For some people, it’s the greatest thing ever. For others, it’s tantamount to a curse word.
Whether someone reminds you to “be sure to network!” at your next conference, asks if you have business cards ready to hand out to “broaden your network”, or maybe there’s an event in your diary reminding you of a “Networking Opportunity” that exists for the sole purpose of networking: you’ve more likely than not been inundated with the push to make strategic academic and career connections in and around your field of study.
The main issue addressed here regarding this necessary (but not always pleasant) phenomenon is how to find your comfort zone in getting the job done. Because yes, you probably do need to do it, not just for its ends in meeting the “right people” to make the next steps in your research career, but also for the skills that networking does offer you on a broader scale. So, when the concept is often referenced rather monolithically, how do you go about tackling this networking project?
Recognise Informal Opportunities
Networking events can be intimidating, uncomfortably, or flat out off-putting. For some, the premise is all that’s needed to accept the function itself: everyone is here to connect with people who may be able to help them in some way, shape, or form, and therefore, all bets are off, and any discomfort should be rightly checked at the door. But this isn’t everyone’s cuppa, naturally. For one of any number of reasons, it’s incredibly common that the ubiquitous Networking Soiree/Pub Night/Cocktail Party/Insert-Your-Event-Here is something that doctoral researchers actively avoid simply because they’re completely turned off to the prospect, even when they know that they do need to build their professional networks somewhere that isn’t LinkedIn.
So, if this approach is not everyone’s cup of tea? Seems that it’s high time to find another blend.
In order to combat the aforementioned aversion, it’s critical that we look to other venues where networking might take place more naturally. Peruse your school’s events and lectures—there are likely countless ones taking place across faculties—and don’t be afraid to do the same with nearby institutions. Make sure you’re up-to-date on your own faculty’s invited speakers as well, and attend the lectures given by those relevant to your field, speaking on things relevant to your interests, or even those who are working in tangential fields that may yield secondary contacts or opportunities for collaboration. Even if you’re not up to approaching the speaker themselves (though I encourage you to try, if you have a genuine shared interest—they’ll likely be keen to speak with you!), mull about with the rest of the audience: they’re there out of personal interest, just like you, and you might just do some networking in the process of grabbing hors d’oeuvres and a glass of wine.
Use Your Resources
One major thing that students don’t notice until far too close to commencement is their own Career Services offices—and even if they notice said office, they don’t necessarily utilise it; and it they do utilise it, they may overlook one of its most valuable assets: alumni connections.
Whether there’s a formal database and connection system, like St Andrews’ Saint Connect, or something less concretised, there’s almost certainly a way for you to get in touch with the people who can be of help to you in furthering your education now, your preparation for the job search later, and your overall career growth on the whole.
Aside from this, also make sure not to forget that your advisors are often the people that your peers from other institutions would love to have as a part of their network. They’re experienced, committed, and well connected. Learn from them actively, have conversations regularly, and don’t be afraid to ask if they can help connect you with their networks, as well.
Don’t Be Afraid to Go Digital
Some traditionalists may frown on this, but I’ve never once had a negative outcome from reaching out first to a potential connection via email. Sometimes, you go to a lecture and you miss the speaker before they leave. Or perhaps you start a conversation that didn’t get finished; or if it did, you leave with more to speak about. Maybe you read an article that speaks so profoundly to your work that there’s little you can think of wanting to do more than reaching out to the author, even if you’ve never met.
And the pivotal question is: what’s stopping you?
The absolute worst that can happen, more often than not, is a neutral non-response: and then you’re not better or worse off than you were to begin with, save for losing a few minutes in crafting a polite, professional email of introduction and inquiry (which you can always keep a draft of to tweak as such instances arise more frequently). But don’t be afraid to cold-email such people, or to be the first to reach out and keep a casual conversation going. It may just lead you to connections that absolutely transform your experience.
Paint With Bold Strokes (If You’re So Inclined)
This, like the initial example, is again not everyone’s cup of tea. But if it’s yours, then run with it. It can have excellent results.
It may seem terrifying, but if there’s a professional whom you admire and would like to connect with? Try presenting, writing an article, or otherwise publicly engaging with their work. Nothing may come of it, at first, but by adding to, commenting on, questioning, or even respectfully challenging (on well researched and defensible grounds, of course), you begin to enter the larger conversation around that scholar/professional.
And if you continue to contribute good, solid, thought-provoking work, asking useful questions that further the narrative and add to the larger compendium of related knowledge?
That scholar might think to attend a panel you’re on at a conference you’re both at. In some cases, they might just reach out to you.
One final word of advice, then: once a relationship is started, keep it going. Even if you just have reason to check in one a term, make sure the people you connect with remember you, and make sure you keep up-to-date with them. Not only is it common courtesy, but it keeps the door open for when that connection may benefit one or both of you in the future.