Summary: Getting to know scientific colleagues is really important (and fun), but the way to do so isn't always clear. Here are some approaches that have worked for me (which involve a lot of inviting yourself to things).
As a PhD student and postdoc I would frequently hear how important it was to "network" and "know the right people". Unfortunately it was never clear how to do this, and vague encouragements to "go talk to that person" were usually awkward and unhelpful. So, here I'll share what has worked for me over the past 10 years or so, in the hopes it might be useful to some of you.
A few preliminaries:
- I don't love the term "networking", but people use it and I don't know an easy replacement, so I'm using it.
- Lots of other people have written about networking: read what they have to say.
- To some extent your success will depend on how interesting people find your work. Don't sell yourself short. It is common to not feel that what you do is interesting enough for some other scientist to care. Most of us have to actively fight against imposter syndrome (and some more than others! It's OK). But interest can also depend on how you frame—or dare I say "sell"—your work. There are often many ways to explain what you do; if one of them doesn't grab people's attention, try another.
The main message is that you need to be your own biggest advocate. Even if you have a wonderful, supportive mentor/colleague/advisor—and I hope you do—you are the one who is the most invested in your career. (And many folks, sadly, do not have wonderful and supportive mentors/colleagues/advisors.) So, don't wait for other people to magically enhance your professional connections—make it happen!
Easier said than done, right? Yes, but you can do it. Here are some concrete suggestions on how:
Submit proposals for symposia at conferences
Many conferences have options for contributed symposia. These are a great way to get to know people in at least two ways:
- If your symposium gets accepted, you now have a talk at a conference, and people will see your talk. Hooray!
- Even if your symposium is not accepted, you have the interactions with the other speakers ahead of time, which can be valuable and may lead to other discussions.
As a postdoc I organized a nanosymposium at a Society for Neuroscience conference, which consisted mostly of emailing a list of people doing work in speech comprehension and asking if they wanted to take part. We got accepted, and I moderated (which involved further interacting with everyone), and afterwards we went out together as a group. I learned a lot from their talks and made a lot of really good connections (a.k.a. friends). (And, I got to give a talk in the session!)
Invite yourself to give talks at relevant departments
Similarly, invite yourself to give talks at departments, or in labs, related to your work. This works best if travel is not an barrier (e.g., you can easily get there on your own).
Dear Dr. XXX,
I am a [PhD student/postdoc] working with [PI] at [institution]. My research is focused on XXX. I wonder if I might be able to come visit your lab sometime and hear about the projects you are currently working on? I would be happy to give a talk about my own work if that would be of interest. My schedule is fairly flexible this semester so I'm hoping it won't be difficult to find a time that might work.
If you're early in your career you might not feel qualified to give a department talk. Maybe you should just do it anyway. Another alternative, though, is to give a talk in a relevant lab—many PIs are glad to have a visiting talk at a lab meeting and it may feel less formal.
For out-of-town labs, might you be in town for another reason? A conference, visiting friends, visiting family? If you'll be in town anyway you may as well give a talk.
Ask if someone doing relevant work can meet for coffee at a conference
If you're going to a conference, and someone in your field will also be there, why not try to have a conversation? Remember just hoping something will happen doesn't actually make it happen, so be proactive. Send them an email:
Dear Dr. XXXX,
I hope this email finds you well. I'm writing to see whether you might be attending [conference]. I will be there giving a poster on Thursday. I really enjoyed your paper on XXX, which ties in to my own work on YYY. I would love to talk to you about the current work in your lab. Would you have time for coffee any time during the conference?
Either way, I hope to see you there!
I would send this about a month before the conference. Earlier and they may not be thinking about the conference, later and it's likely that they have a full social schedule. (Of course it depends on the person, your mileage may vary, etc.)
When you have coffee make sure to tell them about what you are working on. Hopefully they will ask you, but if not, jump in and tell them your basic research project(s). Most of the time—at least, every single time in my experience—once you get over an initial awkward sentence or two the rest of the conversation is fine.
How to find these people? Look through the program ahead of time for interesting topics and people whose work you have read. Of course, many times people will be on posters but not attend a conference, but you won't know that until you ask.
When you actually get to have a one-on-one conversation, it may help to remember that many people, including scientists, may have some social awkwardness. Just because you feel more junior than another person scientifically does not mean they have no ability to feel awkward. Are they talking too much? Not enough? Shoot, they forget, have they met your advisor before? Is there a paper you mention that they should have read but didn't? Etc. Don't overthink things, but mostly, don't take any perceived awkwardness personally. There's a lot going on and just by having this meeting you have succeeded in doing some networking.
Extra credit: After the conference send a follow-up email, with papers or links to anything you discussed that seemed relevant. The email is nice on its own and you don't need to stretch to include a paper, but if you brought up a paper the person didn't know about, they will appreciate a PDF or link to it.
[Annoying caveat that I unfortunately feel compelled to add: Social interactions are useful but can be awkward or compromising. If someone I don't know emails me and says "can we meet" at a conference I suggest coffee in a public place during the daytime, which seems appropriate. And I generally buy coffee for people who are academically junior because I know that was really appreciated when I was a PhD student or postdoc. As a "senior" person, be thoughtful about your meetings with junior folks. And for everyone, trust your spidey sense and leave if things are weird. "Scientific networking" means getting to know other scientists—it is not code for "condoned sexual harassment" or anything like that which is never appropriate (but happens).]
Use Twitter (or whatever other social media tool is the current thing)
For many people (including me), Twitter has been a great tool for meeting other scientists, learning about interesting papers, cool conferences, NIH and grant news...the list goes on. Some brief suggestions:
- To get something out of Twitter, you have to put a little time in (just signing up for an account doesn't count)
- You can learn a lot by lurking but people won't get to know you; you'll get more out of it if you interact with other people (i.e., posting content or comments, and replying to other people).
- A great way to get started is to find a few people in your field (for example, by googling "[their name] twitter"), and then following (a) people they follow and (b) people who follow them (or some subset whom you recognize).
Don't review too many manuscripts
In general saying "yes" to lots of activities can help you to meet people in the field. And reviewing is important, and you will learn a lot doing it, so you should do it. But I think of all of the activities on my list reviewing is the least effective at developing meaningful relationships with people in the field, and most early career researchers review too much. So, be intentional about how much you review and consider what other activities you might do with that time instead.
Don't give up
I have found networking got progressively easier as I advanced in my career. I attribute this to having both more experience at how to do it, and more scientific content to talk about with people (but there could be other hidden factors). The point is that, as a PhD student, I never felt successful and it always felt awkward, and now it sometimes is still awkward but mostly I feel grateful for the wide range of scientists I know, and I'm confident that at least some of that growth came out of my decision to be intentional about networking. The ideas I've shared here seem to have worked for me, but they might not work for you—in which case, be creative and find something that does.
And, finally, don't get discouraged if you hear "no". Time is limited and it's hard for people you contact to agree to every request from a potential visitor. Don't take it personally—try again with that person, or someone else, until you get a "yes"!