Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith, Professor in Higher Education and Geography, University of Otago
Academia operates through networks. Knowing key people in your field, supporting colleagues, peer reviewing, attending conferences, using Twitter, joining learned societies and mailing lists are crucial ways to stay informed, establish your reputation and enhance your knowledge. (See also several of our other things, such as Research Culture, Digital Profiles and Public Engagement). No matter how good your skills and qualifications, having links and personal connections with other researchers can boost your opportunities and help develop you as a researcher.
And so, we come to the dreaded word…. networking. For a lot of people this is a dirty word, implying a cynical or instrumental approach to meeting people, but in the right spirit it can be about creating mutually beneficial relationships and sharing passions.
This Thing draws on the experiences of Rachel Spronken-Smith, Professor in Higher Education and Geography at the University of Otago. We’ll provide some suggestions for getting your foot in the door on some academic networks below, but first, let’s face the face-to-face face of networking, which, let’s face it, is often the hardest challenge facing early career researchers, or in fact anyone who finds such situations uncomfortable.
Voice of Experience: Prof. Rachel Spronken-Smith:
So, you arrive at a welcome reception for your first international conference, and note the buzz in the room as researchers connect with colleagues. You register and grab a drink and circle the perimeter of the room trying to spot a familiar face, and then resignedly check your phone in the hope that you don’t look too awkward.
If this scenario sound familiar, you are not alone! Most of us are reluctant networkers; it is often the extroverts who tend to actually enjoy networking events. However, networking is a key skill to learn, and we know that networking is very important for making research connections and employment. For example, Streeter (2014, p. 1109) found that scientists with an expanded network of contacts have an edge when it comes to grants, publications, awards, invitations to speak, coveted job offers, and promotions. Thus it is worth investing some time and effort to foster your networking skills.
Ibarra and Hunter (2007), in a well-cited article, wrote about how leaders create and use networks. They identified three key types: operational, strategic and personal networks. Operational networks are about getting your work done (e.g., producing your thesis or publication) and typically involve internal contacts – academic, professional and technical staff. Personal networks enhance your professional development and tend to be more forward-looking. The key contacts may not be immediately obvious, but supervisors, PIs and career advisers will be able to help you identity important networks. Moreover, personal networks often provide the foundations for strategic networks. Strategic networking helps you achieve a particular aim by bringing you into relationships and information sources that help achieve personal and organisational goals (Ibarra & Hunter 2007, p. 43).
Think about your key goals over the next year, and who may be able to help. Categorise them according to operational, personal and strategic networks. Are there any gaps? How might you find appropriate people to assist? How many networks rely on physical face-to-face contact, and how many use social media as a way to connect? While face-to-face is the most solid route to new reliable contacts, virtual networks are now very popular and can be a great way for more introverted people to broaden their networks. Connecting online first can make face-to-face meetings less daunting.
Why not talk about this with your pod – what events, strategies or platforms have people found most useful? How can you encourage and support each other in future?
Let’s get back to that awkward networking event, where you find it difficult to engage. Here are a few tips to help you out. Think Open – Steer – Close – Keep in contact!
Open: Just do it! The “Hello” is the hardest part. Be approachable; smile, use open body language and look interested. Give the person something to respond to such as a comment about the event or the weather, or the food. Spot a visual clue and develop it. It may be a scarf they are wearing, or a comment about the wait for a coffee e.g. “It’s always crowded here isn’t it? But I think the coffee’s worth the wait” or “Are you enjoying the conference?”
Steer: Go with the conversation flow and try to find common ground – look for similarities. Ask questions. Make sure you actively listen and then say what you would like to talk about. Remember networking is not just socialising – you usually have a purpose to make connections, even though it is not always apparent how the person you are networking with can help. Steer the conversation in directions of interest, and use open questions.
Close: Notice when the person has had enough – you can usually pick up on some visual cues such as a glazed look, or them looking around for someone else to talk too (ideally close before it reaches this stage!). Recap the conversation and pick out relevant highlights. A great way to exit the conversation is to bring someone else into the conversation, or to express a personal need such as needing to refill your glass or mug, or going to the bathroom. Alternatively, become comfortable with end phrases such as “It’s been great to meet you. I am just going to catch up with other people now. Hope to keep in touch.”
