Building Your Academic Network

Disclaimer: This isn’t a post which will give you ‘Ten tips to network at academic conferences’. I don’t think it quite works like that. Building a ‘network’ isn’t the academic equivalent of cold calling. It is about building relationships with your academic peers and mentors…

Imagine your academic field as a giant global network of scholars, some of whom work together (and some of whom will absolutely not!), and all of whom together shape the current academic debate on your topic. This will include the top scholars, as well as academics in your department (your supervisors perhaps), other departments nationally and internationally, and your peers working on similar topics. Academia can sometimes feel like an increasingly competitive environment (because it is) in a way that makes you feel isolated and alone, competing for scarce resources. This network idea may help you see it from a different angle: your connections here matter. It is through these connections that academic debate takes place, and joint work or other opportunities arise.

Before I go on let me say this: you belong in this network.

This tends to be a concern in the first years of the PhD: it is common to not yet know ‘who you are’ academically, and you may feel apologetic about your still very much unformed work. Engaging with other academics seems premature, because what if you have nothing to say?

The short answer to this is: building relationships with academics is about shared interests (and I mean in terms of ideas and ‘interesting’ here – not in terms of short-term mutual gain. The gain part comes later). You don’t have to have spectacular results to discuss, your PhD ideas don’t have to be all developed and researched yet. You have four years to do all that, so don’t worry about it. The connection lies in where your interests overlap with theirs. How does your research overlap with theirs? What questions are you asking? That is how you connect.

A few places to get started:

1. Your Supervisor

Your supervisor is a key figure in introducing you to the academic field. It is his/ her connections that will help you position yourself initially. Some supervisors are great at this, and specifically foster these connections in a way that benefits their PhD candidates, others not quite as much. But even if your supervisor isn’t that helpful he/ she will have contacts that might be useful. Think in terms of what aspects of your work you’d like to discuss with someone… In my own case, my supervisor put me in touch with colleagues who gave me advice on those parts of my thesis that were not his specialty (methodological issues mainly), and also with others working on similar topics to mine. Some of these meetings were one-offs, but even so they not only provided input for my thesis, and also helped me introduce myself as a new scholar in the field.

2. The Literature

Get to know the people working in your field. Who are these people? What are their ideas and interests? All those references at the end of your chapter… they are researchers thinking (or having thought) about similar puzzles to yours. It’s an aspect of academic work I particularly love: it is never just our own work, we are building on so much thinking others have done already. Some of these conversations may go ‘live’ if you get in touch. The most viable of these relationships are not necessarily those with the ‘important figures’ in your field. Horizontal networks are more accessible, and have a better chance of developing into worthwhile work relationships.

3. Research meetings/ conferences

Are there research meetings locally you could go to? Working groups that discuss similar topics, lunch seminars? All places where you might meet like-minded researchers. Conferences also fall in this category. Might you co-organise a panel/ present a paper? Is there any way you could get involved? Take some time to think about it, and fit it into your weekly/ yearly schedule. It may be tempting to want to hide and focus solely on writing if you feel you are ‘behind’ with your work, especially if papers discussed at lunch seminars or other events are not directly relevant to what you’re doing. Go anyway. It is important to simply show up. Don’t underestimate the act of being visible. (It was one of the hardest aspects of finishing my PhD for me. You really don’t want to be stuck at home finishing your PhD in a massive solo effort. Not only in terms of feeling isolated, but also in terms of dropping out of valuable professional networks (can actually be fun!), because of your absence.)

4. Your peers/ current colleagues

The people you associate with daily are automatically part of your network, for better of for worse! Interestingly, some of these relationships may not seem to matter or even exist in the moment, but they may become important many years down the road… In some academic settings co-authorship is highly encouraged and people do collaborate. In others not so much, but there may be other ways to discuss your work. This too may go well or not – personally I had mixed results. (It was great working with one colleague on a shared presentation of our work, lots of good ideas generated; but another plagiarised practically the entire methods section of a paper in progress…ouch) Overall I don’t believe in an overly defensive attitude to academic work – it takes all the joy out of it – but make sure you share the right information with the right people!

Building your academic network has a fast and a slow part. The fast part involves actively contacting people whose work you’re interested in and who might be interested in what you do. Preferably you’ll be introduced by a third party, but if that’s not possible you can always introduce yourself, which is very much okay as long as you don’t over-impose. Be sensitive: make sure what you ask of them is proportionate, and don’t waste their time. That said, if there is indeed an overlap of research interests, if they can help you, or you can help them, they mostly will, and enthusiastically so. Case to illustrate: I worked with someone over the first half of the year who hasn’t started a PhD yet, but does have a very good idea and written outline of what she would like to do (she didn’t think it was ‘good enough’ yet, but it was!). She must be the queen of academic networking: she by now has spoken to a whole list of people who are introducing her to their networks also, and are discussing and commenting on her PhD proposal and ideas. Last I’ve heard she hadn’t yet accepted a PhD position, but I won’t be surprised if she has multiple opportunities lined up. She is the best example of how quickly your academic network can form, and of not needing to have finished a PhD to ‘belong’. She belongs already, and she hasn’t even started.

The slow part is the network that forms without you doing anything much in particular, apart from being somewhat social. Your supervisor will be in it, as will your colleagues, friends, past mentors, and academics you meet along the way. It is these networks that are invaluable. This can’t be forced, really. Some people try and strategically align, and look at every meeting and person as a ‘networking opportunity’. I don’t believe the model of focusing on your own interests in this way is the best model… You don’t really want to be involved with the person who only contacts you when he needs something from you (I have someone specific in mind – he used to be a colleague of mine, and his attitude is insufferable. Oh, you got an email from him? What did he need from you this time??). Not the best approach.

Is your academic network taking shape? Any actions you could take to make new connections? If you need advice on how to approach your supervisor about it…sign up for the HappyPhD course. It covers how to get the most out of the supervision relationship. If you found this post useful, could you share it, or like it? I appreciate it!

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