The Power of Networking at Conferences: For Students and Emerging GIS Professionals

10-09-2023 12:52 PM
New Contributor III
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As a young geographer or emerging GIS professional, there is almost no limit to the number of opportunities that await you in this beautiful and ever-growing field of GIS. Some of these opportunities just require a deliberate act of putting yourself out there, engaging and networking with people in gatherings that unite like-minded people. Conferences are great places to learn, meet people, build relationships, and even network with like-minded individuals, which could create opportunities for growth and success. Join me as I recount my own conference experience and share tips on how to harness the power of networking at these events.

I vividly remember my first conference, the SEDAAG conference in Atlanta, Georgia (2022). As an international student attending his first conference in a new country, the sheer magnitude of the gathering made me feel both nervous and excited. Watching people effortlessly engage with one another sparked a deep desire within me to network but fear held me back, and I struggled to make meaningful connections. So, I devised a strategy to overcome this hurdle by following a supportive colleague with prior conference experience. By shadowing my colleague throughout the SEDAAG conference, I had the opportunity to be introduced to various individuals. Though I only managed to forge a handful of connections, the experience left an indelible mark. It served as a wake-up call, compelling me to realize the vital role of proper preparation in maximizing networking opportunities at future conferences.

Here are tips and strategies I have adopted from my own networking experience, as they will come in handy at your next conference.

Preparing For a Conference: Have a Mindset to Engage

Yes, networking at conferences may seem intimidating, but with the right mindset and a few strategic preparations, you can unlock a world of opportunities. Here are 4 pre-conference strategies that have proven to have enhanced my networking skills:

  1. Delve into background research of conference programs. Prior to a conference, immerse yourself in the schedule of events, meticulously selecting sessions that align with my interests. Conference organizers often release these schedules in the weeks leading up to the event. Streamlining and properly planning your activities at conferences can improve your chances of meeting and connecting with like-minded individuals, potential collaborators, and mentors.
  2. Leverage the power of social media. In this digital age, leveraging social media platforms is a game-changer. Before attending a conference, I created this post on LinkedIn to engage people, which oftentimes catches the attention of other potential attendees. Doing this with a polished and up-to-date LinkedIn profile can even boost the chances of establishing connections before the conference begins.


Caption: Pre-conference social media post I put together for the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting

  1. Embrace volunteer opportunities. One of my favorite strategies is seeking out student assistantships or volunteering opportunities at conferences. By assisting with conference-related tasks, I naturally engage with attendees and presenters alike (Just like in the picture). Offering assistance and sparking conversations effortlessly becomes second nature, leading to abundant valuable connections. Recently I volunteered at the AAG Annual Meeting that ultimately led to me connecting with Esri's Young Professionals Network and writing this blog!


Caption: I had the pleasure of meeting Esri's Joseph Kerski while networking at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting

  1. Prepare a business card. A final touch to my conference arsenal is a well-prepared business card. I never underestimate the power of a well-designed business card. Crafting a concise and informative card allows me to leave a lasting impression during conversations, particularly when connecting with fellow students from different institutions.

Approaching Others to Network at Conferences

Approaching others for networking at conferences can stir up a mixture of nervousness and excitement. As an introverted individual, I have learned to embrace the challenge and overcome any potential disappointments. With practice and the right mindset, it becomes easier.

Here are the methods I have employed to approach people and expand my network.

  1. Engage in post-session discussions: Attending sessions that are relevant to my interests provides a perfect opportunity to connect with presenters or panelists afterward. Sharing my thoughts, asking questions, and seeking further insights not only demonstrates my genuine interest and facilitates networking but also deepens my knowledge in the field.


Caption: Connect with session presenters at conferences.

  1. Connect through an existing network: I have discovered the power of leveraging existing networks to expand my own. Whether it's a colleague or a faculty I went with to the conference, sticking close to them allows for seamless introductions to their network. It's remarkable how a simple introduction can ignite meaningful conversations that oftentimes extend beyond the conference sessions.
  2. Take advantage of social gathering events: Social events during conferences present a relaxed and welcoming environment for networking. Recognizing the inherent friendliness and openness of attendees, I make it a point to attend these gatherings, taking advantage of the friendly atmosphere to meet new people and expand my professional circle. It was the Esri YPN social gathering where I made connections that led me to present as a guest speaker at a virtual networking meetup.

