The Dreaded Academic Networking Event
‘Hi. I’m Wesley’ said the six foot American wrestler as he approached me with his hand thrust out like a meaty bayonet. ‘Hi. I’m smrtfhqp’ I replied as I threw up on my shoes. Networking. Do we absolutely have to do it and, if so, how do we make the most of the dreaded Academic Networking Event? Spoiler: it’s not alcohol.
As an aspiring academic, I’d really rather not speak to anyone. Ever. What’s the point in working hard for all that knowledge and understanding if you have to share it with others? But it turns out that we have a moral obligation to advance humanity’s understanding of the universe—or whatever—and sometimes that means speaking to people, sharing ideas and pooling resources. So yes: networking is absolutely necessary (if you want your individual research efforts to have been worthwhile).
I have always known this fundamental fact of science to be true but I was still slightly unprepared for the recent networking event I attended as part of an international conference in San Francisco, USA. So, here are some things that I wish I had known beforehand.
Everyone wants to Talk to You
It might surprise you, but a lot of people go to networking events for the networking (I thought it was the free food before Wesley changed my worldview) and actually want to talk to you. Those people are open to conversations about anything: while your chat will probably start off about research interests, you’ll find that it can quickly change direction and end up about anything from baking bread to the best Bay Area food spots. Although it might not seem like it at first, most networking events are actually extremely low pressure environments—so don’t worry and enjoy yourself.
Don’t just stick to Familiar Faces
If I could only take one thing away from my week in San Francisco, it would be that I should definitely be more Wesley. See someone standing on their own? Corner them and look menacing.
That’s obviously a joke but it can be tempting to stick with people from your own research group or university—or to spend the whole time with people you have met before. That’s what I did initially and it was a disaster. People tend to form small groups at the start of the event and stick together for the duration. In my experience, it’s much more difficult to network with groups of people than individuals. The introduction becomes more difficult for one (who do you thrust your hand towards on the approach?) but it’s also easier to feel like an outsider when people are already on first name terms and talking about their pets. After my initial false start, I set myself the goal of speaking to at least one new person during each networking opportunity (coffee breaks, lunch, poster sessions, etc).
You Don’t Need to Know what You Are Talking About.
Wesley certainly didn’t. Ok, that’s another joke. Sorry! Sometimes I just can’t contain myself. Wesley definitely does know what he’s talking about—why else would he be presenting at the conference? The point I’m making here is a short one: you only need to know about what you have done and there is nothing wrong with saying ‘I don’t know.’ The way I see it, if you leave an academic networking event with no new knowledge, you should question whether it was the right networking event for you.
Don’t Let Anyone Read your Poster
Although it’s important to design your poster in a way that can be understood when you’re not standing next to it, you are going to be standing next to it the whole time, right? Don’t let people read it. Instead, ask them if you can talk them through it. It’s a good way to interact with other people instead of standing by awkwardly as they read your poster in silence. I made more connections during the poster session than I did throughout the rest of the conference
Use Social Media
You want some way of following up with people after the event and, while business cards are useful, I found that most people were using LinkedIn or Twitter to connect. I have a LinkedIn account but it’s like an empty house I’ve just moved into: bare walls, no carpets and I’m still living out of boxes. I would recommend having a complete and up to date professional online presence that people can use to stay connected with you. If you have a smartphone, download the app and connect with people in real time to save having to remember names and email addresses after the fact. Sacha wrote an excellent post on Boosting your Academic Visibility back in May—with a focus on social media. Check it out for some great advice on what (and what not) to share with potential collaborators.
Looking for More Information?
The University has a number of resources available to help you with your networking skills. A portion of the Gradschool workshop is specifically aimed at networking, but it’s definitely worthwhile keeping an eye on your email for events like Thesis Whisperer which contained some useful information on networking. If you want to dive right in, though, the Careers Service has a whole page dedicated to how networking can help your career.
If you have any tips or advice that you would like to share, then please let us know in the comments or on Twitter. In the meantime, though: you’ve got this. Go make some new (academic) friends.