Networking is challenging for most scientists, but these difficulties can be overcome through practice and planning. Networking as a scientist presents some interesting challenges, some of which are particular to science. My experience has been that the vast majority of scientists are introverts and this can make meeting new people difficult as individuals can find these interactions emotionally and physically draining. In addition, some scientists lack some social skills that would normally pave the way for smooth personal and professional interactions with others. The other thing that I’ve seen operating sometimes is that science, like any other field, is filled with some individuals who have big egos and this makes networking with these individuals particularly challenging. Scientists are used to thinking strategically on a regular basis; this is great in terms of coming up with a networking plan, but can sometimes be problematic because the role that human nature can play in networking dynamics is sometimes overlooked.
When I talk to graduate students about networking strategies in workshops, I use a formal networking scenario in order to brainstorm ideas in the group and come up with a networking plan. I’ve posted the scenario below:
You are a graduate student who is finishing your first year of graduate school. Your supervisor has asked you to present your work at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Blue Gadgets. You are nervous because you have never been to a conference before, no one else from your lab will be attending (including your supervisor), and you work on Red Gadgets. You know that networking is important and that you want to pursue a Ph.D. with Professor Bigcog who will be at the meeting. What can you do to effectively network:
a) before the meeting? (Planning)
b) during the meeting? (Doing)
c) after the meeting? (Maintaining)
In my next blog post I’ll walk through the steps that you can take prior to the meeting in order to plan for a successful networking experience while at the meeting.
I would make the argument based on my experiences that networking is very important for a successful scientific career. Many scientists that I’ve spoken to scoff at this assertion and view networking as a fake and sleazy activity and one that they don’t wish to take part in. I maintain that networking is about meeting people and maintaining those relationships for the mutual advantage of both parties.
As an early career scientist, whether you are a senior undergraduate student, a graduate student, a post-doc, or a new professor, there are several compelling reasons for why you should network. The first is that networking allows you to keep up to date with your scientific area of interest. As an example, preliminary results are often presented at scientific meetings before they are published in journals and networking can therefore allow you to directly gain knowledge that may not yet have been widely disseminated. In addition, networking allows you to stay connected with individuals who may be able to help you in the future. Networking is an excellent way to uncover current and future opportunities, whether they pertain to employment, funding, or awards, etc. The other side of the coin is that networking allows you to assist others by sharing information and this is what makes networking more of a “two-way street” activity. Networking in this way over a longer period of time allows you to build and strengthen your personal and professional reputation.
So, if networking is so great, why isn’t everyone doing it? One of the reasons has already been mentioned above and that is the idea that networking is somehow “dirty” and that people simply don’t realize how important it is for career progression and success. Another reason why many scientists do not network is fear. Networking forces many scientists outside of their comfort zone and forces them to deal with many personal fears associated with interacting with other people. This can include varying degrees of social anxiety; most of us want people to like us and don’t want to be seen as a “user”. Many scientists are introverts and find interactions with other people to be draining. Some people simply lack patience and want an immediate pay-off or reward for their efforts and networking doesn’t work in this way. Networking is a continuous process and pays off over the long-term. Finally, scientists are pretty logical people and networking is often approached in a haphazard way without any clear structure. This lack of a clear plan, deadlines, or goals in order to provide a framework can be overwhelming.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that networking is important to your scientific career. How can scientists network effectively? Stay tuned…