“At scientific conferences, there are three classes of attendees: Eminents, Lowlies, and Everyone Else. Grad students, of course, fall into the Lowlies group. An ecotone, or edge effect, where all three classes come into contact can yield higher biodiversity and productivity than in any one group by itself.” – Stephen Hale.
If you’re reading this site at all, you’ve probably had a few chances to study the ecosystem of scientific conferences. (Hale’s essay, which I think you’ll find amusing, is here. However, if you’re a good scientific ecologist, you’ll spend some time studying another group that Hale doesn’t talk about much, except as a trophic resource: the vendors.
If you’re a grad student or a postdoc, as most of you probably are, you may not have thought about the vendors very much except as a handy source of keychain flashlights and candy.
Unless your PI has told you to check out a particular product, you can’t really offer to buy anything. And, if you’re in your last year in your current post and looking for an industry job, you are probably very nervous about walking up to a stranger and talking about business.
I sympathize with this, actually – it took me several years to get over that instinct myself. We’re all conditioned to be animated and passionate when talking about “pure” research, but taking about business seems to bring out the introvert in most academically-trained people.
However, you can be extroverted and still fall flat on your face. If you want to use some time at a conference to network with potential employers on Vendor Row, there’s a few things you can do to significantly increase your odds. Or decrease them. If you want to succeed, it helps to understand the ecology of vendor booths at a scientific conference.
The least successful strategy is to nervously hang around a random booth for ten minutes, and then say something like “Hi! I’m Dr. X from University Y, and I’m looking for a job. Can I give you my resume?” That’s a big ask from someone whose name you haven’t even bothered to learn, and you are offering nothing in return. From an ecological standpoint, it’s parasitism. You don’t want to give a company representative the impression that you’re the kind of person who takes more than he gives, right?
Vendor spaces are very expensive – that’s a lot of what’s paying for the conference, after all – and the company has also shelled out several thousand dollars more in wages and travel costs to send people to man the booth. Even if the company is hiring, recruiting is going to be taking a back seat to evangelizing for the company’s products and generating leads. Unless someone has specifically arranged to meet you for a job interview, don’t ask for a job at a conference.
Does that mean you can’t job-hunt on Vendor Row? Absolutely not. You just need to treat it like reconnaissance, not like a job fair. Think of it as bringing home some career swag you can put to use later.
Because I work for a scientific device manufacturing company as a developer, I only occasionally work at vendor shows myself, usually as support for one of our distributors. For me, manning a booth in the vendor space is a lot like presenting at a poster session. I’m still there to talk about things I have poured a lot of my professional life into – it’s just that those things are machines now, not data.
If you met me at a show, I would probably be talking to you about something I had personally written software for. Most people at vendor booths are subject experts in their companies’ products – they have to be, or they wouldn’t be worth sending to the show.
And that’s why a great strategy at conferences is to ask vendors questions about their products or services. Don’t try to monopolize them, especially during busy periods, but a good solid five-minute conversation about their products will probably be very welcome. Personally, I love it when someone starts asking me questions like that, because it provides some social cover for the shyer scientists to sort of drift over and listen. Ecological mutualism is a good thing.
During this conversation, you’ll also pick up on things that can tell you a lot about the company. Do they compete on price or on cutting-edge technology? If you ask them about a specific research problem, do they brainstorm with you, and at what level of detail? Where do they seem to fit in the ecosystem of other companies that are also at the vendor show? This will help you figure out whether your particular skills would be useful for them, and how you might present those skills to the best advantage. There’s no point in pursuing a company that’s a bad fit for you – find your ecological niche, and you’ll be better off.
Some people advise sending a follow up email right after a conversation with a potential employer. Normally, I think that’s great advice, but not in this situation, unless the person you were talking to specifically mentioned something about a job.
Vendors will be spending most of their time at a conference working and networking themselves, and you want to give them enough breathing space to get home and unpack. Better to touch base with your contact a couple of weeks later, and ask for something pretty innocuous like an informational interview – or ask them to serve as a bridge to another person you have identified in the same company. If you can legitimately help them out with something like a potential sales lead (without throwing a colleague under the bus, that is), that would definitely improve your mutualism cred.
Yes, vendors are a different species of conference attendee, just like grad students are a different species from senior PI’s. But, if you understand their role in the conference ecosystem, the species interactions can be highly beneficial. Give it a try.