Despite careful preparation and strategic approaches, I must admit that there are instances when even the most well-intentioned networking attempts don't go as planned. It's crucial to remember that facing such challenges is normal and part of the conference experience. Not everyone may be in the right mindset or have the time to engage in lengthy conversations. Embrace these hurdles as valuable learning opportunities, and don't let them deter you from pursuing meaningful connections.

Networking Pitfalls to Avoid

While networking holds immense potential, there are common pitfalls that can hinder you from making that connection.

There are three key pieces of advice to avoid pitfalls:

  1. Balance self-promotion and dialogue: It's easy to fall into the trap of focusing solely on self-promotion when engaging with potential connections. However, I have realized that true networking is about fostering a genuine, two-way dialogue. When conversing with people, I resist the urge to monopolize the conversation with my own achievements. Instead, I embrace the opportunity to gain insights from their experiences and expertise.
  2. Practice active listening: We've all encountered those moments when our attention drifts during a conversation, causing us to miss crucial details. It is important to stay fully present during conversations and actively listen to the person you're networking with. It demonstrates respect and leaves a positive impression.
  3. Know when to let go: Not every networking attempt will be fruitful. If it becomes clear that the other person isn't interested, I gracefully disengage from the conversation. Forcing connections can lead to strained interactions and yield little long-term benefit.

Share and Reflect on Your Conference Experience

Reflecting on my networking and overall conference experiences has become an integral part of my post-conference routine.

By creating an Esri Storymap and/or a social media post, I document the highlights, key takeaways, and memorable encounters from each event and share it on my institution’s webpage, social media platforms like LinkedIn, or within the GIS community.

This practice not only solidifies my own learning but also fosters connections and conversations within the GIS community and beyond. Through the power of reflection and sharing, we can unlock the full potential of conferences and create a vibrant community of knowledge-sharing and growth.


Caption: Social media post I created on LinkedIn to recap the conference.

The Power of Networking

So far, networking has proven to be an incredible force in shaping my journey within the GIS community. Over the past nine months of my graduate studies in the United States, networking has opened doors to remarkable opportunities that I would never have imagined.

During my time as a conference student assistant at the AAG conference (2023), I had the privilege of assisting Rosemary Boone with directions to session halls. This chance encounter led to a meaningful connection, and we stayed in touch even after the conference. Thanks to this connection, Rosemary graciously extended opportunities to me within the Esri Young Professionals Network (YPN), including the incredible opportunity to share my experiences on this very platform.


Caption: I had the pleasure of meeting Rosemary Boone from Esri while networking which led to me being a guest speaker in a webinar.

Networking also played a vital role in my interactions with Terri Bliss and Joe Galarza at the SEDAAG and AAG conferences, respectively. Through my colleague's introduction, I was able to connect with Terri, and similarly, Rosemary played a role in introducing me to Joe. It was through these connections that I learned about Esri student opportunities and took proactive steps to secure a student assistantship position at the renowned Esri User Conference in San Diego- the largest gathering of GIS professionals worldwide.

One of the most awe-inspiring moments was when I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren Bennett, a respected figure whose work I greatly admire. As she presented at a session, I attended during the AAG conference, I couldn't help but feel starstruck. Seizing the opportunity, I engaged her, and to my astonishment, she graciously offered to provide career mentorship—an invaluable resource that I had been seeking for quite some time. These experiences have demonstrated to me the incredible power of networking and how it can connect us with top professionals and mentors who can shape our paths in unimaginable ways.


Caption: I had the pleasure of meeting Esri's Lauren Bennett while networking at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting

My journey through conferences and networking has been nothing short of transformative. By immersing myself in the world of conferences, engaging with others, and adopting effective preparation strategies, I have been able to harness the power of networking and unlock many opportunities. As I continue this path, I am inspired to encourage and empower fellow students and emerging GIS professionals to embrace networking as a transformative tool for personal and professional development.

Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or email me at