Keep in contact. If this is a person you want to continue to network with, you will need to keep in touch. This is where business cards come in handy. Exchange cards, and as you leave ensure you jot down a note on the back of their card about who that person is and any follow-up action. If you’d prefer not to distribute business cards in this COVID area, some conference goers find it handy to slip their business card in the back of their mobile phone case, and suggest the other person take a photo of your business card instead. You might follow-up later with an email, meet in online forums or connect on Twitter. If appropriate, suggest a follow-up meeting.
Networking is a great skill to foster and hopefully not only with you enjoy networking events more, but it may lead you to future employers or research collaborators. Teaching-academics also find networking a useful way to connect with other lecturers in similar roles at other universities. Having outside contacts can assist you with benchmarking, sharing teaching ideas or just swapping notes about how to deal with tricky research and teaching issues that crop up. (The team behind 23Things International has grown mostly from chance meetings at conferences and finding friendly connections that encouraged us to keep in touch!)
And finally… it’s an oft-repeated truth that the most interesting and important things at conferences happen not during papers but during coffee and other ‘break out’ sessions. Consider when you can make the most of any social activities planned as part of the conference, as participants will likely be more relaxed and open to chatting there, rather than just before they have to deliver a paper. The more you manage to enjoy yourself at the conference, the more you’re likely to get out of it.
Doyle, A. (2018). How to use networking to find a job.
Ibarra, H., & Hunter, M. (2007). How leaders create and use networks. Harvard Business Review, 85(1), 40-47.
Streeter, J. (2014). Networking in academia. Science & Society.
The Academic Association for Contemporary European Studies (n.d.). Tips and tricks for academic networking.
Building on Networking Contacts
An essential element of networking is maintaining the contact after the initial meeting, which can often feel just as hard as breaking the ice. Even if you managed to speak to your academic idol at a big conference, the doubts can start to creep in when you get home – Will they actually remember me? Were they just being polite about discussing my project? Have I left it too long / not long enough to follow up?
These sorts of worries are quite closely connected with ‘imposter syndrome’, about you feeling ‘at home’ in these environments, and entitled to make yourself heard. So, let’s say this explicitly: You are absolutely permitted and even encouraged to network in academia and contacting others is not an imposition – most people are pleased to be contacted and to share their passions.
A helpful way to think about this is that networking is not about transactions but relationships. It may be true that the people you meet will be helpful for your career or have some information you want, but remembering that they are people first and targets second is essential. If you can concentrate on enjoying talking about your subject with others and getting to know interesting people, this takes some of the pressure off and makes it easier to break the ice. Creating the foundations for relationships not only builds stronger and longer-lasting connections, but also frees you from the sense of guilt or inauthenticity that can pop up thanks to imposter syndrome.
So, don’t hesitate and talk yourself out of following up on the conference contact. Find points of connection with the people you’ve met – which may be non-academic – and think about what you might offer them as a correspondent or collaborator. Do you share an interest in kitesurfing, stop-motion animation, Scrabble or camping, for example? Have you visited the same archives or cities? Most academics respond readily to interesting topics, are generous with their time and resources, and are pleased to be able to talk about their research and their favourite academic topics. Experienced academics often enjoy encouraging and supporting early career academics, so don’t feel too hesitant about contacting even high-profile individuals. (Though to insert a note of realism, such people are also usually very busy and running twenty projects at a time, so don’t fret if there’s no initial reply.)
Other points of access
Join Learned Societies in your discipline, as these will have mailing lists, internal events, and possible grants and prizes. Some professional societies issue regular newsletters that you can subscribe to
Make sure you know which conferences are coming up and think strategically about who may be attending that you would like to meet:
Following and subscribing to academics’ blogs can also be a good entry point – commenting and contributing helps the blog owner and it’s likely they are followed by others in the field. Many blogs welcome guest blogs and it is usually possible to subscribe to such blogs, which ensures you are notified when new blogposts are published.
And consider including a link to your recent publications, website or blog in your email signature, making it easier for other people to find and remember you.