Networking is a vital skill for furthering your career and career prospects. Many PhD students make the mistake of thinking that networking is only necessary in the business world, but connections can be incredibly beneficial in the academic world as well. Your network could be future colleagues, supervisors, or collaborators. If you’re someone who doesn't like meeting new people or hates the idea of “selling themself”, these are some easy things you can do to start networking in a way that feels genuine.
1. Make the Most Out of Conferences
For most academics, and especially PhD students and postdocs, conferences are the main way you will build your network. Conferences are a great way to meet many new people in your field. While you may not know anyone at a smaller conference, you likely won’t be the only person from your lab or department attending a major conference. If you’re still early in your PhD you may not know many people outside of your university, however, your colleagues and supervisor will. By sticking with them at the start, you will be introduced to the people in their network. 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 talk to 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.
2. Don’t Neglect Your Peers
When you’re at conferences don’t focus solely on high-level contact. Networking should be horizontal as well as vertical. 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.
3. Go to Guest Lectures
If your supervisor or department is bringing someone in for a guest lecture, they will take the guest lecturer out to dinner before or 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 a smaller group and more informal setting.
4. Informational Interviews
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 for 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.
5. 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.