Networking for researchers (1): a personal story

Posted in: Advice, For PhDs, Networking, Tips & Hints

One of the topics that comes up frequently in my career discussions with researchers is how vital networking is to career development. Networking can help you find out more information about what jobs or sectors you are considering are actually like, find out about opportunities coming up and raise your profile in your areas of interest. Despite this, many people are reluctant to engage in networking or simply don't know how. To give you a helping hand we're running a series of blog posts with some tips on how to network effectively in your research and career development.

Our first post is a guest blog post by Victoria Christodoulides, a doctoral researcher in the ESRC South West Doctoral Training Partnership. Victoria shares her experiences of using networks to help her develop research collaborations, find funding and further her career.


“Networking is like marmite… you either love it or hate it. But there is no denying its worth, regardless of how you feel about it. Following my undergraduate degree, I worked within sales, focused on sourcing, developing and managing relationships, with senior management across national businesses. In 2016, I returned to the University of Bath, completed an MRes in Health and Wellbeing, and I am now within my first year of an interdisciplinary PhD exploring childhood trauma and recovery. My journey has shown how very similar the benefits and challenges are within networking in academia and other professional fields. This post briefly outlines some of what I’ve learned about the challenges and benefits of networking, and effective approaches.
Effective networking has enabled me to gain significant funding and collaboration externally and helped support a PhD scholarship award from the SWDTP. Networking has also led to supporting several exciting funded projects, and further developed relationships with other Universities, professionals and businesses. From here, the knowledge I have gained has been invaluable, gathering insight directly from the source, sparking collaboration and encouraging interdisciplinarity in my research.

There are several approaches I take to developing networks and securing funding. The primary consideration in both, however, is in acknowledging these processes require, first and foremost…relationships! This can be a bit unnerving, especially when there are different power dynamics involved. Top tips include: manage your own expectations; don't always expect your email will be read or responded to in a timely manner, or at all! Be proactive and resilient in your attempts. Try various modes of communication: email, twitter, events, and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or go and say, “hello”!

One of the organisations I am collaborating with currently was through a cold call I made (finding their number of their website), where I was fortunate enough, after enquiring, to be put through to the CEO and there the magic began. However, don’t be fooled into thinking it is that easy. It took over a year to find and develop a network that has begun to be fruitful. I went through 1000’s of calls and emails, with a heavy douse of NO’s! If I had stopped trying because of this, I may not be here now. Additionally be creative in your searches. Look at charities, businesses, ask colleagues, supervisors…not just Google! When you successfully make connections you could also ask your new contacts If there is anyone else they could suggest or introduce you to. This approach is often more successful as there may be existing networks between organisations. So use various methods, know you will get lots of “no’s”, but keep at it!

It’s important to consider how you are presenting yourself and your research, and also to acknowledge and take account of any similarities/differences between your approach and that of your contacts. Everyone has their own approach, personality and circumstances affecting their day and mood, and not all of this can be controlled, however, if you invest time LISTENING, asking questions and exploring their approach and their preferences, you will be better equipped to navigate these more successfully - or at least a little less flustered!

We will not always be fortunate in who it is we end up working with, but finessing how to make the best out of this will help improve communication, additionally, KNOW what you want. Be clear about your intentions and what you need. Don’t assume you know all about your contacts; ask open questions and with genuine interest. These basic principles can influence how you are seen and provide a good foundational platform for future discussions and work.

When setting up collaborations or seeking funding it can be helpful to know who the ‘key decision maker’ is.
I often see individuals cringing at the thought of asking any of the questions I am going to suggest below, however, it has frequently sped up processes or enabled me to focus on more achievable opportunities, supported me with challenges, got me introduced to new prospects, developed a stronger understanding of who I am working/engaging with, and enabled a more transparent relationship. Therefore, I suggest integrating a few questions such as:
- Who is the individual responsible for agreeing/signing off …
- Who else should I be speaking with?
- What are the biggest challenges in achieving/managing …
- When should I expect this to be completed/agreed/hear back. A follow on - if I don’t when should I come back?
- What key information are you most interested in/ is most important to you
- What timeframes are you working towards?

These are a few questions which open dialogue and understanding. It helps you and others to manage their time and expectations most effectively. Furthermore, by understanding some of the things most important or challenging to someone/business, enables you negotiate around this or utilise as an integral element within your research. For example, if you understand how an organisation's challenges relates to your research, you can effectively link the two and potentially draw greater interest in your work.

Finally, what many people forget is that networks need nurturing and maintenance. I attach good manners and thoughtfulness to this principle. I ensure I follow up emails, calls and other messages. If I am aware someone has a particular interest in something I have come across (literature, event), I may drop them a message and attach it. Most importantly of all, be YOU. Be genuine and retain integrity so, regardless whether someone agrees with your perspective or not, they will know they can trust you and this can go a long way. Networks and funding are not all about what you can get NOW. It is what is possible in the future… and that is an unknown. So accept the no’s (now), but don’t stop trying.”

Posted in: Advice, For PhDs, Networking, Tips & Hints


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