Hello again! This has been a summer of much traveling for me. In fact, I am currently wedged between a sleeping dude and window on a cross-country flight. I have been getting pretty good at working on planes, and think that I *mostly* have this manuscript revision beaten into submission. SO, going to take advantage of the in-flight wireless, and the last 22% of my MacBook Air battery to catch up with you all 🙂
I have been spending a lot of my conference time schmoozing, as you might expect. This is the most important thing that I do at meetings. I usually have 1-2 scheduled meetings every day with science friends and mentors. Sometimes we catch up on our current collaborations or dream up new ones. Other times I just corner more senior folks in my field to talk about the work that we are currently doing. Getting feedback helps with troubleshooting, can suggest new experiments, or even just give me an idea of what reviewers will most respond to. At the very least, I will get to know if we are working on the same things. I have also had these conversations also lead to invites to give seminars, if we start talking about a project that is further developed.
When I was yet a fledgling academic I sometimes found it intimidating to try to get the more BSD types to sit down and talk with me about my work. It can seem scary to ask for a meeting with someone that you have just met and only know from published work. But you have to get over this! If it helps, try to remember that everyone does this. One way that I find always works to get the conversation started is to get the other person talking about themselves. Maybe you are familiar with a paper from their lab, or they gave a talk at the meeting? Use this as a starting point. Best case: you have a question about what they did then ask it. This is an especially effective way to get them starting to think about your stuff, too. For example: "Hi, Dr. BSD. I'm Gerty, from xxx (add some identifying info so that s/he may recognize you). I saw your recent C/N/S paper on Totally Kewl Science. I was wondering, have you ever considered the role of My Awesome Shit in that?" Of course, this only works if your fields are related. Don't be arrogant or aggresive, but try to start a scientific discussion. Another way into this is: "I saw your recent C/N/S paper on Totally Kewl Science. It is a little outside of my own field, but I thought it was really interesting that ... Can you tell me more about how That Awesome Mechanism might work? Is it related at all to X (A thing I may now something about).
Realize that Dr. BSD may blow you off. That is OK, it still is great that you said hi. In addition to the BSD, it is good to talk to young faculty and senior postdocs. These folks may be more open to talking to you (after all, we are all out there trying to build a network). Some of the best mentors I have now are people that I met as a fledgling postdoc and they were senior postdocs (now faculty a few years ahead of me!). If you develop a relationship with these people they can help introduce you to BSD. Also, when they become BSD themselves then you will have "known them when".
Another important thing is to not limit yourself to talking to people that are working on exactly the same things that you do. Some of the most productive conversations I have had are from folks that only vaguely work in the same field as I do. These kind of conversations can lead to really exciting new collaborations, and fun new ideas for experiments. Also, you may find yourself closer to their part of the sub-field someday.
Finally, when you get back to your home MRU you should follow up with people that you met. If something came up during your conversation, make sure you address it. For instance, when I was on the job market several folks offered to read my research statement when we were chatting at the bar*. Just a quick email that says "hey, it was great to meet you at Meeting Awesome. Your work on Totally Kewl Science is fascinating, thanks for taking the time to chat with me about it. You mentioned that you would read my research statement for my upcoming job search. If you are still willing to help out, I would really appreciate it. Hope you had a pleasant trip home."
As a side note: if folks agree to help you out, be considerate of their time. Don't spam them with emails that just say "thanks!" (one of my pet peeves are unnecessary emails). And don't expect them to be able to read your stuff in less than 1 week (at the minimum). If you send me something to read and you need it back "tomorrow" I will probably not get to it. Just sayin.
*I recommend going to the bar, even if you don't drink. Get a glass of juice or water and hang out. The bar is a great (non-intimidating) place to chat folks up!