What is that conference networking thing all about?

Reflections on the importance of networking in academia and tips on how to do it

If you are anything like me, your initial association with the word networking will be negative. When I grew up in the Netherlands it was almost a "dirty" word and it seems I am not the only one who has this association. It implied that you got to where you were only because of your contacts, not because of any inherent skills, education, or good performance. This certainly was a big part of my initial reluctance to engage in academic networking.

However, after a while I did start to see that academia is no different from "real life" in this respect. Just like "normal people" academics prefer to work with people they know and trust. Just like "normal consumers" they will also pay more attention to products (read publications) or recommendations (read references) from brands (read journals and universities) and people (read other academics) they know and trust.

Most academics have a pressured existence. The number of academics active on a global scale and the volume of publications is rising ever more rapidly. This means you need to find a way to stand out in that stream of "clutter". Yes, most academics still appreciate and recognise substance over packaging, but why not make it easier for them to find and appreciate that substance?

For instance, networking will not get a bad or even mediocre paper accepted, but it may make it easier for a good paper to get a chance. The top journals in my own field only accept 5% of the papers submitted. So when an editor is in two minds about whether or not to offer the authors a chance to revise & resubmit, it can’t hurt if they have positive associations with your name. After all, it is only human to have more confidence in people you know.

Social media vs. face-to-face networking

Obviously you don't have to meet face-to-face to network. If you are unable to travel for family or financial reasons, consider using a service like Twitter to get relevant information by following institutions, journals, and other academics, and to tweet about any new research findings or publications. Yes, I thought Twitter was stupid too and it does have its limitations.

However, I have picked a lot of useful information through it that would have taken far more time to discover without it. Tweeting about my white papers and blog posts typically increases the readership at least five or ten-fold, sometimes MUCH more. Not bad for a 140 character post! For some key tips on social media for academics, see building your academic brand through social media.

However, despite the advent of social media, in my view the best networking is still done face-to-face. So whenever you have a chance, go to conferences and talk to people. Rest assured: you don’t have to be an exuberant extrovert. I am certainly not; quite the reverse in fact. And don’t forget that most academics are introverts, they are just playing extrovert for the duration of the conference.

But make sure you prepare. Decide who you want to meet beforehand, look up their background, and ask for introductions if necessary. Remember, most people like to talk about themselves, so it is all about asking the right questions. Be careful though: don’t ask the world’s most famous expert on a particular topic: what’s your research about?

If you are not sure whether you are supposed to know your counterpart is a famous academic in your field, you can always ask "what are you currently working on" (with the emphasis on currently) or keep the discussion neutral by talking about the conference itself. If you are lucky they reveal enough information for you to remember why you needed to remember them.

If not, go to a quiet corner or the toilet as soon as you have a chance and quickly look the person up (assuming they are wearing their name tag). You then have another chance if you bump into to them again. And don't worry, the vast majority of famous academics are not nasty, so even if you do blunder they will generally forgive you. It might even make it easier for them to remember you. I once threw almost an entire cup of coffee over an important editor's nice shoes, but he is still speaking to me :-).

Have your research brief ready

Finaly make sure you prepare your own research brief – a short summary about your current research interests – in different versions, so that you don't just stand there "with your mouth full of teeth" as they say in Dutch (roughly: be tongue-tied), mumbling something incoherent. Aim to have at least three versions:

  • the 10-second elevator sound bite; it has to be short as you don’t want to be half-way when you reach the right floor.
  • the 1-minute coffee line version for when you are waiting in the same queue at Starbucks; can be expanded to the reception version depending on the length of the queue.
  • the 2-3 minute reception version for when someone is really interested; any versions longer than this are probably only suited for sit-down dinners with like-minded academics.

This can be really hard to do as you feel you are reducing your complex and varied research interests to a sound-bite. But remember, it is not about being comprehensive, it is about connecting with what you think the other person might find of interest. So what do I say? Well it depends on what I think the background of the other person is, but it might be something like:

  • One of my recent interests is in the role of ethnic identity when for instance ethnic Chinese Americans are expatriated to their home country.
  • In my latest paper, I try to provide a new understanding of why Asian management practices tend to be misunderstood by Western researchers.
  • Lots of things really, but most recently I am most interested in transferring my knowledge and experience to young academics by blogging.

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