One of the most enriching experiences as a PhD student is the possibility of traveling and getting to know many places, cultures and people. It is indeed an important added value to your career in academy. In a sense, I always like to say that ‘lobbying’ is important if you have high aspirations as a researcher. The previous is mostly due to the fact that conferences and summer schools are places where you will interact with possible future colleagues and future bosses (I like to call professors bosses, because as a PhD they’re technically that).
Perhaps the irony behind the previous fact is that, at least in my field (computer science), sometimes people are introverted. This was the case for me: when I started attending conferences I had some trouble trying to approach professors, fellow PhDs and attendees. That being said, with time, it became easier to start conversations with people at conferences/summer schools. There are certain things that help: having read their papers, having concrete questions regarding their research or work, preparing an elevator pitch of your own research or paper, are all things that may help you at the time of having to talk with people at conferences.
One of the most difficult moments when making a conversation with a conference attendee is starting the actual interaction. Breaking the ice is not really easy for me, so what I usually do is try to read that person work, or attending their talk. If I have any questions, I first initiate the interaction by either congratulating him on his talk or just mentioning I have read his work and then proceed to introduce myself and ask my questions. It is quite normal for them to ask follow up questions about your research, after all, scientists are quite the curious bunch. This kind of interactions have helped me to establish interesting conversations that have actually enriched my scientific knowledge and experiences.
Well, after this rambling, the only thing I can say to any fellow PhD that is reading my blog (I wonder how many by this point) is to not be discouraged if sometimes you cannot talk to the person you intended to in a conference right away. It will come in time: just keep being curious and don’t be afraid to ask! After all, researchers love to talk about their work.