What is networking? When discussing the topic with junior researchers, often the image of academic car salesmanship arises. From this perspective networking equals the art of approaching an eminent expert in your field during the drinks of a conference and walking away with whatever you want (e.g. a postdoc position). That stereotype usually is accompanied by negative experiences. Some people tell that they have circled the person they wanted to network with without taking the step. They were too nervous. Others tell that they did take the step, but that they blacked out and did not say what they prepared to say. Or that they received a blunt rejection.
Negative experiences like these can foster the belief of being a bad networker. Next, cognitive dissonance leads to the conviction that networking is a bad thing. This can be a justification to not spend your time on networking or even thinking about it. And, if you do see the importance of networking (no network, no career) and you join a networking course like mine, you do that with reluctance and with the expectation to learn how to approach hotshots at conferences.
Sorry to disappoint you. I am not going to teach you that (my colleague Kick Moors will). Although I do see the value of overcoming social anxiety, I think it is much wiser to first focus on the myriad other tools in the networking toolbox. They might lead to the moment the hotshot approaches you. Here are five of them. Let’s start with things you can do from behind your desk.
This is the low-hanging fruit. To me it is astonishing how little time most researchers invest in creating and updating their profile page on their university’s website. Some do not realize that they have one. Meanwhile, this profile page often is where people develop their first impression of you. So, my advice is to revisit your profile page at least four times a year. Make sure the profile contains an accurate research description, well-considered key-words, a representative portrait photo (or even better: a photo of you doing your research), your publications, and other relevant information. If you know where you want to go next in your career, align your profile with this.
Do not underestimate the email as a networking tool. Especially when approaching new people or following up a contact you had during a conference, make sure that you carefully weigh your words. An important principle: honour your audience. Better a bit too formal than too informal. A ‘Hi x,’ as a salutation could ruin the effectiveness of a perfect composed email. Also, show that you have invested time. And, be realistic in what you ask for, make that request clear, and make saying yes easy and attractive. Responding swiftly and adequately to email you receive also helps your network forward.
In addition to the former two digital tools, social media can be a good place to boost your visibility and expand your network. I know people wo thank their academic job to their Twitter network. Being an active part of the online community will translate to the real world. Starting a conversation with a professor you have been interacting with on Twitter is much easier than doing this from scratch. However, most social media platforms do require frequent activity. They can cannibalize on your time. So, my advice: only do this when you enjoy spending time on social media platforms. A logical starting point is LinkedIn. You can add a profile, but also easily publish blog posts (you are reading one now).
Now, let’s leave the office and jump to in-person settings (of course many of them are also organized online these days). They offer ample networking opportunities.
A real networking catalyser is the presentation. If possible, be on the programme of conferences and other networking events. Poster presentations or talks always make new people notice what you do. Some of them will become new connections right ahead. Others just hear your name for the first time and later they vaguely recall you when your paths intersect again. If you want to optimally benefit from these opportunities, it is wise to follow courses that teach you the right skills. Especially when presentations freak you out.
Networking also happens behind the scene. Volunteering during conferences and other events is a perfect way to meet new people. You do not only connect with the other volunteers while preparing the event, you also spend some time with the (key-note) speakers. Even standing behind the table with the name-tags will result in new first encounters.
Approaching the hotshot
Sometimes talking with the eminence grise of your field during a conference is the way to go. Still that seldomly means that you have to ambush them with a rehearsed opening line. It will work much better when your supervisor (or another shared connection) introduces you. Prior to the networking event, talk with your colleagues about who to meet. This conversation also includes junior researchers. Most of the time your more senior colleagues are willing to help. As you would introduce a student to a fellow junior researcher (as long as you see the added value of that introduction).
To add a few other tips: make sure you know how to pitch your research in a few words. Be realistic in your goals, just saying your name and one line about your research might be enough as a first contact. Keep it short. Then switch back to meeting new fellow junior researchers. You will never know where this undirected networking leads you.
The picture of networking as approaching the hot-shot during the conference is a harmful caricature. It is not only bad advice, it also leads the attention away from those other ways of networking. Applying these tools not only expands your network, it also makes you reflect on your position in academia (and where you want to go next) and teaches you how to pitch your research. Take your time. Networking is most of the time rather incremental than sudden. It is much more a continuous process of investing time and energy in new and existing social relationships, of adding value to the research community, than stepping towards a complete stranger and making them buy your proposition on the spot.
Main image: Franklin Heijnen on Flickr