“Today, I was able to spend time with Sarah Blackford – an early start train trip was definitely worth the journey 🙂 LinkedIn and online professional development webinars might have connected us professionally during the pandemic, but they have also helped us to keep in touch and become friends.” Jenn Barfield
And what a great day out in Würzburg we had! It was a chance conversation over LinkedIn that made us realise that we live close enough to actually meet up in person, rather than just messaging online.
This is one example of a formerly remote and unknown contact who’s now become a friend. I have many more examples! Some are people that I’ve worked with, some are delegates of conferences I’ve attended and some, like Jenn, are people that I’ve only known through social media. Obviously, it’s not something that happens with everyone in your network – nor should it be, otherwise you’d never get any work done! – but it’s a really nice experience when you not only connect with someone professionally, but socially too.
And, of course, it can also be very rewarding in terms of setting up, developing and maintaining collaborations. I recently ran a career workshop for young academics, where we were discussing how to create and make the most of collaborative opportunities. One of the academics had been considering inviting an expert data scientist to collaborate with them, however on reflection she decided to approach a research group with which she’d already built up a good relationship, following a research visit. She had concluded that working with people you like and with whom you have a good rapport is more likely to be successful than taking a chance on a stranger – and it would be more fun too!
Maybe she was right, we will never know. However, when you’re at a conference and you see your professor and other senior ‘more seasoned’ academics shaking hands, hugging, smiling and inviting each other out for dinner, etc., you’ll appreciate that having collaborators that are friends is a definite bonus. And remember, they started where you are now as an early career researcher, with no network of any consequence – these things take time to build so it’s never too late to get started.
Research is an international endeavour, with researchers in the same field based all over the world, which is why it’s important to reach out and make contact. Whether it’s remotely, with in-person visits or meet-ups at conferences, these connections are vital towards you developing your own academic profile. If you read the biographies of academics, you’ll see them referring to various people with whom they’ve worked over their career and I’m sure if you asked them, they would probably count many of them as friends. This is why academic mobility is so important to research – sharing ideas, discussing data, mulling over problems with experiments and, yes, forging, sometimes life-long, friendships.
I recently delivered my ‘Power of Networking’ career workshop, in which I identified the wide range of people with whom you can build relationships throughout your career. Using a spider’s web to illustrate this, I put family and friends at the centre, with acquaintances, peers, mentors and work colleagues, former work colleagues and alumni further away and, at the very edge, those on social media. Depending on your career aims, you’ll want to create connections and build your network accordingly. For example, for me, as an international career consultant, I have many contacts, acquaintances and friends in my professional network. People I’ve met online, include my digital co-partner, Virginie Siret, who manages all my online career workshops – We have never met in person (although I am hoping to one day, as she lives in a very nice part of France), but, having worked together now for over 2 years, I would definitely count her as a friend. Similarly, many members of a LinkedIn group I co-created for PhD career coaches with Barbara Janssens have become firm friends over the years.
One of the questions at the end of my recent networking workshop was around how to build relationships with the contacts in your network. I replied that for most of your career you’ll only build close relationships with a few people, but that you can stay in loose contact with people more easily nowadays using social media, simply by liking or commenting on their posts and showing a virtual presence. If, like Jenn, you see an opportunity to get closer, then it’s up to you both to agree to set up a meeting (virtual or in-person) to have a quick chat or something longer like we did – spending a day out including coffee and cake followed by a walk and talk and a shop till you drop, as well as agreeing to find ways to work together in the future 🙂
For related content go to my blog archive and search in the Networking column: https://biosciencecareers.org/blog-archive