Networking in Academia: Beyond a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Academics view networking as a necessary and vital component of establishing a career in this field, but figuring out how to network (at least for me) has seemed like quite a black box.  How can we make sure our interactions with other scholars produce a well-developed network?  Especially during graduate school, we have a relatively short period of time to develop a network before we begin conducting independent research and go on the job market.  How can we ensure that our time at conferences, talks, and within our graduate program results in us knowing others who do research within our subfield (and, ideally, that they know us)? 

Some common strategies that I have heard of/seen in progress/tried myself consist of cold emailing professors to ask to meet at conferences, approaching speakers after a talk, going to a reception at a conference and striking up a conversation, and meeting with faculty that are visiting your institution.  While I think a lot of these interactions can be helpful and can provide a pathway to future communication, I have found them to have some limitations.  Most notably, they give us little time to develop a meaningful professional dialog.  Most of these may last up to an hour (if having lunch with a visiting scholar) or as little as five minutes (if chatting at a reception).  This limited amount of time often makes it feel difficult to meet the other scholar, discuss research interests, and especially ask for feedback on a project I am working on.  To be fair, all of the professors I have talked to in this manner have been more than friendly and very helpful.  But along the way, I have tried to seek other strategies to develop these professional connections.

With the limitations of some of these other strategies in mind, I’ve thought about some of my main goals of networking and what strategies could be better suited to meeting these ends.  For me, the key aims include fostering future collaborations and receiving feedback on projects from others knowledgeable in an area.  Even if you are not actively looking for a coauthor or trying to figure out an issue with a project, developing a solid network with a diverse skill set and research interests can still be beneficial for the future.  A well-established network can help you keep up with current research, develop new ideas for future projects, and ensure that you can find out the best data/literature/methods if embarking on a new line of research.  These networking objectives indicate one major necessity of networking strategies—they should produce long-lasting, meaningful professional connections.  With this in mind, I’ve tried to be more creative in thinking about how to network and who to network with.

I’ve seen outgoing colleagues start up conversations with ease upon meeting new acquaintances, making this seem like a skill that gives the naturally extroverted an advantage.  This doesn’t have to be the case!  One strategy that I have found particularly effective is seeking out workshops or trainings at other universities.  Many of these opportunities are funded, and have been a helpful and enjoyable way to get to know other scholars.  For example, I was able to spend a whole quarter at UC Davis, participating in a fellowship at their Center for Poverty Research, where I was able to meet students and faculty in the sociology department and other students participating in the fellowship.  I have also participated in several data training and methods workshops, such as the ICPSR Sumer Program, the PSID data training, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing data training, the UT Austin Summer Statistics Institute, and the New York City Longitudinal Survey of Well-being data training.  Many of these trainings last for at least a couple of days or up to a week, giving the participants ample time to meet one another. I’ve found these workshops to be particularly helpful for meeting other scholars who are interested in your subfield, which is great for understanding who is well-versed on certain topics and who might be interested in coauthoring on a project.  Academia is a small world, and it is likely that many people will begin becoming familiar faces, as you see them at more than one workshop or at a conference.

Further, it seems like much of the time “networking” is interpreted as “networking with professors.”  I don’t think this is the only approach, or even the most productive, and isn’t even what our advisors often mean when they encourage us to reach out!  Developing connections with graduate students, researchers or project coordinators for datasets, or industry contacts can be valuable sources of support and information.  Particularly when starting out as a graduate student and just beginning to attend conferences, introducing yourself to other students can feel much less intimidating.  For me, talking to other graduate students about their classes and conference presentations was a great way to share common experiences and get comfortable discussing research.  Further, getting to know other graduate students or postdocs, even with your own department, can mean that you automatically know professors at several institutions when they graduate and move on. 

In all, I’ve found it useful to realize that networking doesn’t have to mean becoming the most outgoing person in the room.  For me, the most successful networking has come when I sought out workshops and trainings, in which I had enough time to develop genuine connections over research and other academic experiences.  Also, I’ve found that developing a variety of ties—with faculty, graduate students, and staff members at various institutions—is crucial to forming a rich and diverse network.  Have you found other networking strategies that have worked for you?  Can we think outside the box to make networking more accessible for everyone? Tweet any thoughts you have to me at @EllenMWhitehead or email at ellen.m.whitehead@rice.edu.