When I was tasked to write the Early Career Network’s guide to networking back in 2020, I had two initial thoughts. Firstly, what an honour! Writing in any Political Studies Association supported media is always a pleasure, and it’s good to support the organisation alongside the ECN. Then secondly … dread. I’m well known as being the anti-social type – the first person to run out of conference room, towards the coffee, and then to the sweet safety of hiding behind my mobile phone screen in-between talks. Who am I to be writing about networking of all things!? But even worse than that, we’re living in times where the majority of networking advice is irrelevant. With virtual or even hybrid events becoming the norm, there is little space to practice the advice of introducing yourself at a conference by walking up, saying hello, asking a few questions, before reciting your well-rehearsed elevator pitch.
That being said, I’ve done all-right with myself when it comes to networking. It’s rare I’ve gone into a conference without knowing someone to chat with, and I’ve formulated relationships that have gone onto published papers and co-authorships. I’ve must be doing something right.
Then it dawned on me. After reading advice and blogs on the subject, most of which describe it as a vitally important activity that will go on to decide your career, I’ve accidentality accepted the almost ‘mythical and mysterious’ status that academic networking has been given. I’ve been overthinking it all this time. Furthermore, while most advice focuses on a small sample of spaces where networking supposedly happens, I’ve found networking is something which happens in PGR offices, online, and a myriad of other spaces – not just at conferences.
For the original guide, I was told to keep it under 600 words, but soon found myself writing over 4,000 as I thought more about how I’ve come to think of networking, it’s benefits, and how to get started. The below guide is drawn from my years as a PGR student and post-doc, and also my media engagements, conference papers, publications, and most importantly interactions on this very subject with fellow ECN’s and members of my peer group. Hopefully, it’s a bit of reading that will put the idea in context, stop you worrying, and give you some tips to get started. At minimum, it’s a piece of writing which has helped me develop a different perspective on the subject.
What isn’t Networking anyway?
An assured bit of advice you’re going to receive when starting your PhD journey is that you need to network. When I first started, it was a notion that really stressed me out. I was repeatedly warned that it was important, and if I didn’t go to conferences, introduce myself to strangers I’d have no future in academia: an introvert’s nightmare fuel.
Reading through article after article, and blog after blog, I was given the impression that networking was the second most important activity I should be doing after research. But at the same time, there is an almost immediate expectation that PhD students are social butterflies who can go out and ‘work the room’ with talented small-talk, and finally there’s the emphasis that it’s a conference-centric activity. One blog even suggested finding out the most well-known academic attending a conference, research out their non-academic interests to build a rapport, and implant your name in their memory. The suggested result would be you could contact them at a later date for an assured post-doc. To me, that’s just creepy, and if anyone tried doing that to me, I’d be mortified.
My main concerns with some of the perspective I read can be summarised as follows:
- Firstly, it over-emphasises how important networking is by presenting it as something that without, you’ll undoubtedly fail. This ends up causing anxiety to those who aren’t natural socialites or those who may be neurodivergent who as a result might find networking a challenge.
- There’s a focus on it being all about conferences. Which isn’t exactly helpful post-COVID-19, and ignores all the wonders of the internet.
- And finally, it turns building a network of peers, into a resource generation procedure – viewing your network as less of a social kinship, and into simply a thing to exploit.
But from my own experience, I can tell you what networking isn’t. It’s certainly not barging into random people and woo’ing them. It’s not something that is aimed at creating connections with famous established academics with the explicit purpose of getting a job down the line. It’s certainly not trying to be the most popular kid in the room either. And it’s not something to obsess about.
What is Networking?
When I’d stopped worrying about networking, and started doing, it became apparent what it actually is, and it’s so simple that it might annoy you: it’s the development and facilitation of authentic mutually beneficial professional relationships.
The pressure to network comes from the results of these connections, which can be advantageous to your research journey and beyond. Friendly bits of advice from someone you met two-years ago that changes your paper from a good one to a ground-breaking new concept. You might collaborate on a paper together with someone from a distant university in another country because you happened to bump into someone at an online conference. You might hear about a post-doc position or other opportunity by word of mouth that goes on to advance your career because you followed them on Twitter. And then there’s all the benefits of just having friends in what is now your wider workplace community.
Networking is something which happens in PGR offices, online, and a myriad of other spaces – not just at conferences.
Even people who you only have limited contact with have the potential to help or ignore you – particularly those if they’re not researchers such as professional services staff. For instance, being friendly with your schools’ administrative team may mean that a few months down the line they’ll help you with an application form, even if they’re already busy. In-kind, you might help them promote some information that needs to be shared with the wider PGR community in your department. Networks stop you being ignored in a world with a lot of faces and can grease the squeaky wheels of informal information flows that makes everything run just that little bit better.
