Learning to Make Connections
(October 24th, 2017) Networking is a well-established branch of professional development that secures growth on the career ladder. A recent study provides evidence that young researchers are less successful in mastering this craft, due to lack of training.
When I hear the word 'networking', an overwhelming number of words rush to mind: listen, speak, attention, enthusiasm, crowd, loud talk, fear to fail, shyness… Networking is the secret to success and yet it is so difficult to master - especially if you are a university student or a junior researcher. I remember attending my first ever research conference, and how shy and helpless I felt while interacting with my peers, never mind approaching a PI to ask a question – that was a big NO-NO for me. Since then, I embarked on a journey of changing the situation and the driving force was a quote by the inspirational writer Dale Carnegie: “If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it – go out and get busy”.
Luckily for us early career researchers, the benefits of networking are being continuously studied. A recent research project by Donatella Camedda from Edinburgh University, Ashling Ryan-Mangan from Trinity College Dublin and Ana Mirman-Flores from University of Seville, concluded that young researchers do not know how to approach networking, in order to maximise their chances of professional success. The project started as a collaboration during a summer school in Norway, in 2014, where the authors met and discussed the issue.
During the next three years, the researchers interviewed participants of international summer schools in educational research, in order to understand what difficulties young researchers face while networking. “Results (...) show that while networking is one of the reasons for participating in such events, young researchers do not perceive these opportunities as a way of building professional networks or instigating academic collaboration. Despite their expectations of meeting new people being widely satisfied, participants in this study rarely indicated a more professional scope for those connections,” the authors write.
The trio points out that networking has two sides: a social and an academic side. While social networking is fun, relaxed and provides you with lots of contacts – it is often not useful as the people you have met might not be relevant to your field of study. The authors, thus, argue that young researchers need to be taught how to network successfully. “It is important to support young researchers through focussed training that clarifies the difference between social and professional networking and how the two often merge, while maintaining their own distinctive characteristics,” Camedda, Ryan-Mangan and Mirman-Flores write at the University World News.
First, a young researcher needs to find an event – a summer school, a research conference, a workshop – where there will be a high density of experts in the field in a single space! The authors also suggest preparing carefully for such events in advance, by asking for advice from the careers service or other professional development departments within one's university.
From my own experience, I found it extremely helpful to not think about asking the experts something irrelevant – as there are no irrelevant questions. Just go and do it! In the meantime, for your own professional development, you might consider asking your networking buddy the following questions: What made you do this research? What drives your research? What are the big questions in your field? And my favourites: Have you met a genius mind in your department? What was that personality like?
Happy networking, everyone! And remember: the more you put into it – the more you get out of it!