When I first started my PhD I thought there were two basic kinds of PhD students; those that were natural networkers and those that were not. The first type would be excellent at not just making contacts, but filling them with actual content and keeping them. That would be impressive enough, but the best part of it would be that they do it naturally, without appearing too interested or seemingly using people for their own purposes. I was certainly the second type. Any thought of networking would fill me with dread. It was not necessarily the talking to people that made me feel anxious (as I am quite a chatty person when I get going!), but rather the thought that they would feel I was only making conversation out of selfish interest.
I knew I had to change the way I viewed networking if I wanted to have a successful academic career, or at least that is what I was told in all the training sessions I attended. Still, I felt uneasy. The more I saw some of my peers excel as networkers, the more I felt alienated by the idea. Until I realised that there are different ways of viewing networking. The world of academia is small, very small, and in order to be part of it you must make an effort to be a full citizen of that world. Being that citizen involves not just engaging in your community and being nice to people, but also discovering new areas and new people doing research, etc… And when you do that, usually, the reward is that the community also feels that you are trustworthy of being a member of it and it provides you with new opportunities.
It does sound a little rosy, and with just cause. However, it does not always work in this way; after all you are networking with people who also want to be rewarded. I think the point is not to be constantly thinking about the possible immediate benefits; that would turn many people off, including me. Instead, the idea is that you must ensure you gradually become part of a community of scholars. But, how do you do that?
Well, I do not have a right or a wrong answer. I am still in the process of learning myself! But I do think that some things are key:
- Social skills – whilst you may spend most of your day reading and thinking about obscure things, and other academics do the same, they may not necessarily want to hear that in full detail at the conference dinner / drinks reception. Prepare a short blurb on your research that precise and to the point. Also be prepared to have a general chit-chat about everything and anything. Be nice.
- Go to places where other academics meet – make sure you are aware of what is happening in your area of research, conferences, seminar series, workshops, email lists, working groups, etc.
- Be prepared to help – although you may be a young academic you may also be of help to more senior academics. Be ready.
- Do not underestimate people – in an effort to impress, young academics focus their networking efforts only on senior academics. Whilst this may work for some, it is a risky strategy. From my own experience, people who are one step ahead from you are usually those who are more willing to offer you friendly advice. Don’t underestimate them!