I mentor several early career researchers (ECRs). One question I often receive from ECRs is how they should go about building their academic networks. This is such an important question and can mean the difference between success and failure in academia.
Obviously, COVID-19 has dramatically weakened our ability to network. Since conferences have gone online, they have largely become virtual forums for listening to academic presentations. I don’t know about you, but I find close to zero value in listening to an academic presentation. I’d much rather read the paper myself. For me, the true value in attending a conference in-person are the breaks in between sessions. There’s no better way to network than to extend your hand (or, these days, your elbow) and say hello. Hopefully we can get back to in-person conferences soon.
In the meantime, we’re stuck with “virtual” networking. Virtual networkers face the same (or very similar set of) obstacles that virtual data collectors face. If you’re collecting data, the worst thing you can do is to send an e-mail asking people to fill out your survey. The line between corporate marketing and social research has blurred such that most people just click “delete” without a second thought. Everyone knows that face-to-face data collection leads to the highest response rates and the highest quality data. So it is with networking as well.
I’m a busy guy. I am a Professor of Management and Deputy Dean of Research & Innovation. My inbox is perennially partially unanswered. As I work my way from the bottom up, more e-mails arrive at the top. Many of these e-mails are from potential PhD students and early career researchers. I do my best to respond to all emailed requests from ECRs, even if my response is that I’m too busy. But most established researchers don’t respond. The moral of the story: sending an e-mail to a senior professor is a pretty ineffective method of networking in academia.
“I do my best to respond to all emailed requests from ECRs, even if my response is that I’m too busy. But most established researchers don’t respond. The moral of the story: sending an e-mail to a senior professor is a pretty ineffective method of networking in academia.”
So what is to be done? How can you get the attention of established researchers?
A telephone call is a decent approach, if you can find a phone number. Working-from-home has meant that office phones are left ringing in empty offices with no prospect of an answer anytime soon.
The best advice I can give is that if you want to connect with an established researcher, you need to find a researcher in common. You may not know Professor “Big Name,” but you probably know someone who knows him or her. Ask around. Look at the target’s list of collaborators and co-authors and see if you know any of them. If you do, ask if they’ll make an introduction.
When I receive an e-mail from a friend asking me to connect with someone, I always do. Always. The connection doesn’t necessarily lead to a collaboration, but it does lead to a relationship that I’ll remember. I have no obligation to connect with people unknown to me, but I am obliged, as a friend, to follow up with their friends. That’s my kryptonite.
So, if you’re tired of sending out e-mails that never receive a reply, try this tactic. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.
To submit an article to Dire Ed, visit http://dire.ed.com/submissions/