Building a Network as a PhD Student
Much focus is given to networking in other industries, but it's often overlooked in academia. I discuss why networking is essential and offer some tips to demystify the process.
We've probably all heard that networking is ideal, if not essential, for career progression. It connects you with possible mentors, collaborators and opportunities that you may otherwise have missed out on. However, the way in which networking takes place has been shifting for a long time. This change has been sped up over the past couple of years thanks to COVID and an increase in digital activities. In-person activities are rarer than they were a decade ago. With the way in which we network changing, the advice around how to network also needs to change. Suggestions from older generations of my family to print out business cards and pass them out at conference meetings and business lunches now feel woefully outdated. Additionally, networking is something that has great importance placed on it for those working in industry, but it is (wrongfully) discussed far less for those of us working in an academic context. Here, I'd like to share with you some concrete ways I've built my professional relationship since starting as a PhD student and some of the biggest gains I've seen as a result in the hopes that I can convince you to dedicate more focus to building your professional network. I'll start with 6 tips that I've, personally, found beneficial:
Have a (meaningful) online presence: Most of my networking is done online. I have meaningful professional contacts that I keep in touch with fairly regularly to discuss our work and trade advice that I've never met in person! The caveat to this is that your presence has to be meaningful - an inactive account that has no picture and hasn't been used in years will do more to damage your online presence than add to it. The good news is, you can achieve a meaningful online presence in a number of ways depending on your preference, your goals, and the amount of time you have to dedicate to it.
The least time-intensive way I'd suggest would be to have an active Twitter presence. This is also best suited if you want to stay in academia following your PhD. I definitely have some strong feelings about Twitter's new owner, but it is the platform of choice for a large number of academics and it's where I hear about a lot of opportunities for conferences, funding and collaboration, and have connected with some truly aspirational individuals. You can dedicate as little as 10 minutes per week to post a few tweets about what you've been working on and catch up on other people's news, but it's a great way to connect with people beyond your university.
My second suggestion is LinkedIn. It requires slightly more time, due to the content being longer-form than Twitter, and it will take longer to set up a meaningful profile because there are more options and information that you can give. This is likely best suited to individuals who are interested in a career beyond academia and it's a great way to connect with industry professionals from sectors you might be interested in working in.
My final, and most time-intensive, suggestion would be to set up your own website. This can be as simple (see mine as an example!) or complex as you have the desire and skills to build. I personally enjoy this option as it's a space I can customise to be exactly what I want. I tend to use it as a place to journal my experience as a PhD student, involving writing in a way which is a refreshing break from academic writing. Additionally, it can be a place to house your CV and/or published papers and give people a means to contact you about your current projects to foster collaboration.
Notice things about people as a way to strike up a conversation: This can be an incredibly simple but effective
way to open the door to further conversations. At the most basic end, noticing a print of an artist you like on
someone's wall behind them during a virtual meeting and sending them a private message complimenting
them on it is a great way to open a dialogue. I've also had great success commenting on people's pets when
they sneak into meetings - everyone likes talking about their animals!
Invite acquaintances out for coffee: This is something I've done a lot over the past year and I've found it incredibly valuable. If there's someone I know well enough to congratulate when the whole school email goes around or there's a notice in the fortnightly staff briefing that someone has been promoted, passed their viva, or been awarded a grant, then I email my congratulations and invite them for a coffee to talk more about it. By doing this, I've got some great tips on sitting your viva, academic interviews, the different routes you can take as you finish your PhD and more. Most people are more than willing to trade an hour of their time to be an informal mentor and answer your questions about their successes in exchange for a cup of coffee!
Attend in-person briefings/meetings: This is an incredibly simple way of getting your face and name recognised by people in your university that you may not otherwise meet. For example, I attend my school's fortnightly staff briefing in person as often as possible. It's a great way to hear what's been going on in the school beyond my lab group and it tends to end with a tea and coffee session where I can talk to people about their work and make new connections.
Volunteer for things for/with other people: I've spoken about the power of asking for opportunities and saying yes before, and this is just that. Any opportunities where you can be involved in something collegiate are a great excuse to strike up conversations with people you may otherwise have had no reason or opportunity to talk to. This can be as casual/social as bringing the biscuits for a meeting or offering to help organise the staff Christmas party, or more formal/academic, like sitting on a conference organisation board.
Be bold enough to start up conversations with strangers at conferences: This is a big one. It's incredibly easy to feel intimidated in these situations and I definitely still do to a certain extent. My biggest piece of advice would be that everyone feels a bit intimidated and the majority of people will be grateful that someone else has made the first move and broken the ice with a conversation starter. If you're struggling to find things to talk about, try making notes on people's presentations and asking them about it during the breaks, or check someone's institution from their nametag and see if you know anyone in common.
I try to update my Twitter weekly and my LinkedIn monthly so they stay active and foster engagement.
A coffee break and career advice? Yes, please!
Following some of these ideas will give you an opportunity to talk to people. But building a meaningful professional network goes beyond just having people to chat with about work. This is developing relationships with colleagues that you might collaborate with in the future, who might have experience in a new method you’re learning and will be willing to help you, who might know about conferences of interest, who might know other people who do similar research to you that they can connect you with, who know about job or funding opportunities that they can pass on to you.
Being an academic can be lonely – you’ll often be working alone and it can too easily become a competitive environment. But it doesn’t need to be like that, it’s so much easier to succeed when you have a network of supportive colleagues. On a social level, I’ll admit that I have really struggled at points during my PhD. It’s a uniquely stressful experience that requires 3+ years of intense focus, self-drive and resilience. It can be tough, but it’s even tougher to do it alone. I cannot place high enough value on the professional and social network I've built during my PhD for consistently motivating me, giving me creative and useful advice and always supporting me.