You’ll notice something about the above. These are all things you receive from being supported, and importantly not mentored. The difference between them is that networking is more often a two-way connection you get from your peers, not your superiors.
It should also be remembered that academic networking is something that requires your time and effort. This can be difficult, especially as it’s an activity that doesn’t often come with immediate results (if at all). But over time, you’ll notice that members of the wider department know you, you’re invited to give talks, people are opening research dialogue with you, and your Twitter DM’s get interesting opportunities by friends who think you’d be a good fit. All of which shows that your network is doing well.
But at the same time, hopefully, you’re opening the doors for others too.
Where can you Network distantly?
Ok ok, the above is all good and well, but how do you even get started? In basic terms it’s about being friendly, establishing yourself as an academic, being active in the field, being seen to be active, inviting others in, helping others, and encouraging dialogue. But where this happens is an equally important question. Here are four spaces where you should start your networking journey.
More than ever with remote working, it’s important for you to make an active effort to build relationships with your direct peers within your department. Without being in the same physical space as your peers it’s even easier to feel isolated. Therefore, it’s up to you to be proactive: Join social media groups or messenger chats with your office or create and promote some if there are non-already (more on social media later). Make sure to go to online events, Zoom socials, and meetings – treat them as a way to get to know people and hear about their work when relevant. Some universities might also offer training which on-top of being a great way to upskill yourself, is another opportunity to show your face and say hello to others.
When you’ve got a good idea of who is in your department, it’s a good time to introduce yourself to other PGRs at the department within your field and set up a quick online meeting to discuss your research. Students nearing the end of their PhD are often happy to offer advice about both research and the department in return for a quick chat (although they’re also going to be very busy at this stage of their PhD). When you’ve gotten to know someone a bit, you can offer to read over one of their chapters or a conference paper they’re working on to give feedback.
As you progress through your studies, remember the kind hand people showed you when you joined and be willing to welcome and introduce new PhD students to the department. If you never received such a welcome, be the change you want to see in the world and offer to show newbies around. They will certainly appreciate it!
Depending on the departmental culture, staff members might also be willing to engage in networking and can be useful for directing you towards lesser-known but helpful resources. Academics, like yourself, are also going to be working on papers and are very happy to talk about their research, that doesn’t stop after you’ve passed the viva. Don’t forget professional support staff. For instance, get in contact with your department’s communication manager. Ask about how and what types of stories they’d be interested in, and when to send it to them. These types of conversations often make their lives easier in the long run, and you never know, they might direct a media enquiry your way in the future.
Ultimately, with remote working, there might be a few speculative emails, but if they’re anything like me, they’d be happy to receive them and welcome a chat at some point!
Learned societies such as the Political Studies Association and the Early Career Network
One of the things we established with networking within your department was that it’s important to find out about your research home after you move in: who lives there, what do they do, and to welcome all the new starters as they come in. But your department doesn’t have to be your only home. Learned societies (such as the PSA) offer a much wider community for you to engage with. This also gives you a connection to people who are more relevant to your academic research through either specialist groups, or if you’re after some kinship with people also going through a PhD or are an Early Career Researcher, the ECN is certainly the place to meet like minded people.
Engaging through these bodies couldn’t be easier. For instance, the ECN offers online events, social channels/groups, and allows members to post messages within the newsletters. If you’re looking for someone in a certain area to connect with, pop us a DM on Twitter, and we’d happily give you a retweet. Likewise, the PSA also offers a wide degree of webinars and specialist group online events where you have the opportunity to find out about other people in your research area, what they’re up to, and their contact details.
Certainly, one of the benefits of PSA membership is giving you that resource of being able to connect with a huge network of academics across UK institutions (and often internationally too), away from your department. And indeed, I’ve made many friends and connections through them!
Online Conferences and Webinars
Just because most offline conferences (especially in the UK) have been postponed or even cancelled, that isn’t to say there aren’t viable online alternatives. Last year, the ECN hosted it’s first-ever virtual conference #BecauseTheInternet, and will once again be hosting it’s conference online in 2021 with #RAM21, while the PSA’s annual conference 2021 was also be online. As a benefit, the online model makes many conferences that would be prohibitively expensive to travel to within your reach! Therefore, a mild benefit to all of this is the accessibility to expand your network abroad without expensive air-travel or environmental impact.
Likewise, there are also many online webinars offering skills for information sessions for ECRs where you can learn about others in the area and their research. There are many that you might be able to find that are relevant for your research. For me, I’ve partaken in the UK Data Service’s series on accessing research data, the online events hosted by the International Parliament Engagement, and the PSA’s Teaching and Learning Network’s webinars. From which I’ve connected with multiple relevant people through group task sessions or Q&As.
