

If you have yet to attend a technical conference, Photonics West is a great place to begin. As SPIE’s largest meeting, PW brings together over 17,000 students and professionals for five days of learning and networking in downtown San Jose, California. This includes many leaders in academia, government, and industry, which presents an optimal environment for students searching for a career in optics and photonics… if you know how to navigate everything.

If you are new to conferences, keep these networking tips in mind:
  • It’s very easy to feel left out and think of a conference as simply a reunion of old friends who don’t care whether or not you’re even there. Fortunately, this is only true if you allow it. Take the time to get to know some people and everything will seem more comfortable. Furthermore, remember that you’re not alone; many others are feeling like they don’t know anyone either.


  • Don’t be embarrassed to look at name badges (or to have others check yours out). Some people are looking for their heroes; others just want to see if you’re special. Also, you’re gathered with thousands of people in similar fields… name badges help distinguish who is more closely related to your subject area.


  • Remember that you are important to the conference. You may bring cutting edge research or simply be a breath of fresh air. Either way, you remind the VIPs of how far they’ve come.


  • It’s often stated that the first law of socializing is to act like a host. This means taking initiative when it comes to meeting people. It also means remembering who you’ve met so that when you meet someone else you can say, “Have you met ___________?” Even though their interests may be miles apart, they’ll remember your service. And, if you have the opportunity to introduce a well-known to an unknown, go against the status inequalities. Ask the well-known person if they’ve met the unknown and go from there.


  • It is okay to engage people in intelligent conversations about what they do, think, feel, etc. A conference may be the only venue during the year where you don’t have to explain what photonics is or convince someone that it is not the same as photosynthesis.


  • Never pass up a chance to join a group out to eat. There are often missed opportunities when people pass on one gathering in favor of another one that may or may not happen. Similarly, be socially generous. Invite others along, include them in the conversation, connect people of similar interest. These steps are always remembered and almost always come back around.


  • Stay in the main conference hotel if possible. Staying with a friend who lives close by may be significantly cheaper, but the cost is directly related to how much you will gain from the conference. It’s important to recognize that many of the important and enjoyable parts of the event happen outside of the sessions.


  • If there is someone you know you want to meet, prepare a question or two beforehand. It may also be helpful to scan the list of presentations and make your own chart of who you want to connect with. If nothing else, you may be able to catch someone before or after a session.


  • Lastly, keep in mind that no one person can remember everyone s/he meets. To make yourself memorable, bring a healthy stack of business cards; perhaps even résumés.
It’s understood that some people are naturally better at networking than others, but these simple tips can help level out that inequality. Think of Photonics West as an opportunity to connect, develop, and foster business relationships. There is no guarantee that attending PW will be life-changing, but there is a chance.