How to Get “Networking” Right as an Academic

As a PhD student, early career researcher, or even as a seasoned academic, you will likely have to do some sort of bridge-building with other people in your field if you want to be considered for interesting job opportunities, get your work noticed, or just find like-minded people in your field you respect, trust, and enjoy working with. We've compiled a set of helpful tips and tricks to help you get it right.

This post is part of a series that provides practical information and resources for authors and editors.

In the interest of full disclosure, as someone socialized, in part at least, amongst Humanities scholars, I still flinch when people use the word “networking”. I can’t help but associate it with a predatory, instrumental way of relating to people, using your connection to them as a means to an end. In fact, while still at university “networking” events were not even really called that unless they were organized by the Careers Service (“socials” was usually the term of choice in all other contexts). “Networking”, like “going forward”, “circling back”, and “KPIs” were, to me, part of the black box of “business speak”.

“What helped me overcome my fear of networking was, as is frequently the case, exposure.”

As an acquisitions editor whose job involves, well, talking to people about their research, I have thought about networking a lot in recent years and wondered whether there’s any way to do it without it feeling forced, manipulative, or simply uncomfortable. There’s no dearth of “networking for people who hate networking” guides out there, but none of them will make you love networking if you don’t. What helped me overcome my fear of it was, as is frequently the case, exposure: talking to people, about work amongst other things, and realizing I have made some good friends this way over the years.

Here are some things I found helpful:

1. Starting with my existing friends

The people you study with, sit in seminars with, organise conferences with, the people from your writing group, your advisor’s other students, fellow teaching instructors: we all have some work friends (many of whom get promoted to after-work-friends sooner or later) and probably a wide circle of work acquaintances too.

If you wouldn’t mind these people asking for your advice or opinion on a work-related issue, they probably won’t mind you asking them either. I am not suggesting you start asking people for favours, like introducing you to important people in your field or copy-editing your work; but they will likely be more than happy to share information (their experience, a reading tip, a publisher recommendation) and be flattered that you asked.

2. Finding my preferred context and mode

Find out what your preferred socializing context is and think about how to tailor work-related situations to what feels comfortable.

Do you prefer to meet your friends somewhere you can stand around and sip your drink without the pressure of having to be at the centre of the group’s attention? Then publishers’ receptions at conferences, post-plenary drinks, or conference dinners may be your chance to feel out who’s who in your field, and whom you’d like to get to know better.

Do you find it easier to connect in one-on-one conversations? Then write to people you would like to meet about a month or so before a conference (to make sure they don’t get booked out) and ask them to meet you for a coffee or lunch. One-on-one meals feel too intense? Then suggest an activity (going to a panel together, going for a walk on one of the breaks, going to a museum after an event) that you are interested in or likely to genuinely enjoy—and that you can talk about later.

But maybe conferences (and in-person events more generally) are not your mode either. That’s fine too. How do you like to engage with people? Do you find yourself getting embroiled in social media arguments in your circle? Or show support for people by liking their content? Are you into vlogging? Or just good old blogging? You can connect with people in your field online and engage with them from within your comfort zone. That initial friend or follow request may feel a little awkward, but that will pass, and it will be so much easier to approach people at the next workshop or lecture if you’ve already connected online.

3. Being generous with my own network

I can think of at least a handful of professors I have met through my job who are great networkers besides being prolific authors and teachers. What they all have in common is a heartfelt generosity with their own networks of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. Their (implicit) attitude when it comes to their own circles? “The more the merrier”. This makes people flock around them—want to flock around them— and feel welcome and included in their presence. They are the opposite of self-promoters or name-droppers; they speak of their friends, mentors, students fondly, as people you have to meet sometime because you would get along, not because they could help you in any immediate way. They introduce you to people at conferences, they pass on your contact details to colleagues, they tell people about you, and you tell people about them.

“What all great networkers have in common is a heartfelt generosity with their own networks of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances.”

Besides being genuinely likeable, this attitude is, I think, key to building a broad and supportive network at work and beyond. Be generous with your own friendships: do you think a friend could help out a graduate student you met at a workshop? Offer to put them in touch. Is your friend in need of advice and you happen to attend a lecture they would find helpful? Approach the lecturer and tell them about your friend’s research. It’ll be a compliment for them, a way to give your friend a leg up, and potentially a pleasant interaction for you too.

4. Putting my preference for written communication to good use!

Finally, what has helped me come to terms with “networking” is accepting some of my own preferences, even if they can be limiting, and finding ways around them. For instance: I much prefer texting or e-mailing over calling (though video meetings can be very helpful if you have something concrete to discuss with someone). Writing back gives me time to think about what I want to say and the freedom to respond when I’m in the right frame of mind, and it feels less intrusive on other people’s time. I also feel more comfortable expressing my appreciation in writing. It rings less hollow, and (I hope) it doesn’t put the recipients on the spot.

This predilection does not always serve me well (phone calls apparently help build stronger social bonds, according to research published during the pandemic), but I make it work for me by being an enthusiastic texter and reliable e-mail correspondent. It also means that I can follow up on new encounters (and reanimate old connections) in a way that feels unobtrusive and natural to me. If interactions in real time, whether in person or online, are not your thing, then figure out what is and, if it takes some pressure off, let people know about it. And prepared to be a little flexible: sometimes a phone call, a second coffee meeting, or just showing up for someone, is what you need to make a friend, or keep them.

I have a long way to go to claim any kind of ‘networking’ expertise, and it’s not really something I aspire to. But I like making friends, I like being able to help my friends through my work, and I have been on the receiving end of a lot of help (at work and otherwise) from friends. And if I can call this ‘networking’, then I can not only make my peace with it, but am fully on board with.

[Title image by Anchiy/E+/Getty Images]

Myrto Aspioti

Myrto Aspioti works as Acquisitions Editor Literary & Cultural Studies at De Gruyter. She holds a DPhil in German Studies from the University of Oxford.

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