Online platforms also make it much easier to find and contact speakers to ask additional follow-up questions to other’s presentations if you’re interested or can only make it to a recording of the presentation rather than the live screening. Do ask about their work and results and offer relevant insights from your work or of others if you can. Remember that the person you are talking to also wants to cultivate a broad network, and they are likely to be as interested in your research as you are in theirs.
I genuinely think one of the core dividing lines between old-school and new academics is their willingness to network through social media websites. I’ve spoken to peers who are advocates against going on social but are then amazed by the connections I’ve built over time through Twitter or more niche research focused platforms. Simple acts such as sharing an interesting slide from someone’s presentation (and tagging them in) on Twitter have led to more interesting bits of communication down the road. In addition, you can be cheeky, especially so on Twitter, and find out whom other people follow that are relevant to you. At the same time, countless Twitter lists act as a directory of academics within political science and specific subdisciplines. We at the ECN even made one for all the presenters at our #BecauseTheInternet conference.
Networking on social media can be as easy as following people whom you think are of interest and waiting until they post something you think worthy of a comment. Sometimes it stays as a comment, sometimes it leads to further conversations. Other times, simply following someone alerts them of your presence and your research (so it’s important to have an accurate biography on your profile).
I’ve also found social media useful to find out about people who are practitioners in my area, but not necessarily academics. This includes people who work as researchers in third-sector organisations, politicians or advocates interested in the area of your research.
Undertaking a search for keywords in your field will show relevant people to network and follow. For example, as someone who researches social media, a simple Twitter search for “social media research” shows me a list of relevant researchers and academics. Many I’ve already connected with! Meanwhile, on platforms like Reddit and Facebook, you’ll often find groups dedicated to discussion to your research area, research tools, or research communities (Like our ECN Facebook group).
Social media is also a great place for you to share and get some early attention to your research, and you’ll often encounter researchers stumbling upon your work by accident and leaving a comment.
Some quick social media tips
- When it comes to online networking, make sure you’re visible. Have profiles set up on relevant social media platforms (Twitter is often used by academics, alongside ResearchGate and having an ORCID profile).
- Use a similar name/profile picture across different platforms and make sure to link to them when relevant (such as your Twitter handle and website URL in your email signature). This makes you easier to recognise cross-platform and easier to find.
- Fill your biography with keywords relating to your research area. This allows people to get a very quick glance to see if you’re relevant, and also will help you be visible in searches.
- Find and connect with your department and universities social accounts. Most departments accounts will be willing to reshare your connect and help you network through their pre-existing audiences.
Networking can be doing
Another networking tactic frequently not considered is actually doing and being active in your research field. This puts your name next to the titles of blogs, research papers, and even events, and gets people to not only recognise your name as one active in the area but also gets them talking to you about your outputs.
There is certainly a cross over between research output dissemination and networking. For instance, writing blogs and articles for the media has resulted in journalists and policy researchers contacting me asking me for more information, or even to ask if I’d like to be interviewed about the subject I’m writing for. I even got an invitation to speak on a special research seminar at Harvard University through this activity! While the same can be said for publications. At the end of the day, producing research outputs and sharing them with a wide as possible audience draws in people with shared interests (not just from within academia) and puts you on the radar of those that can provide you with opportunities down the line.
Platforms like the PSA ,ECN, LSE Blogs, and ECPR’s The Loop are very welcoming to receive your guest blog posts!
Therefore, I like to consider another form of networking as through not only attending events or engaging with other’s outputs, but by setting yourself apart by producing content in your field or even creating events for others to engage with too. One great way to combine networking activities, getting your name out there, and going some way to benefit the overall student experience is a to propose PGR-led events. Although you will often be able to find support from your School or even the ECN for these. These can be anything from small seminars or workshops to more exciting social activities.
Likewise, you might want to create resources that are useful for the wider PGR community. One such example is Jack Bailey who sought to create a Slack channel for ECRs studying democracy, elections, voting etc (https://polisciecrs.slack.com). While others have sought to create Twitter lists of political science ECRs to bring them together. Of course, this comes with the fine line of trying not to spam others with your wonderful ideas, especially if there are already similar resources out there.
All these events, outputs, and PGR resources expands your networking opportunities. Effectively, you’re removing the passiveness that comes with some other approaches to networking and going out there to facilitate events yourself. Plus, everyone wants to know the organiser of events and resources!
In the age of remote working, some of these events might even be easier to organise too – with many universities providing event spaces via Teams and free tiers of products like Zoom give you ample opportunities to promote your event. And provided it’s suitable the PSA ECN would be happy to share your events and activities to the wider community!
