We have all heard about the importance of friendships. The value of an extended network of colleagues and collaborators is often recognized as an essential part of success. Just ask The Beatles, who sang about getting by “with a little help from my friends.” Or if you need a more recent reference point, go listen to Taylor Swift’s “It’s Nice to Have a Friend.”
Using your network can help you build a successful career. It could help you secure something as mundane as a reagent from the lab next door or as powerful as a partner for an upcoming research project. However, many Ph.D. students, postdocs, and even senior academics, still say they are ambivalent about networking.
We know that professional networks are filled with opportunities that may improve both our work quality and job satisfaction. Yet, some find “making friends” taxing, exploitative, and distasteful. How do we reconcile these views and get to a point where networking is a pleasure, not a chore?
The term networking can commonly conjure up images of a “good old boys’ clubhouse.” But when we talk about networking, we are referring to building a professional network that is there to help you advance your career based on your own merits and qualifications. This should not be confused with nepotism.
There is undoubtedly some overlap between nepotism and networking. Both involve using connections to get ahead, but there is also a distinct difference between the two. With nepotism, you are given an opportunity; with networking, you create and build the opportunities yourself. Real networking is built on worth, not favor.
Professor María Gallardo-Williams, director of the organic chemistry teaching labs at North Carolina State University and chemical education influencer on social media, says networking feels authentic if driven by shared interests. “You can’t just reach out when you need something. Be intentional about getting to know your colleagues (in-person and online) and be helpful to them.”
Of course, to network, you need people! We are big believers in the power of social media to diversify and evolve one’s network. It’s essential to surround yourself with people from all walks of life, to share ideas and be challenged by them. Try to meet scientists, industrialists, business managers, reporters, artists, and others via social platforms such as ResearchGate, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even Instagram. Everyone has the potential to influence your career and teach you something new.
Jen Heemstra, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University and social media influencer in science leadership, says she didn’t know what to expect from Twitter at first. But she says she found it to be a fantastic place to network with people who are committed to encouraging each other and creating positive change in academic culture.
“Now, I can’t imagine not having the great friendships and collaborations that have come about as a result,” she says.
By recognizing that networking is not inherently evil, or restricted to a few “good old boys,” we can move beyond these old structures and create an authentic science community. By framing networking in genuine terms and reaching out to people who share our values, we found “making friends” in academia can be truly enjoyable. Or just let The Beatles or Taylor Swift’s songs start the talking – it paid off for us.
About the Authors
Lučka Bibič (@luckabibic) just finished her Ph.D. at the University of East Anglia (U.K.), where she studied the effects of the spider venoms on chronic pain. In her Ph.D., she established new cross-disciplinary collaborations with academics and businesses spanning chemistry, science education, and gamification. As a science writer, Bibič writes for the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) and Scientia magazine.
Dr. César A. Urbina-Blanco (@cesapo) is a Senior FWO postdoctoral fellow at Ghent University (Belgium), designing catalysts for sustainable chemistry and CO2 utilization. As president of the Postdoc Community of Ghent University, Urbina-Blanco teaches and guides researchers on how to use their soft skills, such as networking, to advance their careers.
The pair met in the U.S. last year, as part of CAS Future Leaders – a leadership program run by CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society. The program helped them build mutually supportive relationships.