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Thing 22: Researcher Networking

Dr Tseen Khoo, Senior Lecturer in Research and Development, La Trobe University, Melbourne

Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith, Professor in Higher Education and Geography, University of Otago


No matter which industry or area you build your career in, your networks are crucial elements that can boost your confidence and success. Knowing key people in your field, supporting colleagues, peer reviewing, attending conferences, using LinkedIn or social media, joining learned societies and mailing lists are great ways to stay informed, establish your reputation and enhance your knowledge. No matter how good your skills and qualifications, having links and personal connections with others can boost your opportunities and help develop you as a researcher.


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Photo by Mulyadi on unsplash.com


Networking - love it or loathe it? 

For a lot of people, networking is a dirty word, bringing up images of having to talk to a room full of strangers, or implying that you have to take a cynical or instrumental approach to gathering contacts. But there are many ways to network and going to networking events can be the worst way to do it! Effective networking is about creating mutually beneficial relationships and sharing passions. It is crucial for your career development, so it’s really good to know what form of networking you like best. This Thing will provide you with some practical strategies to develop and sustain your networks no matter what your style.

 

The best thing to do first is to throw out the idea that networking is about how many people you meet. It is not about quantity - it is definitely about quality. Effective networking is about relationship building and the most effective networking happens when you find mutual professional interests and passions.

 

First, let’s face the face-to-face face of networking, which, let’s face it, is often the hardest challenge facing researchers, or in fact anyone who finds such situations uncomfortable! It is not the only way to network but it can be a common one that we all encounter and must deal with.

Networking events in person

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 sounds familiar, you are not alone. Most of us are reluctant networkers; it is often the more extroverted among us who tend to enjoy networking events. However, networking at events is a key skill to learn, and it can be important for making research connections and employment prospects. 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. So, it’s worth investing some time and effort to foster your networking skills in general!


Let’s get back to that awkward in person networking event where you may find it difficult or intimidating 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!).  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 see you around.”


Keep in contact. If this is a person you’d like to continue getting to know, you will need to keep in contact. This is where business cards,  QR codes, or social media handles come in handy - or something as simple as ‘you can find me on LinkedIn’. You might follow-up later with an email, meet in online forums or connect via social media. If appropriate, suggest a follow-up meeting.


These posts on how to start conversations and conference small talk might be helpful when navigating conferences and other in person events. Finally, it’s often said that the most interesting and important things at conferences happen not during papers and formal sessions but in coffee queues, conference corridors, 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.


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Photo by Vlad Hilitanu on unsplash.com

Diverse ways to network and broaden your connections

There are many ways to network, not just at in person events. The listing below gives you a few ideas and strategies for building your own networking practices:  

  • Join or follow associations or societies in your discipline: These will have mailing lists, internal events, and possible grants and prizes. Some professional societies issue regular newsletters that you can subscribe to. Many scholarly groups and professional organisations are on social media. If you want to level up your connecting skills, volunteer to be a representative on an organisation’s committees, participate in special interest groups, or collaborate on working groups. The ‘return on investment’ for these activities is much higher than only attending networking or social events (see Burkus 2018). 

  • Plan your conference times - at least a little. Make sure you know which conferences are coming up. Browse who may be there and think about who you’d like to have a conversation with - here’s a much more detailed outline of how you can approach conference networking.

  • Cultivate an active, engaging digital profile. There are many ways to do this and it can be balanced with your level of time investment and interest in gaining skills on particular platforms: 

  • Set up your own website. It doesn’t have to be super slick - clear and well presented information about yourself and what you do can be an excellent digital ‘business card’ when people are looking you up after meeting you, or hearing about you. 

  • Develop a professional social media presence. There are many platforms to choose from these days and you can explore which ones suit the kind of connections you’re aiming to grow. Where are the people you want to talk to? Make sure you read and engage with Thing 14 about social media! 

  • Create and manage a blog in your areas of interest. If you don’t have the capacity to do that, you can follow and subscribe to other academics’ blogs. This can be a good entry point, and 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 you can contribute without having to sustain one on your own. 

  • Make sure you’re findable and easy to contact. Even if you don’t have a website, try to have a profile page that provides rich information about you. This could be a page on your university’s site, or a profile on LinkedIn or ORCID, for example.  Thing 2 on managing your online presence and Thing 19 on LinkedIn are helpful starting points here.   

  • Find out what kinds of research groups might be around you. There are plenty of scholarly reading groups, writing circles, theory discussion groups, and academic activist communities in existence. They are often right on your doorstep at your own university or in your town or city - but they don’t have to be local! The key is finding out what’s around you and get involved if you can. You can discover what’s around you by asking your peers, supervisors, and mentors, and by being connected to scholarly societies and associations who often share this kind of information.


Managing your networks

An essential element of networking is managing your connections after they’re initially formed, 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. Social media has made this kind of contact much easier at times as active social media users, whether they are PhD researchers or established professors, will most likely respond to questions and friendly approaches. 


However you decide to network, remember that the people you meet do not have to have an immediate purpose or information you want. If you concentrate on having genuine conversations about common interests and getting to know interesting people, this is the best way to approach growing your depth and diversity of professional connections.

 

So, don’t hesitate and talk yourself out of following up on that conference or social media 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 share 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 established individuals. Keep in mind, though, that most people are usually busy and trying to do too many things at once, so don’t fret if there’s no initial reply.


Networking is a great skill to foster, so find your preferred mode and jump in. Not only will you enjoy the whole idea more but it may lead to opportunities for new projects, jobs, invitations to visit or speak, and much more. Having outside contacts can assist you with benchmarking, sharing ideas or just swapping notes about how to deal with tricky research and teaching issues that crop up. (The team behind 23 Things International has grown mostly from chance meetings at conferences and finding friendly connections that encouraged us to keep in touch!)


Happy networking!


DISCUSSION - Mapping your networks

Think about your key goals over the next year, and what kinds of connections you may need to get there. Do you already have connections in place to support reaching your goals? For example, if you would like to do research with colleagues in another country, are you already in contact with possible collaborators, or will you need to investigate who these might be and how you might connect with them? 


A good exercise is to map your existing networks - think broadly across family, friends, and academic / professional connections. The size and diversity of your network can be surprising. Comparing your goals and kinds of connections you’ll need with your existing networks, can you see gaps that may need addressing?


Have a chat about these networking topics with your pod: 

  • What events, strategies or platforms have you found most useful for networking?

  • What kinds of connections do you need to develop to help achieve your career goals?

  • How might you stay connected to people you’ve met during the 23 Things program? 


Further resources



Doyle, A. (2018). How to use networking to find a job.   



Streeter, J. (2014). Networking in academia. Science & Society.


The Academic Association for Contemporary European Studies (n.d.). Tips and tricks for academic networking.




Tseen Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia) and one half of the Research Whisperer team.


Rachel Spronken-Smith is a professor in higher education and geography and works as an academic developer in the Higher Education Development Centre at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Her research interests include doctoral education, graduate outcomes, and inquiry-based learning. In her spare time she enjoys walking, e-biking, gardening and baking.


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