Kathleen Moore is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @kathleenmoore_ where she tweets about graduate education, mental health, and disability.
Networking is important.
Because you can meet knowledgeable people who know about your research area.
Because you want to establish yourself in your field.
Because you want advice from people who are five, 10, 15 years ahead of you career-wise.
Because you never know when ____will be hiring.
Because you never know when you will need a reference.
Networking is also a lot of work.
How do I know where to start?
Who do I start with?
How do I get a conversation started?
Can I, as a graduate, even talk to celebrity scholar Dr. Somebody? (DeWitt Scott writes about this here)
What if I say the wrong thing?
Why do I need to network, and build this network, to begin with?
I’m an introvert, I’ll never be able to connect with celebrity scholar Dr. OtherSomebody.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the self-talk graduate students engage in when they think about networking, but you get the idea. For graduate students, the academic environment can be intimidating and difficult to navigate. When you add challenges with imposter syndrome, networking can be a nightmare. But, it doesn’t have to be. The following recommendations give you some things to think about when you are trying to figure out how to network.
Location, location, location
When your goal is to build your network, you need to think about the location of the folks that you know. You want to reflect on how you would group your connections in contexts like your department, your institution, and in national and international contexts. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list and you may wish to add additional titles or contexts to these, such as employment or volunteer contexts. If you have a lot of connections in one context, think about where you need to fill some gaps. This works like a Curriculum Vitae (CV), in a way. When you look at your CV and see gaps (I’m looking at you, publishing section), you know that’s an area you need to work on. You have to think about which other contexts you need to focus on.
Why? Because these contexts are interconnected. If you are only thinking about connecting with folks in your department or institution, national and international connections may not even be on your radar. But, if one of your connections in your department can connect you with someone in the institution or beyond, you start to build your network. Like a spider web, everything is connected and your job is to not only spin the web and make it bigger, but to study the connected threads: Who is connected to whom? How are they connected? And why are they connected?
What works for you?
Not everyone is an expert at making connections, and some people even avoid this at all costs. Reflect on your strengths and weaknesses in terms of socializing and making connections. Not everyone can work a conference and come out with tons of business cards. If that’s the case, think about what else might work for you. There are services like Ten Thousand Coffees where you can connect with all kinds of people for a variety of reasons. Or, maybe you can build your online network. Joining Twitter chats is a great way to connect with other people. I meet people on Twitter and this often means we have already formed a connection prior to meeting in person. This might be a lot easier compared to a conference. Or, maybe you want to meet someone at a conference but aren’t sure of how to do this. If you aren’t comfortable connecting in a session, try reaching out to the person ahead of time and set up a specific time for coffee. Bottom line: Work your strengths and network in a way that you are comfortable with.
Who do you want to meet?
This may sound silly, but I recommend writing a list of who you want to meet. Then when you look at conference programs, Twitter conversations, workshop schedules, or public events, look for the names of people you want to meet. You never know when you might bump into someone from your list. You might even be in a position to invite someone from your list to an event you are involved in. In one of my roles, I was able to bring Dr. Inger Mewburn, The Thesis Whisperer, to a conference here in Canada. I wouldn’t have come up with this if she wasn’t on my list.
Do your homework
This may be the only opportunity you get to have a meaningful conversation with this person, so you want to make the most of it. What can you talk to this person about? There might even something specific you want to achieve in the conversation, like discussing research or writing collaboration. You need to think about these things ahead of time so that when the time comes, you’re ready. You never know when an opportunity to say something like this might come: “The project about ___ sounds interesting, who is working on that with you?” Their response: “____ and ____. You know, you should really talk to ___, they know a lot about your topic.” Paying attention to who is working on what and with whom is therefore also important.
Set networking goals for conferences
I would rather leave an event with two business cards instead of 10. In my experience, two cards of folks with whom I’ll follow-up are more valuable than a fistful I’ll have to sift through later. If you aren’t a fan of conferences, set a reasonable goal for how many meaningful connections you want to make.
Networking isn’t easy. It takes effort. And, it takes time… a lot of time. Your network won’t develop overnight. But, if you regularly reflect on who is in your network and strategically work on building it, you will see that network grow.
What strategies have you used to build your network and what would you recommend to others who are just getting started?
How do you build your network outside of the conference context?
[Image by Flickr user Ken Whytock and used under Creative Commons licensing.]