“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. You’ve probably heard this saying before – it’s well-known, well-worn advice that has stood the test of time. Espoused by colleagues, senior staff, coaches and mentors all over the world, it’s a way of saying “Get out there and network!”
Let me explain the value of networking with a few examples: If you’re having trouble with your experimental set-up and have no-one to help you, reaching out to a specialist on-line community can sometimes resolve the problem, as well as revealing your interests; collaborating with diverse research groups around the world can extend your knowledge and experience and even increase your employment prospects; applying for jobs is an important part of career planning, but connecting with people within your chosen career sector or organisation can give you a distinct advantage; being good at what you do and achieving results is still important, but its impact is accentuated when you’ve got people to tell. Unlike education where you can attain an A-grade on your own, work is people-orientated and so building relationships is an essential element to achieve results for both your projects and for yourself.
In my recent paper, “Harnessing the power of communities: career networking for bioscience PhD students and postdoctoral researchers”, published in FEMS Microbiology Letters, I list five ways you can network to achieve career success. You should be able to access it if your university has a subscription but if not, here’s a summary:
As a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher, you are likely based in an academic work environment with access to all kinds of researchers within your own institution and others all around the world. You can use this network to help enhance your academic career prospects by making contact with other research groups and individuals whose knowledge, skills and related networks will help you to expand your own horizons. For those wishing to remain in an academic work environment but to move out of research, a variety of technical, administrative and educational staff, based in other departments, can offer potential opportunities for you to gain experience or vacancy insights to help you transfer into other roles.
Internships and work experience
Voluntary or paid work experience is equally valuable, not only to extend your experience and try out other types of work, but to put you in contact with people working in new communities. Even if it’s a one-off event, a day or a week’s experience, you will be spending time with professionals with whom you can ask questions, make contacts and demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment to this new type of role. Internships can be hard to access as a postdoctoral researcher, but PhD students may be more able to step away from the bench for a few months. Negotiating with your supervisor is crucial in this process, showing them how you will make up the time and/or continue to commit to the research project.
Attending conferences, seminars and meetings is a common activity in the academic world, so take full advantage of these opportunities to meet new people and learn new knowledge. Prepare and plan for longer, larger events and challenge yourself to meet at least two or three new useful contacts with whom you have the potential to work with in the future. Business cards are becoming more common amongst the academic community nowadays and it’s a great way to exchange personal information and stay in touch afterwards. Remember, you are as useful and interesting to them as they are to you so don’t think of it as ‘using people’.
Social media has democratised networking to a great extent making people far more accessible than before. You can communicate and link with a whole range of people, exchange information and learn about opportunities. I suggest Researchgate for those interested in an academic career, LinkedIn for industry/commercial sector and Twitter for everyone and anyone to learn about research/general knowledge, jobs, conferences, opinions and facts.
Professional associations and organisations
Clubs have always been a great way for people with similar interests to join together, e.g. stamp collectors, vintage car enthusiasts, gardening gurus etc. If your interest is a particular academic discipline, for example biochemistry, microbiology, plant science, endocriniology, neuroscience, genetics, ecology (and practically any subject you can think of), joining a learned society can bring you into contact with like-minded people. Not only that, many of them offer a huge number of benefits such as discounted registration to conferences, travel grants of up to £500, committee membership, regular newsletters, awards, competitions and mentoring.
You may recognise some of these networking strategies and be using them already, but I hope I’ve given you a few more ideas.