Academic Networking: Where to Sit at the Social Dinner

As a third year PhD student, I’ve had the chance to go to more than a fair share of academic conferences. And, if possible, I’ve attended all of their social dinners. Over time, I developed a technique to make the best out of these social dinners and it all depends on where you sit. In this article, I will share with you how to pick the best seat at the social dinner.

Common Mistakes at Social Dinners

The biggest mistake you can make regarding the social dinner is missing it. After a series of intense scientific talks and keynotes, a social dinner is the perfect way to get to know your fellow academics in an informal context. The dinners are usually a fixed price that is communicated ahead of time. If you can afford it or you will get reimbursed by your university, you should always take the chance and go.

The second mistake you can make is going to the social dinner without an idea of who you want to sit with. This isn’t a problem if you are a fan of randomness. However, for most people, it would be better if their have one or two people they want to get to know during the 2-4 hours of the dinner.

The third mistake is picking the wrong people to sit next to. You might think sitting next to the keynote speaker is the best seat at the social dinner. But, if the speaker has nothing in common with your research interests, it might not be the best seat possible.

A conference can serve many purposes. It can be a tool to disseminate knowledge, forge collaborations, and get to know other scientists in your field of study. Whether the conference has less than 100 or 1,000+ attendees, it’s worth spending the majority of your time with those who have a maximum potential of staying in touch after the conference.

The fourth mistake you can make is stressing too much about the seating arrangement. Although it helps to have an idea of who you want to sit next to, it’s impossible to control the flow of the seating arrangement. Though you can try optimize this time, it’s actually helpful to have a bit of randomness as well. That way, you have the potential forge a new relationship you didn’t expect.

Where to Sit at the Social Dinner

So then, where should you be sitting at the social dinner?

If you are at the conference with your PI and some lab mates, you might want to sit where the PI is. He/she might know a close collaborator and their students that you have never met. However, it’s best to remember you are not a package deal. If you want to sit next to someone else that you are interested in, feel free to do so.

If you are at the conference alone (most of my experiences), don’t fret. Since you are a free agent, you can maximize your network potential.

The social dinner is held after one or two days of the conference. During this time, identify the one or two presenters with the most interesting talks/posters. Then, when it comes time for the dinner, don’t arrive at the restaurant too early. Try to sit next to or at the same table of one or both of the presenters. The rest of the table will be semi-random, allowing you to meet other researchers of possible interest.

If you are at a conference with people you already know, you can choose to sit with them. However, I wouldn’t recommend it. As humans, we seek to show loyalty to “our pack” to prove that we belong. But at a conference social dinner, the goal should be to meet new people, not strengthen the bonds with the people we already know. Though it might create friction for a few minutes, the impact of new ties will outweigh this awkwardness.


Social dinners are a very important part of networking at academic conferences. If you are able to go, don’t make the mistake of missing them. Come with a plan to network with the most interesting people to your research interest but be open to other possibilities. Instead of prioritizing old relationships, use these dinners to forge new ones. Above all, have some good food and get to know your fellow researchers outside of their day jobs.

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