As researchers, we live in an era where collaboration – with other scientists, practitioners, policymakers, across disciplines, institutions, sectors and countries – is increasingly common and necessary. Addressing complex global problems requires a range of skills and resources that are typically not possessed by a single researcher or their immediate research team, but rather necessitate the input of a number of collaborators. This can be seen, for example, in changes in the nature of co-authorship of research papers. Across a range of disciplines, the number of papers with more than 100 authors has risen from virtually nil in the early 1980s, to over 500 by 1990; the first paper with 1,000 authors was published in 2004; in 2011 44 papers in physics alone had more than 3,000 authors; and in 2015 a paper with a record- breaking 5,154 authors was published. Admittedly co-authorship is only one indicator of research collaboration, and most of us will never publish papers with anything like these co-author numbers, but they do speak to significant changes over time in collaborative approaches underlying the production and reporting of scientific knowledge.
In order to form collaborations – as well as to help our day-to-day work run more smoothly, contribute to our institution and discipline, facilitate our career progression, and for a range of other reasons – we need to network. Most of us accept this, and some EMCRs enjoy it. But for others, the idea of networking can be daunting or downright frightening. “The thought of reaching out cold or pushing myself onto a stranger because I want something makes me incredibly uncomfortable”, is a refrain I’ve heard in a number of similar forms. But networking need not involve this at all. This post is dedicated particularly to those EMCRs who struggle with networking, although hopefully also provides some inspiration for seasoned networkers too.
People often picture networking as standing awkwardly around a room, business cards in hand, scanning the crowd and trying to pluck up the courage to make an approach. I’ve been there and personally I would rather eat my next paper than be in that position again. There are loads of other more imaginative, less threatening and more meaningful ways to network, like these.
Five networking activities that don’t feel like networking
1. Do your research: Before you start, consider who you’d like in your network, and why. Who might be a potential research collaborator, or an industry link, or a user of your research, or a mentor, or an information or support source, or a valued member of your network for other reasons? The answers to this question should be linked with your career goals (another reason for having a career plan, or two; if you don’t see here for how to get one).
2. Network online: This removes the anxiety that can come with face-to-face approaches. Get past the idea that networking online is stalkerish – most people don’t think twice about reaching out (appropriately) to others in professional online forums. You don’t have to be a social media demon but at least invest the time to create and maintain one decent social media profile, such as on LinkedIn. You can reach out to key people (e.g. those you identified in Step 1) directly on LinkedIn, but try too to expand your professional circle (and give back on social media) by also checking out LinkedIn groups in your area, contributing to relevant online discussions, posting useful posts or resources, or commenting on others’ professional blogs (or consider starting one of your own!). If you read a paper or hear a talk that is relevant and interesting, consider dropping an email to the author/speaker to tell them you liked their work (and depending on your intentions – see step 1 – that you would be keen to ask questions/hear more/stay in touch/meet/other).
3. Make the most of your professional organisations and existing networks: Join professional societies or other bodies in your discipline, and become an active member. This will connect you to other members of your profession at a range of career levels. Attend their conferences and events, and contribute to subgroups. Check if your society holds events particularly targeting EMCR members; if not, why not scope interest/feasibility of starting this? Similarly, investigate what alumni networks exist for the University you attended, and connect with those. Speak with your mentor about linking you with potential new network members.
The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.
4. Volunteer: Stepping up to a service role can be a fabulous way to network (this was how I scored the best networking experience I ever had – for details and examples see here). Contribute to your professional organisations (see step 3) by offering to help organise events; review abstracts for their conferences; contribute to their newsletters or write content for their website. Volunteering for relevant service roles in your institution can be a great way to expand your networks close to home.
5. Build a two-way street: Networking is not about using people to get something you want. While networking can bring many benefits, it’s also about you being a valued member of others’ networks. Rather than waiting to approach career contacts with an ‘ask’ when you need something, build and foster valuable professional networks before you need anything, and contribute to these by helping out your contacts when you can: for example, by forwarding resources, news or job postings to contacts you think might benefit from them.
A special note on networking for introverts
People who are introverts (i.e. who gain energy from being alone, and tend to find social events draining) would typically prefer to face a chamber of dementors (whom at least don’t care for small talk) than ‘network a room’.
Susan Cain, author of New York Times best-seller “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking“, provides a number of networking tips for introverts here. There are also a few good ideas here.
- Take out your EMCR notebook/file and complete step 1 above. How might you connect with these people?
- List three networking activities that you can do in the next three months. Commit them to a time in your calendar, and follow up.