Networking is a vital skill for furthering your academic career. Many PhD students make the mistake of thinking that networking is only beneficial in the business world, but that's simply not true. Your academic network could include future colleagues, supervisors, or collaborators. Here are some easy things you can do to start building your network.
Make the Most Out of Conferences
For most academics (and especially PhD students and postdocs) conferences are the easiest way to meet new people in your field and start building your network. If your attending your very first conference, you might feel most comfortable sticking with the people you already know from your lab or program--and that's okay! You will still get to meet new people this way as your colleagues run into people they know from their undergrad or master's. If you’re attending a conference solo, strike up a conversation with a fellow solo conference goer. When in doubt, asking what the best paper they’ve seen so far is an easy icebreaker.
Now, just saying “hi” or exchanging business cards doesn’t count as making a contact. You need to actually have a conversation with these people. Coffee breaks and dinners are the perfect places to have a more indepth conversation with your new contacts and get to know them better. You don’t have to talk to every single person, but try and make a real connection with a few. That way when you go to your next conference, even if no one else from your lab or department is going, you will have some contacts of your own to meet up with.
Don’t Neglect Your Peers
Networking should be horizontal as well as vertical. This means that when you’re at conferences don’t focus solely on high-level contacts like big name professors. Making connections with your fellow PhD students (especially those at other institutions) is equally valuable. They can give you the insider’s perspective on their department and support for your next career move.
Go to Guest Lectures
If your supervisor or department is bringing someone in to give a guest lecture, they will usually take the guest lecturer out to dinner after their talk. Interested grad students are often invited to attend these dinners too. If you conduct research in the same area or are genuinely interested in this person’s work, this is a great opportunity to make a connection with them in more casual setting.
Informational interviews are an often overlooked way to build your network and gain valuable insights into a new field, institution, or company. They’re a useful tool for PhD students debating whether to do a postdoc or looking to do a postdoc in a new field. Admittedly this networking technique is not as easy as the others on this list, but once you’ve done a few you’ll understand why it made the list.
Keep in Touch
Once you’ve made contacts through conferences, your peers, guest speakers, and informational interviews, it’s important to maintain them. The simplest way to start is with a follow-up email after the event is over. When you get back from a conference, send a quick message to the new people you met. You should also do the same for the guest speakers you meet with and send thank you emails to your informational interview subjects. Then, keep in touch. Send them a quick message to see if they’re going to the next annual conference rolls or a congratulate them on a new publication. Over time, they can become an integral part of your network.