“Networking” is a term that has a bad reputation in academia. It implies self-absorbed scheming.
I am talking about something different. Networking is intentionally building your professional network for success as a grad student and as a professional. Networking is an important tool for academic success. It is part of your professional tool kit.
You already have a professional network. It comprises the people you know who share your professional interests. These are two-way connections. You give to members of your network and they give to you.
What do you give to and get from the members of your network?
- Support. Encouragement as new things are tried. Celebration of accomplishments.
- Feedback. Input about activities, plans, and efforts. How can I improve this piece of writing? How was that presentation? What do you think about this research plan? How can I have this difficult conversation? How do I come across to others?
- Connections to others. Introducing you to people you can help. Links to those who may have help to offer you. These people may become members of your network.
- Advice. We all need guidance as we undertake new and challenging things. Solicit lots of advice, and then pick and choose what works for you.
- Opportunities. Pointing out a cool class, a funding source, an internship, a workshop, or a job opening.
- Ideas. Gathering ideas from many sources helps spark our own thinking and moves our work forward.
- Resources. Pointing out things to read, offices & people who can help solve a problem, useful websites.
So why do those in universities react with distaste at the idea of deliberately cultivating a professional network?
Here are seven misconceptions about “networking” that are prevalent in academia.
1. Academics don’t network. Networking is not just for people who work in business. None of us work in isolation. We depend on other people.
You got to graduate school with the help of other people. You grow and develop with the help of others. It is impossible to succeed in grad school without the help of other people. They are your professional network. You need to actively seek out their help.
At the same time, you are in many other people’s networks. They turn to you for advice, input and resources.
Those who are successful as grad students (and in their professional lives after grad school) actively turn to their network for help and support.
2. The time to network is when I am looking for a job. Networking is not just for job searching. Your network will help you succeed in graduate school. Becoming a researcher and scholar requires developing ideas. Ideas build on and integrate the work of others. Ideas are tested and refined with the input of others.
Once you start graduate school, you can and should be proactive about cultivating your network. And you are now well positioned to help others.
3. Networking is political, slimy, inappropriate, and self-centered. It can seem self-absorbed and calculating to plan to develop your network. Being intentional about nurturing and cultivating your network benefits you AND it benefits others AND it results in better research and scholarship. It is not just about you; it is about creating your community. It has instrumental value, but the value is noble.
4. If my research is good enough, it will speak for itself. This myth suggests that only losers need to network. Not so. Brilliant ideas that no one has heard about are useless. Sharing your ideas and the products of your work (e.g., research findings, papers, presentations) allows others to give you input, and provides ideas for them. Communication is a crucial part of the scholarly process.
5. Only some people can network. Building relationships is a skill, not an innate talent. It comes more easily to some people than to others. But like any skill, you can practice it and improve over time.
6. I have nothing to offer others. Not true! Even if you are a first year graduate student, you have much to offer peers. They need your encouragement and your ideas. What life hacks have you mastered? How can you push them forward? You also have things to offer those coming after you. How can you help prospective grad students, or undergrads working in your lab?
Don’t worry about having nothing to offer those who are more senior to you. Other people helped them, and now they are helping you. Postdocs and faculty are educators, and they love to help nurture the talent of the next generation.
7. More connections are better. Social networking tools, like Facebook and LinkedIn, encourage connecting to as many people as possible. But for your professional network, you should be discerning. Some people you meet will become members of your network, but certainly not all of them. This is not a game in which the person most names in their contacts list wins. Instead, you are striking a balance between reaching out to make new connections and nurturing the linkages that you have.
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Published January 31, 2016.