Networking: Some Questions And Answers

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Have you ever envied that person in your department, or at a conference, who seems to know everybody? How does he or she do it? The modern answer – or at least the modern name for an age-old phenomenon – is networking.

1. Why should I bother with networking?

It can help broaden your subject knowledge. It can help to solve specific problems in your research. It can help to make you aware of job vacancies or new opportunities for research funding. And when you find a job vacancy, it helps to know someone who can give you more background to the employing organization or research team.

It can be also fun – although it may not seem so at first, especially if you are naturally shy.

2. How do start networking?

You already have. You may have kept in touch with friends from your old school. You know many people in your own department and perhaps a few people in other departments or other universities. The next step is to broaden your range of contacts.

Do this in person rather than on-line. On a social level, having a large number of ‘facebook friends’ is not the same as having real friends. The same applies to your professional networks.

So go out and meet people – at lunchtime seminars in departments other than your own, at university public lectures, and at local business events as well as at research conferences. If you have the chance to join a conference organizing committee or the editing panel for a journal, do accept.

Perhaps you have an interest in promoting student enterprise, in developing a more effective library, or in sharing your research with the local history society? All of these will provide opportunities to meet people with similar interests.

Social activities also provide networking opportunities. In university towns the local gym, the amateur orchestra, and the tennis club will all include academics. But don’t pretend that these activities are the same as doing actual work.

And do remember to be polite – the senior professor may be playing tennis or singing in the choir to get a break from work. So if they don’t want to talk there and then, just ask if it’s o.k. to email them to arrange to meet at a more convenient time.

3. What is the best way to follow-up a contact?

It depends what you want. If you just want a bit of information that they’ve offered to provide, a quick email in the following day or two should suffice. If you would like a longer discussion with a senior person, ask if you can call in to see them in their office for a few minutes. With peers rather than with more-senior people it is easy to suggest meeting for a coffee or lunch.

In all cases, do prepare for the meeting by thinking about what you would like to know as well as considering what you can offer them in return. After the meeting, send a short email to thank them for any information or contacts they have provided.

When meeting new groups of people do think of information, contacts, links to interesting articles and the like that you can offer the group. Contributing helps to create ‘good karma’ as well as helping your professional reputation. Remember that ‘what goes around comes around’; people are most likely to help those who help them in return. 

4. Should I use Facebook and Twitter for networking?

By all means. But keep your social life separate from your professional life on these media. Your professional colleagues may not be that interested in seeing a photo of your cat with her new kittens, or that drunken late-night snog at your friend’s birthday party. They probably don’t even want to know that you enjoyed watching Man City beat Arsenal, or vice versa, especially if they support the other team.

So set up separate accounts for professional and for personal use. Or confine your on-line professional networking to established subject groups, where you can discuss difficulties and share opportunities with professional colleagues. Many people use Linkedin for professional networking; try it if you wish, but, as with any social media, do leave if it generates too high a proportion of ‘junk’ emails in relation to its effectiveness.

Use on-line networks and subject groups efficiently. Don’t broadcast simple questions that you could look up on Google in the hope that someone else will look it up for you. This won’t enhance your reputation. But networks can be useful for helping with complex problems, or for obtaining thoughtful advice from experienced colleagues. And do send thank-you messages to those who have helped you.

However you decide to use social media, remember that personal contacts are almost always better than virtual contacts. If you find yourself spending too long on the computer, shut it down and go to meet some real people – even if only a few minutes in the coffee lounge.

5. What else should I remember?

Be positive. Yes, we all like to moan about work from time to time. But save the moaning for a mutual support session with your friends. When you are getting to know new people, you will create a much better impression with a positive attitude. This doesn’t mean boasting about all your successes, but it does mean that when you discuss problems you focus on how to solve them, not on how difficult and stressful they are.

Most importantly, don’t forget the day job! Networking can be addictive – but if you spend all your time networking then in a few months you won’t have any new research to discuss with your networks.

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