Following up on my post on how to network at scientific conferences, it occurred to me that I left unstated why one might want to “network” at scientific conferences. I guess I thought it was obvious, but perusing the comments over at the original post by Scicurious made me realize that it’s not. Perhaps because “networking” seems to mean different things to different people.
So: what I mean by “networking” is “talking to other scientists about science, especially scientists you don’t already know”. Networking in this sense is something you do for all kinds of good reasons. You like talking about science. You have questions or criticisms relating to someone’s work and you want to talk to that person about them. You want advice or feedback from someone about your own work, or about some technical problem you’re struggling with. You’re planning to build on someone’s work and you need to pick their brain about the nitty-gritty details to make sure you can first repeat what they’ve done. You want to ask someone about a potential collaboration, or to share their data. You just want to tell someone that you really liked their talk, or their new paper that just came out. Etc. etc. My previous post just takes for granted that these are the sorts of things you’re trying to do, and gives some hopefully-useful advice on how to overcome any nervousness, shyness, or awkwardness that might prevent you from doing these sorts of things.
Networking in this sense is not something you do “to get your name out there” or “to ‘sell’ your work” or “to meet top people” or “to market your personal brand” or any other such silliness. It’s true that networking for the reasons I’ve suggested will have the effect of causing other people to know who you are and what you’re working on, and will hopefully give those other people a positive impression of you. But if you network for the purpose achieving those effects (e.g., “I need an excuse to meet Dr. Famous…I know, I’ll ask him a question about his latest paper!”), you’re doing it wrong.