by Dr Catherine Armstrong
Working as a postgraduate student or researcher can be a lonely job. You might be studying something that very few other people in the world understand. You might also be physically isolated, working alone in a library, an archive or in a laboratory. Every field of academic study has opportunity for collaborations, however, from the sharing of ideas with others to working alongside colleagues in high profile research projects. This article will explore some of the ways you can combat the isolation of research and begin to build an academic network that will benefit you throughout your career.
1. Start with your supervisor
Your supervisor or research mentor is the ideal starting point to help you to link up with scholars across the world working in your area. As an academic with a lot of experience in the field, your supervisor or mentor will have connections already established. If you build up a good working relationship with your supervisor you will be able to tap into a ready made network of contacts. You may also get good advice on the perils of liaising with certain people who are challenging to work with or those who have a viewpoint that clashes with yours!
2. Attend conferences
Another way of developing your own academic network is to attend conferences. It is important to find meetings that relate as closely to your work as possible. You will find that colleagues from institutions across the globe use conferences not only to present their work but also to meet with like-minded individuals. Don’t be put off if it seems as though everyone else knows one another already. Just be brave, approach someone and introduce yourself. Inevitably, the first question you will be asked is, ‘What are you working on?’ so you have to be prepared to talk about your work.
Make sure that you keep a record of who you meet at conferences and what it is that they work on; you’ll be able to refer to this later if you want to contact them further. Some scholars have a set of business cards made to be able to easily give their contact details to those who they want to meet. Your university may pay for this for you.
3. Use the Internet
One of the best ways of creating a network is to use the Internet. While academic networking sites such as academia.edu are in their infancy, there are many other ways of investigating people working in your field.
Hopefully you will know which institutions are the key players in your area of expertise. Go to their websites and check out the profiles of the staff members working there. Separate research projects often have their own web presence so more details are available now than ever before.
Another way is to make use of discussion groups and forums that relate to your particular discipline or field. This allows you to ask particular research questions on discussion boards or to express a general interest in liaising with scholars in a certain area. An example would be h-net.org - an American website for the Humanities that is divided into a number of sub-field discussion groups to which you can belong.
4. How to make contact
Once you’ve found the details of someone working in an area similar to yours, you can go ahead and make contact. In the academic world no one minds if you make an approach out of the blue, but a shared point of reference might make things easier. Perhaps he or she knows your supervisor, or perhaps you both attended the same conference. Highlighting shared ground will make it more likely that you get a response.
It is also important to explain clearly and precisely what it is you hope to gain. Scholars are usually immersed in their own research so they will be unlikely to respond to vague approaches. Instead of saying, ‘We work in the same general field, so I thought I’d get in touch,’ you need to discuss the specific aspect of their work that interests you and ask them some questions about it to initiate discussion.
It is also good to have a plan for where you would like to take the ‘relationship’. For example, you might like to think about being on a panel at a conference together or initially meeting to discuss working together further.
Do not be put off if you don’t get an instant response. Some people respond faster than others, but most will get back to you in the spirit of academic fellowship. Keep an open mind: you may find that your attempt at networking gets nowhere and is useful for neither of you. On the other hand you might acquire a useful contact that benefits you throughout your career and perhaps even becomes a friend.