Society is a network. Social ties connect individuals, intersect and evolve. We endlessly explore this complex web of relationships, characters and opinions, sewing ourselves into it. Therefore, networking should, in principle, feel natural. Yet, this is not always the case. Instead, it can feel forced, superfluous and exploitative.¹
This falls into a bigger issue of soft vs. hard skills in academia. Today, a successful scientist must be able not only to produce knowledge of high quality, novelty and impact, but also to, colloquially speaking, make it sexy and, ultimately, sell it — to the journal referees and editors, to the funding bodies and promotion committees.
In this ‘soft skills toolbox’, networking is a screwdriver. It can open the doors for you and it can insert you into the right place.
Networking is how you get to know the right people and, more importantly, how they get to know you.
While most decisions in academia should be based upon objective, quantifiable criteria, a human factor still has an impact on those decisions. As a result, something as intangible as a positive, competent and confident impression on the right person can make a difference between a ‘reject’ and a ‘major revision’, between a poster and a talk, between being the second choice and being the one who gets the job offer. These things are obvious in their utility and in their contribution in stigmatising academic networking.
To make the networking not only bearable, but also enjoyable, embrace the non-strategic aspect of it.
These spontaneous connections are insightful — into how a given field or research is developing, what the specific aspects of academia in a given country are, what the trends in hiring in a given institution are. These exchanges are also inspiring, much like the lecture sessions at this same conference, but with an added value of being a participant, not just an observer.
Finally, such interactions are therapeutic since what may feel like a storm inside one’s shell is likely a familiar experience for most peers at the same stage of their careers. If you are looking for a postdoc position for example, chances are half the people around are, have recently been, or are about to start doing just the same.
By now, hopefully, networking is starting to feel less inauthentic and intimidating. What can swing the mood further is, firstly, the realisation that networking takes place within… well, networks, thus voicing your goals to enough people would ultimately bring in the right people.
Secondly, networking is a social exchange, i.e. there is as much giving as there is receiving.
‘It is better to give than to receive’ is not just a societal norm of etiquette, but an established scientific fact. Even if you come to this conference dinner to advance your own agenda, through networking you will be additionally rewarded with the pleasure of giving — by assisting, informing, inspiring and supporting the others. In networking, giving transforms into receiving.
Successful — and enjoyable — networking requires emotional intelligence and clear understanding of its purpose. Networking with people you don’t know, leaving the comfort zone of your lab mates or the nurturing wing of your supervisor is another guideline that is obvious and appreciated.
Much less recognised and practiced is networking outside of one’s immediate research interests.
Inevitably, strategic networking is closely associated with attending strategically chosen conferences and workshops, leaving little to no time for other, less focused occasions.
This year I attended two such broad, science-related rather than purely scientific meetings, — the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to chemistry, and a Falling Walls Lab for Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellows. Both meetings did not have a constricted topic overlapping with my current or past research; instead they ranged in scope immensely, mirroring that of the Chemistry Nobel prizes and of the MSCA-funded projects respectively. I did not plan to network so as to promote my research or facilitate a future job application. I did not expect to be inspired for new research directions. I did not anticipate getting insights into other career paths. I did not hope to receive a validation and a reassurance for my doubts and concerns. But I did experience all of the above.
Attending specialised meetings is an integral part of an academic career. Productive networking at those events is an integral part of a successful academic career. Leaving time and space for seemingly purposeless (in terms of well-defined research interests and career goals) meetings is an integral part of being a driven, creative and sociable scientist and person.
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This post was written by Ganna (Anya) Gryn’ova
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[¹] Tiziana Casciaro, Francesca Gino and Maryam Kouchaki, Learn to Love Networking, Harvard Business Review 2016, 5, 104–107
[²] Louise Harkness, Can introverts survive in scientific research? ECR2STAR
[³] Allen R. McConnell, Giving really is better than receiving, Psychology Today