NESI Blog: Academic Networking – The art of schmoozing, showcasing, and supporting

By Catherine M. Sabiston, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health, University of Toronto.

I just finished a meeting with a former post-doctoral fellow (PDF) where we were discussing how her research has adapted and evolved after being in my lab. This former PDF – who is an ISBNPA Early Career Researcher – exclaimed that “I would be nowhere without your network! Your network is my network!” It is a great example of the power of developing and sharing networking efforts to build a hierarchy of meaningful connections within academia.

There are many networking sources and approaches. Graduate school is the starting place, although even your parents/guardians, teachers, coaches, and leaders from your youth are sometimes amazing networking sources – especially for building community partnerships.

The easiest networking as a graduate student is with current and former trainees in your supervisor’s lab. Make an effort to connect, collaborate on small projects, and follow their work. These lab mates will become your longest academic relationships and the networking “gift that keeps on giving (and accepting and taking)”. If you are not part of a lab with a few other trainees (or even if you are), try to go visit researchers who are at local universities when you go home for holidays, or who are at universities in close proximity. I have a colleague who I met while he was visiting my PhD supervisor. He was interested in doing a study, asked if we should connect and do parts of it in Canada and parts of it in Hong Kong (where he was at the time), we got a small grant, ran the study, and collaborated many times since then! And this networking was an outcome of a graduate student randomly visiting a local researcher. We get caught up in the local context of our work, yet connecting with other researchers and their trainees can be an immediate way to increase our network.

As a graduate student, another way to network is to take advantage of training opportunities. If there are fellowships to go work in another lab, apply! And even if it means reaching out to someone you have no connection with, it is likely to end up being a long-standing collaboration. Many of my graduate students have received small fellowships to work in other labs, and continue to collaborate with their supervisors from those labs. It is a great way to expand your independent network.

As an Early Career Researcher, you can certainly continue to network by visiting local research labs, and reaching out to researchers who can become a co-investigator on a grant or a committee member for your student’s work. The key is to contextualize the outreach so that the networking efforts enhance everyone’s work – you would benefit in such-and-such ways and they would benefit in these ways. Also, connecting with others does not need a goal beyond networking… you don’t need to need something to connect to others. Two stories on this latter point. A UK researcher studying physical activity motivation reached out a few years ago and asked if I could meet. We had a great talk about sharing ideas, addressing some measurement constraints, and potential collaboration. Then, she invited me to climb and hang off of the CN Tower (at one point the highest freestanding tower in the World) and away we went. However, there were no meaningful conversations at 553 meters above the ground! Funny enough, we just re-connected to potentially facilitate a PDF position across our labs.

Another example of networking just for the sake of networking came when I first started my academic career. My PDF supervisor put me in touch informally with a colleague in the city I was moving to. It was a simple email exchange that literally changed my life. The target of that email became my informal mentor… she connected me with tons of students who ended up working in my lab, multidisciplinary collaborators who strengthened my grants, participants for research studies, funding sources, research teams all over the World… and this network continues to grow. It all started with an informal networking email (in today’s connecting language, maybe a tweet or SMS). Don’t be afraid to ask supervisors, colleagues, and peers to facilitate initial connections.

Conferences and scholarly meetings are a natural source of networking. If you are looking to formally network, use the time before the conference to get to know the attendees and society members and reach out to a few to connect during the event. Use the natural connection points at a virtual or in-person event to talk to others – at posters, over the breaks, at the end of a talk. Complete your profile for online events, and contribute to icebreaker activities or chats. Conferences bring academics, researchers, and practitioners together based on topics, tools, methodologies, analytical approaches etc. Make sure you join societies with different purposes; attend panels, sessions, keynotes with unique foci; and always be prepared to ask questions either at the event or by following-up with presenters post-conference. A conference can be a central connecting point, and use the timeliness of it to build your network.

Be intentional about building your network. Balance selfless and selfish networking – this is your foundation. Yet the one caveat to networking during your early career is to have a strong awareness of your capacity to take on more – more people, more labs, more connections equals more time, commitments, and potential for knowledge generation and dissemination. Don’t get me wrong, this is absolutely wonderful – until it is too much.  A big mistake that I see in early career researchers is to reach out to everyone they think is good, or can help, without balancing the need. When I first moved to my new city (Montreal, Canada), I spent hours and days networking. I tried to meet every researcher and clinician who had an interest in physical activity (looking back on it now, did everyone in the city have a physical activity interest?!). I positioned myself well, but it became overwhelming. I had requests for collaboration, use of equipment, student training support, feedback, external examiner and committee memberships from so many sources, and I felt like I couldn’t say no for that FOMO (by far the worst early career feeling!!). I was almost happy to move to Toronto, just to cull my network! So, don’t network out of desperation – be in control of your networking efforts!

The biggest advice I can give is to network with a purpose and with intentionality. There is no end to networking, and I continue to build my network through my existing contacts, student engagement, and even some old-fashioned “cold-calling emailing”. In reflecting on the value of networking, I will leave you with five main points.

  • Networking enhances your local, regional, national, and international reach. This reach is important for all of the traditional academic metrics – grants, fellowships, editorial board invitations, career awards, keynotes, and symposia contributions.
  • Networking improves your academic scholarship by building on others’ ideas, sharing resources, contributing to large datasets, and replicating work.
  • Networking helps to promote your research and helps others engage with it.
  • Networking naturally addresses an expectation of collaboration with academic and practitioner partners.
  • Networking builds a sense of community for you and your trainees (and sometimes even your study participants!).

Networking is critical to academia – the traditional (and yes, highly flawed) metrics of impact thrive with a good network, and the informal yet meaningful indicators of networking build that sense of community and support so you never feel alone.

Dr. Sabiston‘s main research interest is the bi-directional relationship between physical activity and mental health across the lifespan.

Twitter: @sabi_catz