Event Proposal Case Study: “Laser Cut your PhD”
“Laser Cut your PhD” was a workshop I proposed back in 2018 while as the PGR rep within the school of Arts and Media, at the University of Salford. I wanted to create an event to replace the lack of social events currently being offered and to help build a sense of community among current PhD researchers. However, there was a significant struggle due to the diverse range of subjects within the school – any subject-specific event immediately lost the interest of most PGR students.
My approach, therefore, was to propose an event that was equally irrelevant to everyone’s subject area, but something that remains interesting for everyone nevertheless. Working with the department I was able to organise the first Laser Cut your PhD event in March 2018.
The event was simple, in a one-and-half hour workshop, students could learn how to design and create a laser-cut coaster, engraved with something relevant to their PhD then watch it be created! It was an all-out win for everyone: the maker-space in Salford University engaged with an audience it hadn’t done before, PGR students learnt a new skill, and the school was happy… because well … PGR events like this don’t happen every day and it was good PR.
The result was a well-publicised workshop that was distinctive, but most importantly community building. The event also created more than just coasters, it created discussion. PGRs discussed issues relating to the community, the spaces that have available, shared information on sources of help and guidance. All in all, the event was also fantastic as a networking tool. Amongst perceptually distant university staff I became known as the PGR student that offered an interesting new event. I also become well known across the PGR community that spans multiple disciplines for offering something different, and ultimately made connections that still prove useful today! Even more, after I finished my PhD, the school continued to run the event which made me feel like I’d left a positive contribution to the department.
Some final networking tips
Be happy. This may seem a bit insincere, but generally speaking, people don’t want to engage with someone whose first interaction is for them to unload all their worries onto them like some emotional vampire. There’s an old book called How to Win Friends and Influence People, in which it’s discussed the value of smiling, and how it’s often the first step to build new relationships. Later studies finding that smiling people are more likely to be rated as likeable, confident and stable – all traits people look for in a collaborative academic relationship. Meanwhile, people who don’t smile are often rated as unfriendly and unapproachable and therefore you’re less likely to engage with them. Likewise, if you’re connecting via social media, it’s equally important to keep a positive tone to your messages.
At the end of the day, we’re all evolved from monkeys, and, no matter how much training or academic research we conduct, we’ve done an excellent job of maintaining some of our human social oddities – even if that means our first opinion of someone can be based on if they’re smiling or not.
DON’T BE THE ANGRY PERSON. Many of us have been to events where there’s one person who responds to a presentation with unfair and overly targeted criticism, sometimes spilling over to comments which are purely rude or passive-aggressive. Don’t be that person.
Don’t overemphasise the need to tell others about yourself. In the eyes of your peers, how much you’re willing to listen and engage with them is just as important as how much you’re willing to talk about how great you are. If you’re simply being quiet in a conversation because you’re waiting for an opportunity to talk again… you’re doing conversations wrong. Make sure you take notice about that they have to say and enquire more about the points that they make. This will help build a reputation as someone who doesn’t talk at you but talks with you.
Be generous. Doing people favours will often mean they will return in kind! Relationships are a two-way street and you can’t expect someone to read over a chapter or provide you with guidance without something in return.
Don’t focus upwards. Some people’s method of networking is to solely try and schmooze in with the well-known actors in your field. However, it’s often your peers who will be experiencing the same lived experience as you and will have the most relevant bits of advice. Furthermore, people can often build more authentic networks with people who are like them – either studying in the same area or are at the same stages of their career.
Follow up. Have a plan to follow up on questions or somebodies research. That means getting their contact details (be it an email or a social account) and making sure to get back to them! Once you’ve made that connection, make sure to stay in touch.
Academic networking isn’t a mythical beast that needs to be slain. But more an activity whereby you attempt to put yourself out there into the same spaces as your peers, and then talking to them as a helpful colleague. And even though lockdown has put a dampener on many of the spaces we’d traditionally meet our fellow researcher, the internet and social media still provide us with a plethora of spaces to stamp our name, find others, and send them a friendly “Hello! Your research is really interesting, I’d like to know more.”
|After this, get yourself a pen and paper and think about…|
· What actions can you do now to start networking outside of your current department or school?
· Who do you know that seems good at forming networks of their peers? What can you learn from them?
·Which people outside of academia would it be good to network with? Who will my research resonate with?
· What is a terrible tactic for networking?
This is a much expanded one from a guide I originally wrote for the Political Studies Association Early Career Network’s PhD Guide. Click here to read The Essential Guide for PhD Students 2020-2021.