Building rich research and expansive networks is a core aspect of a successful academic career. Similarly, if you’re looking to move beyond academic research, breaking into professional networks and getting to know who’s who and what they do, is also crucial for getting the vital stats, and a foot in the door.

Researchers are always, and very modestly, telling me they’re really bad at networking… but that’s not what I observe of them. Maybe it’s the old definition of the corporate schmooser that’s confusing the issue. I don’t think academic networking is about elevator pitches and popping on your pushy pants, and I’m not going to reduce it to a ‘skill’ that you can perfect in 10 top tips.

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Researchers actually get a lot of practice at networking both formally and informally, because that’s at the core of how research gets done and communicated. It’s not so much what’s happening in our own department that interests us academically, the real circles we move in are at disciplinary level, and are dispersed internationally. We connect virtually through our writing (articles, papers, grant/fellowship applications, blogs, twitter, recommendations/references) and face to face through conferences, seminars, training workshops, meetings, and other professional gatherings. And we work for huge organisations with a lot of people who know how to navigate systems and get things done. Knowing those people means you will also know how to get things done.

Being aware of the opportunities to meet and talk to people in key discipline areas, creating yourself a strong and visible profile, and shaping the messages about how people understand your expertise, will allow you understand how a specific field works, and to leverage opportunities for funding, collaboration, and for your future employment.

Consider, have you ever thought about giving an endorsement, important responsibility or a job to someone you’ve never heard of? Likelihood says not, it just doesn’t make sense to give important work to unknown quantities.  Trust in each other’s abilities, and credibility, is built as relationships build. In other words, if I know you, I’ve talked to you in person, seen examples of your work with my own eyes, or got a personal endorsement or recommendation for you, I am more likely to respond positively to you.

Ok but where can this have real career impact? We can learn lessons about the value of professional networks by investigating researchers who successfully transitioned to an independent research career by gaining a research fellowship award. *

All fellows reported that at the stage of contemplating and developing a fellowship application they had sought to actively build their networks to support or enhance their applications. Aspiring fellows also activated their pre-existing contacts to take on various roles, for example giving feedback on their developing project ideas, or preparing for the interview presentation.  Interestingly all fellows talked about the necessity of being able to take action and ask for help, and often also described needing to get used to the accompanying sense of discomfort that comes with asking others for assistance.

There’s a short video here where you can hear some of the research fellows I interviewed talking about their networks.

And if academic research isn’t your intended next move? Same rules apply, decide how you want to be seen and create a profile, and then put that information in front of the people who matter. Decide what you need to get done, and then go and meet people to help you achieve it.

Recently I was asked how to meet biotech/pharma recruiters by a PhD researcher. My go to resource – linkedIn (no surprise). I typed ‘biotech recruiter’ into the linkedIn search and got 281 results for people, 5 groups and 8 jobs. ‘pharma recruiter’ gave 557 people, 9 groups, 23 jobs. Bingo! Go impress!

Online tools and spaces for networking can be a really time effective way of connecting in to communities of people in specialist fields to get the latest news and information. And when you actively participate in online interactions, join the discussion, you start to raise your profile with those people. Something for you to think about is that your online presence is in effect your CV. If you apply for a job with me I will Google you, to find out more about you. Google yourself when you get a minute, what do you find online?

  • Is it complete information, or are there parts missing? What does it say about your expertise, your experiences, your specialisms, and your achievements?
  • Is it up to date information, does it include your latest achievements?
  • Does it say what you aspire to? What you’re aiming for in the future ?
  • Have you presented yourself well? Does it present you in the most positive way? Does it speak the language of those you’re hoping to connect with?
  • Would people want to connect with you, can they see al little bit about you as a person as well as a CV? Does your personality come through?

More learning – see here.

* Guccione, K (2016). More than lucky? Exploring self-leadership in the development and articulation of research independence. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, 1–37.