No man is an island, and researchers are no exception to this rule. Having a network of colleagues is crucial both in accomplishing your work and for professional advancement. If you do great work but no one knows about it, did it really happen?
As you think about building your professional network, keep in mind these four tips.
Utilize faculty beyond just your advisor.
You will likely have a closer relationship with your advisor than with any other faculty member in your department. However, take the time to cultivate connections with all of the faculty in your department, even if their work is seemingly unrelated to yours. These faculty will be key parts of your professional network, and their connections become yours.
The more people you know, the larger your secondary network will be (the network including your connections’ networks). This also holds true for faculty at your university outside of your specific department. Especially in today’s climate which emphasizes interdisciplinary work, having colleagues and connections beyond your specific interests can be a significant boon.
Get out of the lab or library.
The temptation, for graduate students and faculty alike, is to stay focused on your research to the exclusion of other activities. The downside of this is that being a good researcher is really only part of your job. It might seem like “wasting time” to be talking to people instead of running an assay or translating an ancient text, but it’s difficult to make a name for yourself if people literally don’t know your name.
Take the time to attend events like SMU’s Research Day and think of it as an opportunity to find inspiration in what your colleagues are doing. Attend conferences in your discipline, even if you aren’t presenting. And say yes to volunteer activities such as serving on a university committee – those connections can open unexpected doors down the road.
Make the first move.
Students can be hesitant to reach out to faculty or researchers, particularly the “rock stars” of the discipline. It can feel presumptuous to take up someone’s time with a conversation that isn’t directly tied to their work, but the truth is that most senior researchers are very interested in getting to know you, too. After all, they are looking for the next generation of stars in the discipline, so if they are not hiding in their labs, they are probably trying to network as well.
Be bold and introduce yourself, share the 15 second overview of who you are and what you do, and try to follow it with one simple question or comment. Often that can be enough to start a conversation and forge a connection with someone new.
Use good networking manners.
Many people think of networking as somehow disingenuous – they picture the slick salesman cozying up to someone at a cocktail party and trying to win favors from strangers. And it’s true, if you ask someone you meet at a conference or reception for a job five minutes after meeting them, it’s probably not going to go very well. But if you view networking as a professional interaction and treat it as such, it’s both a respectable and necessary activity.
Start a conversation and actively listen to the other person’s story. If it’s a good conversation, exchange business cards and/or connect with them on LinkedIn afterward. Depending on the context, follow up if you see something they might be interested in, or to ask if they might be at a similar conference in the future. Continued interaction, even if sporadic, helps keep your network fresh and makes it less awkward if sometime in the future you need to ask your network for a favor.
When you accept networking as a natural and essential element of your graduate career and you focus in on the people you are connecting with, you'll find that networking can bring joy, interest, and opportunity into your life and career.