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How to make connections in your academic career

20 March 2019 - BY Dr Alexandra James

It has long been said that it is not what you know, but who you know. And while academia is, in many ways, distinct from other professions, this old adage also holds true for us. 

At every stage of the academic career, our networks are essential for providing the metaphorical leg up: Delivered via the formation of collaborative endeavors, opportunities for career development, and a competitive edge in the pursuit of grants, publications, awards, speaking invites, sought-after jobs offers, and promotions.

Indeed, many of my jobs have been secured over coffee rather than contracts. 

Far from suggesting we engage in relationship development for the sole purpose of climbing the academic ladder, our networks are also a core component to the academic process of sharing knowledge, engaging in rigorous debate with our peers and providing support to those in areas of marginalized research. 

However, ignoring the fact that the embedded network structure has important implications for the voices heard within our hallowed halls, academics also face a number of institutional difficulties in making connections.

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Moving beyond faculty mixers

Our intellectual endeavors can often be a solitary and insular undertaking, isolating us from broader networks of support and leading to possible mental health issues.

So, beyond faculty mixers, what avenues exist to enable the building of relationships?

Many colleges have begun to provide solutions via training and information sessions to raise awareness around the importance of networking and aid emerging scholars in the development of these skill sets.

Stanford University has hosted ‘the importance of networking in academia’ for its postdoctoral researchers, and the University of Exeter offers staff a course on networking skills and techniques

Alternatively, joining or establishing an informal college-based writing group can also provide researchers with an important source of motivation, support and connection amongst peers. Examples of these include: traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups, on-site writing groups and also online writing groups.

And while conferences have increasingly emerged as veritable job fairs, novel approaches to networking in the digital age can provide researchers with different methods for connecting with with key contacts in their field.

Keep an eye out for local meetups near you, such as those that NVivo users have organised, or those facilitated by software organizations. Meetup.com is a great place to visit to discover those.

Making a digital connection

Online platforms such as Twitter, Linkedin and Academia.edu (nicknamed “Facebook for scientists”) serve as hosts to digital networks, capable of connecting researchers in niche and specialized areas otherwise separated by time and space.

The LinkedIn groups of popular software, such as NVivo, are a valuable resource where users can discuss best practices and communicate with one another.

ResearchGate is another academic specific platform which, in addition to providing research exposure, provides opportunities for community interaction and collaboration. 

Highly respected sociologist Deborah Lupton has found academics who use social media benefit from “connecting and establishing networks not only with other academics but also people or groups outside universities”, to provide an additional avenue of support. 

For many years now, I have subscribed to an email list specific to my discipline and observed the sharing of resources across a global community of academic peers. Email lists often pertain to specific areas of research: for example, the Ecological Society of America’s list has over 20,000 subscribers.

Reddit Academia opens the gateway to an enormous online community which is increasingly used by academics to engage in discussion, collaboration, and boost the profiles of researchers amongst both academic colleagues and the broader public.

The open access journal PLOS One has engaged in Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions and the Science community boasts more than 20 million subscribers who discuss and share the latest scientific research. 

Facebook groups and pages similarly connect like-minded researchers and writers. This article is borne as a result of engaging with these innovative digital networks.

The Facebook page for the American Sociological Association, for instance, provides followers with news on grants, new research, and career opportunities. Related informal groups have also emerged which seek to connect members of the AMA.

Practice generosity and collegiality

Some universities have begun offering internal networking platforms which allow users to join groups, share information and build local connections across growing campuses. 

Workplace by Facebook has been adopted by a number of universities such as the University of Arizona College of Medicine and the Australian Catholic University.

Beyond the potential for career development, the smorgasbord of digital support networks also present opportunities to practice generosity and collegiality.

I would wager that the vast majority of us have received support, encouragement and assistance during our academic endeavors, but how often do we consider our capacity to give back?

Be proactive and reach out to other departments that use the same software as you and organise a face-to-face or online catch-up to share your knowledge.

I challenge you to use these new platforms as a means by which to foster an inclusive environment, supportive of our researchers, particularly those who are just emerging.  

For more discussions on best practice and broadening your academic network join NVivo on LinkedIn