How many new professional connections did you make in 2020? If, like most Early Career Researchers (ECRs), you have relied on traditional face-to-face conference schmoozing, and the academic’s own ‘art of the deal’ to grow your network, then 2020 was nothing short of a nightmare. Building one’s network and professional capital was difficult enough for ECRs even before the shift to virtual platforms, since, by definition, ECRs have relatively little professional capital at their disposal to trade for academic esteem and credit. It would be natural to expect that this deficit has been compounded by the pandemic, forcing ECRs to struggle not only with social distancing, but with newfound professional distancing, as academics tighten their networks with those they are familiar with, have relied on, and can trust. Yet, the virtual networking landscape does not intuitively mimic the traditional customs of networking and this has brought new demands for its acquisition and access, both to ECRs and experienced academics alike. In fact, I view this as a boon for ECRs, who might take advantage of the strategies that I have suggested below, to help you avoid being crowded out from virtual networking opportunities in the new post-pandemic paradigm.
Filling in your research calendar
Detailing your annual calendar with academic events (of which you will just attend, not only those where you present) is an essential practice because it is time spent on self-investment. As ECRs are usually seeking out new opportunities and are generally open to experimentation and widening their professional palette, this group of people who are up to five (some instances seven) years post-PhD, are more likely to uncover new virtual events which are often off the beaten track. Virtual events are advantageous because of their affordability (most online events are free or have minimal fees) and they are less demanding of your presence; you can multitask between the event and emails while being on mute and off-camera. When choosing events, an ECR has the additional benefit of being able to dabble in the exploration of research topics and themes which sit alongside your brand of expertise. Whereas more seasoned academics tend to favour attending routine or mainstream events where they already have an established presence, reputation and/or expectation. Aside from the professional associations and specialised committees in your field that host large annual conferences there are other avenues to comb through for upcoming networking events, such as Research Professional.
Of all social media forums, Twitter has proven to be the most effective for locating events that are being hosted by private sector research hubs, university centres and professional and political groups. As an ECR it is easy to search through events by using key terms (such as #ECR) and be sure to investigate ECR support groups, it is here you can find globally like-minded peers across different institutions and countries. It is also an excellent platform for following key scholars in the field and noting where they are scheduled for keynotes or are attending events. For an ECR, consider sending a Tweet or a quick email to a scholar you would like to meet and inquire where they might next be speaking at an event or on a particular topic – this is an excellent, personalised method to virtually approach an academic and score points on common interest.
Keep your professional identity fresh
Where is your digital professional identity and is it visible? For 2021 it is critical that you create and maintain a virtual presence whether that be a university profile, a free professional site (e.g., LinkedIn, Academia.edu, ResearchGate) or for those who have some more dedicated time create a personal website. It is essential that you invest your time and energy to upkeeping one virtual identity diligently, rather than having several poorly kept profiles, which is significantly less effective. Even if you do keep a presence on several different platforms, be sure to redirect to your main profile which is regularly updated. Always treat your digital profile like a CV to your next job application, the idea is to strike a balance between the breadth of your expertise and skills alongside evidence of the quality of your achievements.
For ECRs, online visibility about your research interests is a better-curated space for you to finesse and target your sellable interests. Be sure you use simple language that is relatable and open to your wider research interests which demonstrate where you have: (i) professional outreach and membership (perhaps with institutions or community groups), (ii) interdisciplinary scope and interests (this may include fellow colleagues you have worked with), and (iii) highlights of your critical achievements (to showcase your potential). These are three areas that will help you present your marketable qualities and your eager personality. Your virtual presence should avoid being repetitive or cluttered with long titles and excessively rich jargon, use hyperlinks where necessary to refer to other sites that co-host your information and publications, like Orcid (this will also assist with evidencing your outputs and contributions). Be sure your virtual platform and Twitter handle is cross-promoted on your email signature and templated into all of your presentation slides.
Be an academic matchmaker
For ECRs the career advantage of being an academic matchmaker is creating a cluster of expertise and skills with professional others who have access to different resources and communities. By curating your professional identity virtually (as mentioned above) ECRs will be able to promote the strongest elements of their skillsets and this information can be used to determine your flagship contribution to a networking group. Through virtual introductions of the people you know, but who do not necessarily know each other, you are facilitating network growth. It is important for you to discern the skills you are naturally good at (for virtual promotion) from those that you eventually want to achieve. In other words, it is best not to oversell your potential as a critical strength but rather focus on promoting the skills you can evidence as being useful to other ECRs.
Part of growing your professional network is being a facilitator of this growth process for others. For ECRs collaborative opportunities are never easily clear-cut so being an academic matchmaker is one example of maintaining some control and composure of how opportunities can be created by bringing together other people with similar interests. An additional benefit of virtually bringing together a group of ECRs is that they are more likely to respond well to new opportunities and can prioritise time for new research endeavours. Eventually, these networking relationships might organically bud into seeding opportunities for research projects and/or cross-institutional collaborations on a range of different activities, for example, guest lecturing and the promotion of academic mentorship programmes. Universities, as well as professional associations, are always willing to nurture ECR growth and development through collaborative efforts and this can be curated through different means, for instance approaching your local research office to host seminars or workshops dedicated for the development of ECR networks and professional skills.
Networking in 2021
Show up, showcase, and show off!
These three strategies are meant to help you polish your virtual networking skills in 2021, and for ECRs (in particular), to recognise that this virtual space can be one of great advantage because of the general nature and stage of their research careers. Academia continues to be a very creative and innovative profession, no doubt adapting to the challenges of a global pandemic will only bring forth new avenues for expression and exploration in 2021.
You may be interested in expert advice on how to find post-PhD job during COVID-19