Thursday, December 1, 2016

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to build up an (international) network

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Ah networking! If it conjures images of grey men in grey suits shaking hands and forming their old boys club, or images of bouncy extroverted people shoulder-slapping each other, fear not. I'm here to discuss how you can reach out to fellow minds nationally and internationally, in academia and in the industry, without losing your authenticity.

When the idea of having to mingle with people during the -ta coffee break makes your heart sink, and makes you wish you could just hide in the bathrooms during the break - I totally understand you. I hate being the lone projectile roaming a conference coffee break room, wondering if someone will strike up a conversation with me, or if I should go and read a book in a quiet corner. But over the years I've learned two things: 1) there are many introverted academics out there - and if you are one of them, know that you are not the only one, and 2) you can always start a conversation by asking people what they are working on.

If all else fails: call a loved one for some peptalk, try the powerposing thing, or -if you really don't feel like forcing yourself for a moment because you have overwhelm level 10- go take a break: read a book, have some chocolate, recharge and come back feeling more grounded.

With that said, let's look into the specifics of networking in different settings:

1. Networking with the industry

Networking with industry partners can be at career events, at national gatherings, at the exhibition hall of international conferences, or through collaboration. Whereas collaboration will lead you immediately to the technical contents, I will focus here on the steps of networking that require maybe a bit more stepping forward from your side.

I've dealt with career events at length in a previous post, so my main message there was to make sure you go prepared. At national gatherings, the groups are typically smaller, but also more closely-knit. Here, it can be helpful to inform prior to the event about which companies will be there, and which new project or product they are working on, so you have a conversation topic ready. At the exhibition hall of a conference, it is easier to start a conversation - and almost always the exhibitor will initiate the conversation with you if he/she notices that you are reading the information of the booth, or watching a video that they are showing. If the exhibitor is not paying attention for a moment, just ask them for more information about their product or company, and you will have a conversation started. And once a conversation is started, you're over that initial threshold to interaction.

2. Networking with international scholars

I've mentioned before that my way of getting to talk to a scholar that I want to get in touch with, is by attending his/her presentation, and then catching up with him/her afterwards to ask more questions about his/her work. Sometimes, many people want to talk to the presenter afterwards, but sometimes it is the right time for the start of a long conversation that easily continues over the lunch or coffee break. Talking to a fellow PhD student or post-doc is often less intimidating than to the Big Professor, but, like I mentioned before, almost all researchers -regardless of the stage of their career- are just passionate about their topic and love sharing their insights with you.

After the conference, take some time to write an e-mail, perhaps sharing some of your recent work if you discussed that and the scholar seemed interested in it (don't be pushy though). It's part of the "after"-part of a conference.

3. Online networking through social media

Here, I'll refer to a complete post that I wrote on the topic of online branding.

I use Twitter to join the conversation about higher education, academic writing, post-doc and early-career-researcher life (and pictures of cats, of course). Twitter has been the main source of interaction between myself and scholars in all different fields who've been generous enough to share with me how they work, or how a PhD defense works in their country.

I use LinkedIn in a more static way - it's my digital overview of my contacts. Every now and then I will reach out and congratulate someone on a work anniversary and use that as a hook to see how he/she is doing nowadays. I accept invitations from people I haven't met in person, as long as his/her profile shows that we have similar professional interests.

4. Introductions through senior colleagues

As a PhD student, you can enjoy a number of contacts via your promotor. This interaction can be when your promotor introduces you formally to a colleague of his/hers, adding to it a nugget of information about your work. A similar interaction can occur through email as well. Your defense committee typically will also be members of the network of your promotor, who, by reviewing your dissertation, then can become members of your network and perhaps future collaborators of yours.

Moreover, if you travel to a conference with senior researchers from your institution, they might take you along and help you get to meet some of their scholar-friends. While I don't recommend that you trail behind a senior colleague for the entire duration of a conference, you can always get introduced to scholars in your field through them. Don't be afraid to ask them - or to ask them for advice on how to navigate a certain conference.

5. Online networking through email or message interactions

There's a reason why the corresponding author of an article has his/her contact information on a paper: to get in touch if you want to. I, for one, like receiving emails from people that read a paper of mine and ask for advice on a practical design project, their research, or simply want to reach out with some questions. You can use email, or platforms like or Researchgate to ask for a publication and/or ask questions about it.

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